Emotion in Acting By Simon Furness
It’s generally accepted that acting is an emotional creation but since the 18th century, critics and philosophers have asked whether an actor should or shouldn’t experience the emotional response of the characters they are portraying.
Even today, one can see actors who skilfully indicate an emotion and others from whom it flows freely.
Sanford Meisner said that ‘It’s nice to have emotion but if you haven’t got it, don’t bother. Just say the lines as sincerely as you can’. From which its safe to infer that if all else fails, the bottom line is to be honest and true. Then, whilst your work may lack depth, it will still have simple truth. But there will always be actors who ‘indicate’. It’s a choice!
A lot of actors have trouble with emotion. They muscularise it. Tension is the result. There’s nothing more disagreeable to watch than an actor summoning up emotion. It’s often forgotten that acting should be easy and agreeable to watch. I had a teacher once who always encouraged us to evoke ‘the feeling of ease’. Whenever I heard the phrase uttered, I always relaxed into whatever I was doing. Tension prevents us from listening and halts the free flow of emotion which is so affecting for an audience. So its nice to have emotion. With it, a performance will be affective; without it, it can only be effective.
Many actors seem to think that they need twenty tons of emotion to colour what they are doing. But a light shade of blue can be just as arresting as a bucket of blood-red splashed everywhere. Sometimes an actor who can summon emotion easily will let this clog up his ‘acting wheels’ to the extent that he is no longer listening to his fellow actor. This produces a performance where the actor is undoubtedly feeling something – but the audience isn’t!
A good place to start working with it is by using a resource we have had at our disposal since our formative years: the resource of day dreaming. Night dreams come from a deeper place – their content often surfaces in the form of scenarios that have a symbolic significance. Day dreams are astonishingly personal – they come from a shallower place in our sub conscious. You only have to imagine that you are say ‘Prime Minister for a day’ and the fantasies start to flow freely in an organic and associative way.
By using the device of a specific day dream to produce a precise emotional colour, an actor may therefore be able to arrive on stage at the proper emotional pitch. His intention, the audience and the given circumstances – and assuming he listens well – will all do the rest. Sometimes, the emotion may arise from what the actor is doing or from what is being done or said to him onstage. But the emotion is a by-product. We still have to stay loose and relaxed enough to let go and….LISTEN!