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on personalization

“ 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:

House in Usa











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.




on personalization2024-02-19T03:32:45-08:00

the great challenge of making imagined relationships feel like real ones

I came across a column on The New York Times website, called The Myth of Quality Time.

Columnist Frank Bruni shares a realization that he had about why he changed his mind about thinking that brief visits with family members or other loved ones were best:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

Bruni is saying that the defining moments of relationships of any duration occur as they occur. Not on anyone’s schedule. Not by appointment. Not by any kind of design.

What does this tell us, as actors? It tells us that the relationship-defining moments, the moments that make Blanche and Stella into Blanche and Stella, or make Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, happen in the midst of long stretches of time the individuals in question have spent together. And it’s also true that these special, definitive moments arise, unexpectedly and mysteriously, from the daily, mundane interactions, the exchanging of pleasantries, the doing of favors, the reporting on how the day went, etc. The special moments of connection emerge from the everyday comings and goings, and the familiarity that grows in the process.

It’s this familiarity, borne out of repeated, everyday interactions that occur over months, years, even decades, that actors attempt to create when they enter into an imaginary relationship in a fictional situation.

Doing this successfully is no small feat, and one that is, sadly, often taken for granted.

How to go about this process of making fictional relationships seem like real ones? There are some tools that I present in the class, which I’ll describe briefly below, but the most important thing is to recognize that making a fictional relationship seem like a real one is not something to take for granted. There’s no one way to do it, but it must be done. Too often people think it’s as simple as saying “Ok, we’re sisters” or “You’re the boss, I’m the employee” and then you can get on with the all-important business of deciding how to deliver the lines or whatever. Keeping in mind the fact that a relationship is something that develops across an expanse of time, often a vast one, and is given definition both through the major milestones, good and bad, and through the process of unremarkable, everyday interaction, is paramount. If you keep these facts in view, you won’t forget about what you’re up against.

One important means of lending depth and substance to an imaginary relationship is to bring imagination and specificity to the defining moments of a relationship, the major milestones that I mentioned. How did the relationship come into being? What were its origins? What were the high points? The crisis points? How were the crises overcome, so that the relationship survived? Making these little short films of the imagination is a great way to begin to give the relationship a specific gravity. It’s backstory, yes, but not a more or less arbitrary stream of factoids strung together into a “”backstory” or character bio; it’s backstory that focuses specifically on the defining moments of the relationship, its origins, peaks and valleys. We can call this process particularization of the relationship.

Another valuable tool is transference. The term comes from Uta Hagen’s book, A Challenge for the Actor. Transference means finding relationships from the actor’s own experience that approximate the relationships of the character to people, places and things. Playing Stella Kowalski? You want to find a transference to help you make the relationship with your Blanche feel more real. If you had an older sister who you were once close to, or even one you still are close to, you’re all set. If not, then you have to try to find another relationship from your own life whose essence approximates the relationship that the character you’re playing has with the character in question. Then you want to find ways to reinforce that transference. While you don’t want to be trying to think of the person from your own life while you’re rehearsing (you want to be present, in the moment), creating little rituals to regularly remind yourself outside of rehearsal of the connection can go a long way towards prompting the unconscious mind to direct the energy associated with the real relationship into the fictional one.

Also, taking care to always engage in relationship while rehearsing, that is, to treat every moment when you are actually rehearsing a scene as a moment of relationship in involving give and take and the pursuit of visceral need, then each of these moments acts as a deposit in the piggy bank of real relationship, and gradually, over time, the fictional relationship will start to take root and find a reality of its own. But every time you treat a moment of rehearsal as an exercise in remembering the lines or the blocking, this deposit in the piggy bank of relationship does NOT occur, in fact, when rehearsal is approached that way, a deposit is made in the piggy bank of mechanical repetition, and that’s NOT where your want your money.

These strategies are most effectively used together, in and out of rehearsal, to get over the bar of making fictional relationships seem like real ones. It takes work, but it’s one of the greatest pleasures that the craft of acting affords.

the great challenge of making imagined relationships feel like real ones2018-02-26T21:48:34-08:00
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