“But people do judge themselves!”

This is a cry of protest I have encountered more than once during session 1 of my ten-week cycle. I am engaged in the process of presenting what we call, in my acting tradition, the “Who-am-I?”, which is a way of looking at a character in a play from a first-person perspective. The Who-am-I process serves several purposes, but the most important one is to promote identification with the character. An actor playing Stanley Kowalski needs to begin to see Stanley and himself as one and the same, and the process of developing a “Who-am-I?” asks the actor to begin thinking in these terms immediately.

One of the key points about this process is that in answering the questions that make up the Who-am-I framework, the actor is asked to avoid judging the character. The reason is straightforward: talking smack about someone doesn’t help you to identify with them. In fact, quite the opposite. If I am an actor playing Stanley, and I am asked to list my personal strengths, and I reply “I know how to take advantage of my physical strength to get my way”, then basically I am saying that I am a bully. But no one wants to think of themselves as a bully, and so effectively I have opened a gulf between me and Stanley. To play the role, conceived of in this way, I either have to live with being perceived as a bully by the audience, and hence unsympathetic, or not fulfill that aspect of the role. Neither option is an attractive one.

And so I suggest to students that the look for ways to parley a negative observation about the character into a something appealing. Instead of our previous characterization, we could say, “I am virile” or “I am assertive” or “I am confident”. These ways of describing ourselves to ourselves do not have the alienating effect of “I am am bully.” These are aspects of ourselves that we can look forward to manifesting in a scene. Thus, I have made my own vision of what the experience of acting the scene will be like more attractive. Playing the scene has become that much more of a turnon.

It is in walking the class through these points that the objection that gives this post its title is usually raised. Someone raises their hand, and tells of someone they know who does, in fact, judge themselves, or makes it clear that they do so themselves. And it is an axiom of our prevailing pop psychology that we must esteem ourselves, and that judging ourselves is to be avoided. But if it is a temptation to be avoided, then it surely must go on.

No doubt it does. The point, though, is that the “Who-am-I” process, while it is in part a first-person description of a character broken out in an outline form, it is not only that, or it is not exactly that. It is a description intended for a very specific purpose, and that purpose is to orient the actor with respect to the experience and world of the character, and to arouse the actor’s appetites to play the role. The purpose is, most emphatically, not to develop a psychological profile or inventory that can be used to to diagnose a maladjustment. These two purposes may prompt some common descriptive acts, but there will be some divergence as well. Because playing a role is not the same exercise as undertaking a therapeutic examination and cure. The different goals involve some different ways of proceeding.

So the point is not that people don’t judge themselves, but that the fact that they do is not a fact for our actor’s attention to dwell on; this fact will not help us to embody the role. It is simply not the kind of observation that we are looking for when we go through the Who-am-I process.

That is not to say that the observation needs to be entirely disregarded — only in its current form. but as a I said above, there is probably a way to treat the observation that a character judges herself as a negative trait that we need to parley into a positive one to be able to include in the Who-am-I. So, instead of saying “I judge myself”, we can say “I have high expectations, of myself and others”. That way, we have captured this piece of insight about the Who-am-I, but not in a way that makes that Who-am-I seem like someone we don’t want to be mistaken for. For that is, in the end, what we want — to be (mis)taken for the character. You can’t do any better than that.