There are two ways of doing deep acting. One is by directly exhorting feeling, the other by making indirect use of a trained imagination.5 Only the second is true Method acting. But in either case, Stanislavski argued, the acting of passions grows out of living in them.
People sometimes talk as much about their efforts to feel (even if these efforts fail) as they do about having feelings.6
When I asked students simply to describe an event in which they experienced a deep emotion, the responses were sprinkled with such phrases as “I psyched myself up, I squashed my anger down, I tried hard not to feel disappointed, I forced myself to have a good time, I mustered up some gratitude, I put a damper on my love for her, I snapped myself out of the depression.”* In the flow of experience, there were occasional common but curious shades of will—will to evoke, will to suppress, and will to somehow allow a feeling, as in “I finally let myself feel sad about it.”7
Sometimes there was only a social custom in mind—as when a person wished to feel sad at a funeral. But other times there was a desperate inner desire to avoid pain. Herbert Gold describes a man’s effort to prevent himself from feeling love for a wife he no longer has:
He fought against love, he fought against grief, he fought against anger. They were all linked. He reminded himself when touched, moved, overwhelmed by the sights and smell of her, or a sight and smell which recalled her, or passing their old house or eating their foods, or walking on their streets; don’t do this, don’t feel. First he succeeded in removing her from the struggle. . . . He lost his love. He lost his anger. She became a limited idea, like a newspaper death notice. He did not lose her entirely, but chipped away at it: don’t, don’t, don’t, he would remind himself in the middle of the night; don’t feel; and then dream what he could.8
These are almost like orders to a contrary horse (whoa, gid – dyup, steady now), attempts to exhort feeling as if feeling can listen when it is talked to. t And sometimes it does. But
* In each instance the individual indicates awareness of acting on a feeling. A passive stance toward feeling was reflected in other examples: “I found myself filled with pride,” “My stomach did a trapeze act all by itself.”
t It also presupposes an aspiration to feel. The man who fought against love wanted to feel the same about his former wife as he thought she felt about him; if he was a limited idea to her, he wanted her to be that for him. A courtly lover in twelfth-century France or a fourteen-year-old American female rock fan might have been more disposed to aspire to one-sided love, to want it that way. Deep acting comes with its social stories about what we aspire to feel.
such coaching only addresses the capacity to duck a signal, to turn away from what evokes feeling.9 It does not move to the home of the imagery, to that which gives power to a sight, a sound, or a smell. It does not involve the deeper work of retraining the imagination.
Ultimately, direct prods to feeling are not based on a deep look into how feeling works, and for this reason Stanislavski advised his actors against them: “On the stage there cannot be, under any circumstances, action which is directed immediately at the arousing of a feeling for its own sake. . . .Never seek to be jealous, or to make love, or to suffer for its own sake. All such feelings are the result of something that has gone before. Of the thing that goes before you should think as you can. As for the result, it will produce itself.”10
Stanislavski’s alternative to the direct prodding of feeling is Method acting. Not simply the body, or immediately accessible feeling, but the entire world of fantasy, of subconscious and semiconscious memory, is conceived as a precious resource.
If he were in the hands of Stanislavski, the man who wanted to fight off love for his former wife would approach his task differently. First, he would use “emotion memory”: he would remember all the times he had felt furious at his wife’s thoughtlessness or cruelty. He would focus on one most exasperating instance of this, reevoking all the circumstances. Perhaps she had forgotten his birthday, had made no effort to remember, and failed to feel badly about it afterwards. Then he would use the “if” supposition and say to himself: “How would I feel about her if this is what she really was like?” He would not prompt himself not to feel love;
rather he would keep alive the cruel episode of the forgotten birthday and sustain the “if.” He would not, then, fall naturally out of love. He would actively conduct himself out of love through deep acting.
The professional actor simply carries this process further for an artistic purpose. His goal should be to accumulate a rich deposit of “emotion memories” —memories that recall feelings. Thus, Stanislavski explains, the actor must relearn how to remember:
Two travelers were marooned on some rocks by high tide. After their rescue they narrated their impressions. One remembered every little thing he did; how, why, and where he went, where he climbed up and where he climbed down; where he jumped up or jumped down. The other man had no recollection of the place at all. He remembered only the emotions he felt. In succession came delight, apprehension, fear, hope, doubt, and finally panic.11
To store a wealth of emotion memories, the actor must remember experiences emotively. But to remember experiences emotively, he or she must first experience them in that way too, perhaps with an eye to using the feelings later.* So the conceiving of emotion memory as a noun, as something one has, brings with it a conceiving of memory and of spontaneous experience itself as also having the qualities of a usable, nounlike thing. Feeling—whether at the time, or as it is recalled, or as it is later evoked in acting—is an object. It may be a valuable object in a worthy pursuit, but it is an object nonetheless.
* The mind acts as a magnet to reusable feeling. Stanislavski advises actors: “ Imagine that you have received some insult in public, perhaps a slap in the face, that makes your cheek bum whenever you think of it. The inner shock was so great that it blotted out all the details of this harsh incident. But some insignificant thing will instantly revive the memory of the insult, and the emotion will recur with redoubled violence. Your cheek will grow red or you will turn pale and your heart will pound. If you possess such sharp and easily aroused emotional material, you will find it easy to transfer it to the stage and play a scene analogous to the experience you had in real life which left such a shocking impression on you. To do this you will not need any technique. It will play itself because nature will help you” (1965, p 176).
Some feelings are more valuable objects than others, for they are more richly associated with other memorable events; a terrifying train ride may recall a childhood fall or a nightmare. Stanislavski recalled, for example, seeing an old beggar killed by a trolley car but said that the memory of this event was less valuable to him as an actor than another one:
It was long ago —I came upon an Italian, leaning over a dead monkey on the sidewalk. He was weeping and trying to push a bit of orange rind into the animal’s mouth. It would seem that this scene had affected my feelings more than the death of the beggar. It was buried more deeply into my memory. I think that if I had to stage the street accident I would search for emotional material for my part in my memory of the scene of the Italian with the dead monkey rather than in the tragedy itself.12
But emotion memory is not enough. The memory, like any image drawn to mind, must seem real now. The actor must believe that an imagined happening really is happening now. To do this, the actor makes up an “as if,” a supposition. He actively suspends the usual reality testing, as a child does at play, and allows a make-believe situation to seem real. Often the actor can manage only a precarious belief in all of an illusion, and so he breaks it up into sturdier small details, which taken one by one are easier to believe: “if l were in a terrible storm” is chopped up into “if my eyebrows were wet and if my shoes were soaked.” The big if is broken into many little ones.13
The furnishings of the physical stage—a straight horsehair chair, a pointer leaning against the wall—are used to support the actor’s if. Their purpose is not to influence the audience, as in surface acting, but to help convince the person doing deep acting that the if events are really happening.