“ When we speak of personalization, we mean the process by which actors seek to connect to a character’s circumstances and needs as if they were their own.”
That was Evan Yionoulis, the head of the Juilliard acting program whose book I wrote about in my previous post, defining the vital process of personalization for the actor. When an actor encounters a script, she strives to extract the vital given circumstances from the script, the facts of the character’s life, that are provided (given!) by the author. The question is: how do these facts which are extracted become experientially available to the actor? How does the actor become acquainted with these facts and connect to them as if they were the facts of his own life? That’s what the process of personalization is about.
So what does personalization actually involve? Here’s what Yionoulis says in Chapter 3 of her book:
Through our homework, we connect sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations to the touch to what is laid out in the text. In this way, we develop a personal relationship to each circumstance, allowing us, when activated by events in the play, to respond as if it were part of our own experience.
So personalization involves specifically imagining the given circumstance in question, and mining that circumstance for sensory stimuli (things which you can see, hear, taste, touch or smell) which help that circumstance become imprinted on the nervous system of the actor. I once taught at an acting conservatory where there was another acting teacher named Fabiana teaching (I don’t know her last name). Fabiana’s students told me that she would often say:
If the senses believe it, then the body will believe it. And if the body believes it, then the mind will believe it.
Our five senses function as a gateway to the imaginary circumstances, allowing us to “experience” them for ourselves in a manner which is specific and vivid.
And what of transference or substitution, which are both terms that the great Uta Hagen has used to describe a process where the actor identifies experiences in her own life which can help her connect to the given circumstances? Well, in conversation with Yionoulis, she has said that substitutions or transferences arise automatically as we dwell on the given circumstances, but at a granular level. Thus, if I’m playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, I don’t try to find a single transference to use for Belle Reve, the family estate which was recently lost, but rather I imaginatively develop (that is, personalize) my experience at Belle Reve through various images and episodes, and as I do that, transferences will arise virtually involuntarily as part of that process.
So let’s consider how I might go about personalizing Belle Reve. First of all, I might do a quick Google search of plantation estate homes in Missisippi, and select one that conforms to our image of Belle Reve, perhaps something like this:
Then we might use our imaginations to think up images and episodes connected to the house. I will put sensory stimuli in bold, and transferences or substitutions in italics.
- Been in my family for generations (like Auto-Chlor, a family business in my own family for multiple generations)
- Memories of Christmas tree with Mother and Father and little Stella, the smell of pine
- Elegant parties that my parents hosted for the elite of Laurel (like in the Sound of Music), with a string quartet
- Playing hide and seek in the house and on the grounds (like I did as a kid)
- Housekeeper (like the servant on Ms Scarlet and the Duke) and a cook (a large, jolly woman like the cook on Downton Abbey)
- Hosting gentleman callers in the parlor, with a grandfather clock and a Japanese folding screen
- Leaky roof, we had to use buckets in the attic to collect rainwater
And with that, we’ve begun the process of personalizing Belle Reve. Belle Reve is a place that is dear to Blanche’s heart, it’s the home she grew up in, so we probably want to continue to imaginatively explore and develop, that is to say, to personalize Belle Reve, further.
An important episode in Blanche’s past is the loss of Belle Reve. That’s something that we definitely want to personalize. So we might do so as follows:
The loss of Belle Reve:
- The departure of the housekeeper and the cook, both fixtures of the household for a long time
- The notices and warnings arriving in the mail– the FINAL NOTICE OF FORECLOSURE
- Packing the trunk with my most precious belongings (which?)
- The knock on the door, the arrival of the bailiff(Balding, slightly overweight, mustache, in a uniform “Ma’am, I have to ask you to vacate the premises”)
- Calling a taxi
- Leaving the house for the last time with the trunk, looking at the house for the last time as the taxi pulls away
And with that, we have imprinted the experience of the loss of Belle Reve on ourselves, giving ourselves access to it as part of our own “experience”.
Yionoulis’ mantra when it comes to personalization is:
“Specify, specify, specify.”
And she also says:
“It’s work that’s as joyful as play—necessary work that’s, unfortunately, too often neglected.”
As actors, we want to embrace the imaginative work that personalization entails. Connecting to the given circumstances of the character as though they were our own is vital successfully embodying the character.