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the vulnerability confusion

I was a on website for actors that publishes advice columns from various eminences in the industry: acting teachers, agents, casting directors, and others. I saw one such column from a prominent acting teacher in town who was recommending to actors that they try to be more vulnerable in their lives. This teacher was telling actors that during their day, when something embarrassing happened, an episode of clumsiness or cluelessness or whatever, the actor should make a conscious effort to be vulnerable in such situations: to face the witnesses to the moment of awkwardness, and in the process, maybe form a connection or at least have a moment with someone that would not otherwise have happened. The suggestion seems to be that in this way, the actor practices exercising her vulnerability muscles, and if those muscles get strong enough, she will be able to leverage them when an audition calls for true vulnerability.

But not so fast. Vulnerability is not, at bottom, an attitude we adopt towards a situation. In one sense, yes, we can choose to stay open or close down to someone. So there is something to this. But this is the tip of the iceberg. And we are interested, as actors, when it comes to vulnerability, in more than just the tip.

For an iceberg is an underwater mountain. It weighs tons, literally, and extends downwards into the depths. As human beings, we come into every moment, in which we might decide to throw that switch and make ourselves vulnerable, from somewhere. This is true in a literal sense: we come from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia, East St. Louis, or from Paris, or we lived across the street, to paraphrase a band I like. But we also enter into present moments from already-existing situations and contexts: our family, our education, our ongoing and discontinued relationships. Because of these contexts that already exist, we have a whole set of commitments or investments: people we care about, political convictions, passions, fetishes, even phobias and prejudices. If this moment when we might choose to throw the vulnerability switch is one in which we are interacting with someone previously known to us, then we are likely invested in that person in a particular way: we look for certain kinds of treatment from them, certain kinds of recognition of who and what we are. We may also have expectations about what various kinds of strangers, of various races, genders and occupations, may offer us. In either case, our vulnerability to the other person is baked into the cake: we are vulnerable to these people, whether we like it or not.

Vulnerability is about both our basic need for connection and relationship, which I have written about frequently here, and about the way in which we have become accustomed to (not to say addicted to) engaging in these relationships with others. I was reading about empathy the other day, its history as a concept in our language, and apparently it was derived from the German word “Einfuehlung”, which, translated literally, means something like “feeling into”. We have “felt into” the people we are vulnerable to, and they have “felt into” us. They have, to take a metaphor somewhat more literally than it is usually taken, gotten under our skin. They have become a part of us. They have tamed us, to use the language of the Fox in The Little Prince. “I’ve grown accustomed to her face”, croons a heartbroken Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Vulnerability is something that grows in us, as Higgins grew accustomed to Eliza fetching his slippers. So you can see how actors need another way to think about vulnerability than practicing not turning away from people in front of whom we have managed to look less than cool. If vulnerability is something that grows in us, there is something misleading about modeling it as something that we can bring to bear in any moment through an act of will. There is some truth in this picture, but it’s the easy kind.

I suppose you could say that the teacher on the website I alluded to earlier was talking about vulnerability as something that we do, whereas I am saying we need to concern ourselves with vulnerability as something that exists in us, that is in fact fundamental to what we are. This is what truly makes the difference in our work as actors. In our own lives, we all possess an array of people to whom we are vulnerable. The rub is: how do we become vulnerable, in this second sense, to those with whom we interact in a script in a series of pretend situations? How do we pretend to be someone who has “felt into” the other (fictional) characters in his life? How do we find this inherent vulnerability in ourselves and leverage it, rather than attempting to throw the vulnerability switch that we’ve been practicing throwing with people we happen upon in the course of our day?

Come to class at Andrew Wood Acting Studio and find out!