The great theater critic Frances Ferguson once wrote about how the actor’s task is not simply to illustrate the events of the story, but to exhibit the “great spaces of life and quantities of experience” that exist behind the character. Every person is a whole world, and as spectators of the theater, we want to feel that whole world keenly when we watch actors, a world of anguish and loss, and of joy and triumph. We want the actor to make that whole world of the past manifest.
In light of that expectation, a major part of the actor’s work is to go through the script with a fine-tooth comb and extract everything possible about the character’s past. Some parts of the past will be made explicit in the script, and others are present but implicit; they have to be inferred from what is given, and supplemented with the actor’s imaginative effort. For example, if a character is a doctor, we know he/she went to medical school. The script may not tell us where or when, but medical school still belongs in our account of the character’s past, and we should probably make a decision about where and when, to make our history more vivid and complete.
Through this process of mining the script for all available data about the character’s past, and arranging it in a first person account (“And then I started medical school at…”), we make the character’s past surveyable to ourselves, and we begin to understand the priorities that have governed our lives as these characters up through the present moment. As I have discussed previously, the ability to provide a coherent narrative about our past (as individual people) is a cornerstone of the ability to form and maintain attachments with others, according to recent psychological research. Since forming and maintaining relationships with others under imaginary circumstances is the business we are in as actors, arranging the knowledge we have about the past experience of the character we are endeavoring to present into such an ordering is absolutely essential to our ability to embody that role.
But uncovering this narrative is just a first step. A second step is to begin to understand the significance of these various episodes in the life of the character, or, as we refer to it, the Who-am-I. In some cases, it will be obvious that an episode was a great loss for us as the character. For example, perhaps as the doctor above, I was rejected by all but one medical school that I applied to. This is a clear loss, or a “valley”. Perhaps then I attended the one school I got into, and graduated at the top of my class. This is a clear “peak”. It is these peaks and valleys that begin to form the “great spaces of life and experience” that I mentioned at the outset. Having experienced such episodes is what imbues us, in our embodiment of the character, as having depth, amplitude, or soul.
While some episodes will be clear losses or clear triumphs, there will be other episodes of our past that we may be inclined to see as more neutral. For example, as part of my medical training, I had to do an internship somewhere. At first glance, I might be inclined to see this as just hitting the marks that I had to hit to get through med school. However, seeing the internship in this light renders it, we might say, soul-neutral. It does nothing to add to the quality of being imbued with soul or depth that I mentioned previously. So how might we reconsider that? Well, if we do some research about what such internships involve, in terms of the hours an intern works and the expectations placed on him or her, then we might decide that the completion of the internship was not just a formality but actually a moment of triumph, proof of our stamina. Or perhaps we had a difficult boss on the internship and were made to feel like we had barely squeaked by, so that we see it as a loss. Either of these two ways of looking at this episode has a positive impact on the “quantity of experience” that we bring to the role, to use Ferguson’s phrase, where as the neutral one, that we were essentially just getting a box checked off on a list of requirements, has no such effect.
So the upshot is that we want to be on the alert, as we survey the past of our characters, our Who-Am-I’s, for opportunities to see events and episodes as peaks or valleys, even when they may not immediately present themselves as such. Speaking broadly, the more peaks and valleys that we find, and the greater the heights of the peaks and the depths of the valleys, the more of the great spaces of life and quantities of experience we will manifest in our work. That’s not to say we should distort the facts to make them fit this narrative shape; some things may indeed be truly neutral and it would be wrong to treat them otherwise. So let your own discretion be your tutor, to coin a phrase. In most cases though, if information about a character’s past has been included by the writer, and if the writer is any good, then it will be something that needs to matter to us, in one way or another.
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