Why Acting the Emotions Doesn’t Work

All actors begin by acting the emotions of their characters.  Emotions draw us to the theater, so we think that is where we have to start.  I’ve talked about some of the reasons why this isn’t effective:  it is superficial, tends to lead to one-note performances, and often keeps us from finding the more interesting choices.

But the biggest reason why it doesn’t work is what my actress friend Sharon mentioned at dinner the other night.  Emotions are always IN motion.  They change in split seconds, flicker through you and mutate into another emotion so quickly and often so dramatically that they can’t be captured intentionally particularly well.  It is also impossible to consciously act two emotions at once, while we regularly feel multiple emotions concurrently.  Our conscious brain is the tortoise, while our subconscious is the hare.  Trying to act the emotions tends to iron out the wrinkles in a performance, and the wrinkles, quite honestly, are much more interesting than the Botox version you otherwise get.

At last week’s class, Nora asked if it is possible to act an emotion without actually feeling it.  There are actors who regularly do this, and unfortunately, there are professional actors among them.  But as Davina noted, the audience knows the difference between an actor who is actually feeling the emotion on some level and one who is pretending to do so.  Audiences are infallible lie detectors; they know when you’re faking it.

“Well, if I’m not supposed to play the emotions, what do I do?  My character is emotional, I can’t just ignore that!  If I do, how can I possibly feel the emotions so the audience sees them?”

Simple.  Understand enough about who your character is and where he is coming from, and then just try to get what you want and keep the conduit to your inner emotional life open.  If you do that, the emotions will not only take care of themselves, they will also show up in far more interesting ways than if you strive to be angry, resentful, disappointed, gleeful, etc.

Yes, the major emotions you have identified in your first read-through will probably end up being a part of the scene, but if you don’t focus on them but INSTEAD focus on getting what you want, all the subtleties of emotion that we regularly experience will come through as well.

This is acting distilled to its simplest components.  It’s good, sound theory, but it IS theoretical, not practical.  So next time, I’ll talk about how to translate it into something practical!

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6 thoughts on “Why Acting the Emotions Doesn’t Work

  1. Pingback: Playing the Verbs, Part II – Going After What You Want | SceneStudySTX

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