We’ve talked about the fact that people don’t really like to feel their feelings, and actors are in no way exempt from this very human trait. I like feeling my feelings more than the average Joe, but I’d rather keep my distance from them in real life. Feelings are, quite frankly, uncomfortable.
Why? Because to feel them means to not control them, and we all love to control our circumstances. Because they are inclined to tell us the truth about ourselves. And we’d often like to avoid that, too.
This disconnect from our emotional lives may make getting through the day easier, but it’s not very helpful onstage. As actors, we have to dive into our feelings. That’s how they get big enough to get over the footlights.
(I direct this at the segment of the acting population made up of “underactors”, which is the vast majority. If you’re an “overactor”, that’s a slightly different kettle of fish. Everyone falls in one of these two groups. But that’s a discussion for another day.)
In real life, we have a variety of ways of avoiding our feelings. Talking. Keeping the television on all the time. Throwing ourselves into physical activities, be they chores or games. As actors, we have different avoidance techniques, and the biggest is the use of the third person when speaking about our character. “My character isn’t happy in this scene.” “I think she feels worried.” “He wouldn’t do that.”
Think about a time in your life when you realized that you habitually respond to certain people or situations in a predictable way. Someone close to you has pointed out, say, that every time you are criticized, you get defensive in a very particular way. And one day, you can sort of stand outside yourself in one of those moments and say, “Hey! I do do that. Isn’t that interesting? I wonder why?” Which probably leads you down the road of a little self-psychoanalysis, all of which is done, effectively, in the third person, because you are observing your own behavior as if it isn’t quite YOU doing it.
This may give you some self-knowledge, but it isn’t going to change your behavior until you add that knowledge to the experience of living, when you can merge it with living in the first person. And so it is onstage.
When you speak of your character in the third person, you distance yourself from him, and start working toward what you think he should look like, sound like, etc. But no matter how well executed, those are all externals and don’t get to the heart of the matter. And the heart is what counts. Get the heart right — and by “heart”, I mean emotions — and the externals will largely take care of themselves. You might say a given line very differently on five different nights, but if you’ve got the heart right each night, all five ways will be just perfect.