Monday, July 28, 2008

Ramblings About Actors and Acting -- SENDING LOVE

Actress demonstrating initial reactions of fear andpanic

copyright Wikimedia Commons/bantosh

Most actors study something called sense memory. This means reproducing in ourselves an emotion we once felt by remembering whatever produced that emotion in us. This sounds difficult; it is.

First of all, those who first try this are tempted to remember the emotion itself. This is rough because emotions are abstract, not concrete, although they produce in us physical reactions which are concrete. How do you remember "love" or "fear"? Sense memory therefore involves a certain amount of trust, both of our own ability to feel the emotion as a result of having the memory, and of our audience's ability to perceive what we are feeling even though we do not try to "pretend" to have those feelings. If we do not trust the audience, we will indicate. If we do not trust ourselves, we will indicate.

If, however, we allow ourselves to remember what our five senses perceived at the time we felt the original emotion, those memories will bring the emotion back to us. If, for example, you are seeking to reproduce fear, remembering a fearful time in a vague way may not be enough. Remembering what we saw, heard, touched, tasted and smelled at that time will bring the emotion to us, and this is where the second problem with sense memory comes into play: no one enjoys feeling fear! If we are not willing to reexperience the negative emotions as well as the positive ones, perhaps acting is not what we should be pursuing.

As for trusting the audience to know what's going on, we would not be wrong to do so, because emotion does not only produce physical reactions in the person feeling it; it is transmissible and produces similar reactions in witnesses.

Elaine Funk taught us to call up emotions two ways: one was purely physical and the other used imagery, often but not always drawn from memory, but became physical. (Emotion, good or bad, is physically stressful.) The imagery we used to call up an emotion was up to us, and depended on what emotion we were after, but it had to be concrete. However, the point finally was not just to call up an emotion but to transmit it. We spent a lot of time and energy transmitting emotions to each other.

Mrs. Funk could knock a person backwards, from a distance, by contracting certain stomach muscles. (I could too and think I still can, but I never do.) She could also attract you to her with different stomach muscle movements. It wasn't hypnosis or magic. It was simply the fact that we are drawn or repelled by the emotions of others -- have you never walked into a room and found the tension in it palpable, even before you noticed the expression on anyone's face? Have you never sat quietly with your husband, wife, lover, friend, not even looking at him or her, but feeling the love s/he has for you and that you have for him/her? This isn't fancy; it's real! To an actor it's a major resource.

We learned to call up sense memories and other imagery and use it to create within ourselves the physical sensations attached to the appropriate emotions, and we learned to tell what those sensations were and how to create them even without the imagery (hey, I can't wiggle my ears but some people can!)


copyright Wikimedia Commons/steenslag

an involved audience

copyright www.sxc,hu/leocub

(After a performance of Lanford Wilson's "Serenading Louie," in which Big Bob had to sit quietly for several minutes, facing the audience, and slowly begin to weep, we asked him what imagery he had used to call up the tears. He told us he was remembering how, when he was a child, his bicycle had been stolen.)

One day Amy's younger brother, Jeb, decided to try something. We were all sitting, as was our custom, in a circle, on the stage, transmitting (we just said "sending") love -- something I was very good at. Ironically, considering that one of my chronic ailments is lupus, which involves an oversensitivity to sunlight, I always sent the sun! I just took the nice, warm sun and put it in my stomach and there it grew and grew and spread all over my body and rayed out to everyone else, and I would find everyone in the circle leaning in toward me, which meant I was sending very strongly. (Later I was able to begin with the warmth in my stomach by controlling the appropriate muscles there, but the results were always much better when I called upon the imagery.) Jeb decided, without telling anyone, to send hate.

We were very disturbed by this. We couldn't have known what Jeb was doing by looking at him because our eyes were closed, but we felt something wrong and one by one opened our eyes to see where the wrongness was coming from. It was Jeb, and he was cramping up and curling into a ball and hiding inside himself and he wouldn't come out. We kept telling him to stop, that he didn't have to do this, but I guess he did; I guess he had to know. He felt pretty sick afterwards. Anger does feed on itself, and although they say revenge is the best medicine, anger really isn't. Jeb was making himself sick, in a relatively safe environment after all (because we refused to return the hatred he was sending out and instead kept sending him love until he had to stop) as a kind of experiment. He never repeated it.

body language


When Bakula is strapped to that bed, Nolan is feeling all that pain, but Bakula has to feel it too in order to transmit it to us. He has to make himself sick, and everyone around him can feel it too, which means the crew must be feeling pretty uncomfortable watching him even from a distance. Acting can be playing but think of all the fear Bakula had to call upon, voluntarily, to play Nolan, or to portray Sam in many episodes of "Quantum Leap," most particularly "Shock Theatre" and "Dreams." Ted Levine may not really have smacked Gary in the face with a shotgun (in a harrowing episode of "Midnight Caller"), but Cole had to feel it, and its aftermath, nonetheless; when Tina died in Jack's arms, it was Cole who had to experience Jack's grief; those were not onion tears, I assure you. Martin Shaw took his lumps, physically and emotionally, in "The Professionals"; in the British TV film "Ladder of Swords," witness his mixed dread and resentment in any of his scenes with Bob Peck.

I was fortunate enough to see two performances, by the East-West Players (another small repertory theatre company, this one in Los Angeles), of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Pacific Overtures." In one performance the male lead was played by the wonderful, underrated and underused (often misused) actor Soon-Teck Oh, who in the other performance played the male lead's wife. As the male lead, Oh was killed; he fell to the ground (the stage, which was not far from any seat in the house; I happened to be right up against it), rolled, and died. As he rolled, the ray of emotion he was sending cut right through me. It was coming from his stomach. I felt his death; I nearly leapt out of my seat.

When at the end of "The Deer Hunter," Christopher Walken put the gun to his head, smiled and shot himself to death that first time we saw it, Erik jumped in his seat; it was not the noise of the gun; he wasn't startled; he wasn't even surprised (we knew it could happen! -- and we had heard louder noises before in the film). He was hit with the sudden absence of the human being who had just been there, and the pain of the one who still remained. That wasn't an intellectual reaction; there was no time for an intellectual reaction. Something had been transmitted.

I have felt what these actors feel, and if I were to work as an actor I know I would have to commit myself to the extent of being willing to feel pain, angst, grief, rage and all manner of extreme unpleasantness when necessary, because otherwise I couldn't be satisfied with my work. I don't think Stockwell could be satisfied with his work either unless he gave of himself like that, and at the same time I don't see his being willing to cross a certain line; that is why I don't think Stockwell would ever take a part like that of Nolan or even Sam (age and the ridiculous concept of type aside); he would take parts he could bear to take. Therefore it is actually Stckwell's integrity which keeps him away from roles that Bakula would accept. (I imagine that Stockwell has enough credibility and respect in Hollywood that he is offered a variety of roles; indeed he has played a variety, some of them fairly challenging.) The pain in "M.I.A." must have been real enough and he did that beautifully, so he was willing to go that far. I don't think a lesser actor would have been willing or able to do so.

drama masks


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