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The Mysterious Work of Acting

Even acting's best practitioners don't understand it!

The art of acting is so peculiar that even its most skillful practitioners (and the co-workers who love them) can’t quite explain how they do what they do.” – Terrence Rafferty, New York Times, September 9, 2012

In a New York Times article discussing Denzel Washington’s new role in the upcoming movie Flight, Terrence Rafferty interviewed Mr. Washington and several of his fellow actors and directors. The conclusion seemed to be the same: Mr. Washington does extensive preparation (e.g. learning his way around a plane’s cockpit), and uses physical reminders (e.g. an old flight bag of an actual pilot) in order to masterfully play his roles. But, when it comes to the moments of actually acting, of creating that character’s words and actions while the camera rolls, neither Mr. Washington nor any of his fellow actors or directors had any idea what he was actually doing. In fact, Mr. Washington mentioned several times that analyzing it too deeply might make it go away. Instead, he has learned to just trust himself.

Acting is difficult. Ask any director, actor, casting director who does their job well. Or, ask any audience member who has seen an otherwise famous or well-regarded actor do a terrible job in a movie or play. Or has seen a non-famous actor do a terrible job in a movie or play. There seems to be a delicate balance between overt preparation and unconscious performance. Bad performances are often criticized as being “self conscious”- that the actor was aware of what she was doing, or aware of the character’s faults, and couldn’t help projecting them as she played the character.

In a wonderful set of studies and subsequent book, Elly A. Konijn looked to the question of how much actors are aware of their performance as they perform it, and how much they let the character “take over”. She asked Dutch actors to rate their own emotions and the emotions of the characters they were playing across a range of affective states (from disgust and anxiety to tenderness and pleasure). She found that positive emotions were often felt by the actors as they played those character’s emotions. However, the more negative the emotion of the character, the less likely the actor would report feeling that emotion onstage. And, it did not matter whether the actors claimed they were trained to feel the emotions of their characters or trained to detach themselves from the emotions of their characters: the results were the same. This directly goes against many popular western acting theories, which claim you must feel the emotions of your character in order to correctly and skillfully portray them. Instead, actors were feeling “task emotions” such as nervousness, concentration and excitement. To be fair, however, we don’t know if these actors were any good at their performances, and Dr. Konijn didn’t interview them about their process in rehearsal, when letting the characters’ emotions take hold may be more prevalent.

And, there is another layer: the difficulties of self-report. People in general are terrible at truthfully reporting how and why they do things. Our behavior is changed by all sorts of unconscious processes, motivations, and influences that we don’t even notice. And these influences can be manipulated extremely easily. In a classic study, John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, primed students with words relating to old age. Those students who were primed with words such as “retirement” then walked more slowly than students primed with other words. (Although there are questions about replication.) Currently, work from his lab is showing surprising findings about unconscious “priming” of behavior and attitudes such as how holding a warm cup of coffee can make you feel socially closer to those around you or mapping “close” versus “far away” dots on Cartesian coordinates affects how you view your emotional attachment to your family. In none of these studies do participants report being aware of the priming or change in their behavior.

So, is acting automated? Or, does all of that preparation enable actors to “forget” themselves when in the moment of acting? Does it matter whether you have preexisting talent?

There are hundreds of books on acting technique and how to be an actor- from honored tomes (such as Stanisklavsky’s “On Acting) to biographies of famous actors who also offer advice (such as Lawrence Oliver’s “Confessions of an Actor”). Yet one could assume if you could pick up acting from a book, there would be a lot more great actors out there, and many fewer terrible off-off Broadway plays. (To be fair, I have also seen some of the best theatre of my life off-off Broadway). Acting’s great mystery may lie in the same location as the mysteries of prodigy piano players and chess masters: there is a natural talent that cannot be duplicated with hard work. And then, for those lucky few, the hard work comes into play. Curiously, the New York Times article also mentions that Mr. Washington started acting when he took a class in college on a whim. He says “it was kind of easy, or I enjoyed it… and people told me I was good.” Even without his legendary extensive preparation- even without years of training, there was a natural ability that came through in his very first class. The hard work he does now may just be icing on the cake.

More from Thalia R. Goldstein Ph.D.
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