Teaching transference is tricky.
Transference is a technique propounded by Uta Hagen. She initially called it “substitution”. Transference is the process of attempting to find counterparts from your own experience for the people, places and things you interact with in the course of your performance. Sounds straightforward enough, right? I’m playing Stanley Kowalski, I need to find someone from my own life experience with who I have or had a relationship that is comparable to my relationship as Stanley with Stella. So I am looking for someone with whom I have a powerful bond of love and affection that has endured for some time, a life partner.
There may or may not be someone in my life that fits that description perfectly, but it isn’t about the perfect fit. We are looking for an approximate match. The immediacy of the interaction with the actual scene partner will take care of the rest. We are looking for an experiential way to orient ourselves toward the other person, to invest in them, to imbue them with the appropriate kind of significance.
What muddies the waters is the perennial confusion with another technique, called emotional memory, or affective memory. The reason for the confusion is that both techniques rely on the actor’s personal experience, but one is a rehearsal technique, and one is a technique for preparation. Transference is ONLY a part of the homework process, the process of preparing to rehearse and perform. Uta Hagen is explicit on this point: you do not attempt to mentally dangle your transference in front of the other actor as you play a scene. In that moment, you want to be fully engaged with the other actor, “in the moment”, to coin a phrase. The transference is a part of the homework, it’s a part of the process of finding correspondences between people, places and things in your own life and that of the character. At most, you might remind yourself about a transference just before you go to play a scene, but while you are acting, it should not be on your mind.
Emotional memory, on the other hand, is a rehearsal/performance technique. It is a way of trying to use your past experience to induce an emotional state somehow appropriate for a given scene. So your attention is at the very least divided between your partner and the past experience, if not wholly on the past experience. Again, the goal is to induce a particular emotional state, rather than to orient yourself towards someone or something, and to imbue that someone or something with significance.
It’s tricky to teach because I haven’t had the actor’s experience, so I am not in a position to judge the fitness of a given transference. That is an instinct an actor has to develop through practice. However, I learned recently that actors are often not clear about how to decide what kind of person, place or thing is called for. The actor is often tempted to attempt to make that decision based on the situation in the scene. An actor recently told me that for a scene, he would look into his past for “someone he wanted to encourage” because that was what he understood himself to be doing in the scene. But this is precisely not the way to make this choice. Because transference is about defining the relationship, not the situation. In a given relationship, we may find ourselves in a variety of situations, and what we can expect of others and what they can expect of us is determined not by the situation but by the relationship. As Stanley, I expect Stella to have sex with me not because we happen to be in bed together but because she is my wife. In fact we are in bed together because she is my wife. With transference, we are trying to get at the wife-ness and not at the in-bed-ness. So in the situation I was describing with my student, he needed to look at what the basic nature of the relationship was with the other character (father, boss, mentor, idol, etc), and find someone from his own experience that corresponded to that basic nature of the relationship, rather than trying to find someone that he wanted to encourage.
In the past, I have taught transference and then left it alone, for the reason I described above: I don’t have the student’s personal experience, so I can’t evaluate the choices that they make. But this recent episode showed me that I can help students describe what kind of relationship they are looking for when they look for a transference. That’s one small step for my student, one giant leap for the Mother of Invention.