EVERYDAY DEEP ACTING
In our daily lives, offstage as it were, we also develop feeling for the parts we play; and along with the workaday props of the kitchen table or office restroom mirror we also use deep acting, emotion memory, and the sense of “as if this were true” in the course of trying to feel what we sense we ought to feel or want to feel. Usually we give this little thought, and we don’t name the momentary acts involved. Only when our feeling does not fit the situation, and when we sense this as a problem, do we turn our attention to the inward, imagined mirror, and ask whether we are or should be acting.
Consider, for example, the reaction of this young man to the unexpected news that a close friend had suffered a mental breakdown:
I was shocked, yet for some reason I didn’t think my emotions accurately reflected the bad news. My roommate appeared much more shaken than I did. / thought that I should be more upset by the news than I was. Thinking about this conflict I realized that one reason for my emotional state might have been the spatial distance separating me from my friend, who was in the hospital hundreds of miles away. I then tried to focus on his state. . . and began to picture my friend as I thought he then existed.
Sensing himself to be less affected than he should be, he tried to visualize his friend —perhaps in gray pajamas, being led by impassive attendants to the electric-shock room. After bringing such a vivid picture to mind, he might have gone on to recall smaller private breakdowns in his own life and thereby evoked feelings of sorrow and empathy. Without at all thinking of this as acting, in complete privacy, without audience or stage, the young man can pay, in the currency of deep acting, his emotional respects to a friend.
Sometimes we try to stir up a feeling we wish we had, and at other times we try to block or weaken a feeling we wish we did not have. Consider this young woman’s report of her attempt to keep feelings of love in check.
Last summer I was going with a guy often, and I began to feel very strongly about him. I knew, though, that he had broken up with a girl a year ago because she had gotten too serious about him, so I was afraid to show any emotion. I also was afraid of being hurt, so I attempted to change my feelings. I talked myself into not caring about him. . . but I must admit it didn’t work for long. To sustain this feeling I had to invent bad things about him and concentrate on them or continue to tell myself he didn’t care. It was a hardening of emotions, I’d say. It took a lot of work and was unpleasant because I had to concentrate on anything I could find that was irritating about him.
In this struggle she hit upon some techniques of deep acting. “To invent bad things about him and concentrate on them” is to make up a world she could honestly respond to. She could tell herself, “If he is self-absorbed, then he is unlovable, and if he is unlovable, which at the moment I believe, then I don’t love him.” Like Stanislavski during his make-believe “operation,” she wavers between belief and doubt, but she nevertheless reaches for the inner token of feeling that it is her part to offer. She wavers between belief and doubt in her beloved’s “flaws.” But her temporary effort to prevent herself from falling in love may serve the grander purpose of waiting for him to reciprocate. So in a way, her act of momentary restraint, as she might see it, was an offering to the future of their love.
We also set a personal stage with personal props, not so much for its effect on our audience as for the help it gives us in believing in what we imagine. Serving almost as stage props, often, are fellow members of the cast—friends or acquaintances who prod our feelings in a desired direction. Thus, a young woman who was trying not to love a man used her supporting cast of friends like a Greek chorus: “I could only say horrible things about him. My friends thought he was horrible because of this and reinforced my feelings of dislike for him.”
Sometimes the stage setting can be a dismayingly powerful determinant of feeling. Consider this young woman’s description of her ambivalent feelings about a priest forty years her senior: “I started trying to make myself like him and fit the whole situation. When I was with him I did like him, but then I’d go home and write in my journal how much I couldn’t stand him. I kept changing my feelings.” What she felt while facing the priest amid the props of a living room and two cups of afternoon tea collapsed when she left that setting. At home with her diary, she felt free of her obligation to please her suitor by trying to like him. There, she felt another obligation —to be honest to her diary. What changed between the tea party and the diary session was her sense of which feeling was real. Her sense of realness seemed to shift disconcertingly with the stage setting, as if her feeling of liking the priest gained or lost its status as “real” depending on its context.
Sometimes the realness of a feeling wavers more through time. Once a love story is subject to doubt, the story is rewritten; falling in love comes to seem like the work of convincing each other that this had been true love. A nineteen-year-old Catholic college student recalled:
Since we both were somewhat in need of a close man-woman relationship and since we were thrown together so often (we lived next door to each other and it was summertime), I think that we convinced ourselves that we loved each other. I had to try to convince myself that I loved him in order to justify or somehow make “right” sleeping with him, which I never really wanted to do. We ended up living together supposedly because we “loved” each other. But I would say instead that we did it for other reasons which neither of us wanted to admit. What pretending that I loved him meant to me was having a secret nervous breakdown.
This double pretending—pretending to him and pretending to herself that she loved him—created two barriers to reflection and spontaneous feeling. First, she tried to feel herself in love —intimate, deeply enhanced, and exquisitely vulnerable —in the face of contrary evidence. Second, she tried not to feel irritation, boredom, and a desire to leave. By this effort to orchestrate feeling—to keep some feelings above consciousness and some below, and to counter inner resistances on a daily basis —she tried to suppress reality testing. She both nurtured an illusion about her lover and doubted the truth of it. It was the strain of this effort that led to her “secret nervous breakdown.”
In the theater, the illusion that the actor creates is recognized beforehand as an illusion by actor and audience alike. But in real life we more often participate in the illusion. We take it into ourselves, where it struggles against the sense we ordinarily make of things. In life, illusions are subtle, changeable, and hard to define with certainty, and they matter far more to our sanity.
The other side of the matter is to live with a dropped illusion and yet want to sustain it. Once an illusion is clearly defined as an illusion, it becomes a lie. The work of sustaining it then becomes redefined as lying to oneself so that one becomes self-stigmatized as a liar. This dilemma was described by a desperate wife and mother of two:
I am desperately trying to change my feelings of being trapped [in marriage] into feelings of wanting to remain with my husband voluntarily. Sometimes I think I’m succeeding—sometimes I know I haven’t. It means I have to lie to myself and know I am lying. It means I don’t like myself very much. It also makes me wonder whether or not I’m a bit of a masochist. I feel responsible for the children’s future and for my husband’s, and there’s the old self-sacrificer syndrome. I know what I’m doing. I just don’t know how long I can hold out.
On stage, the actress doing Method acting tries to delude herself; the more voluntary, the more richly detailed the lie, the better. No one thinks she actually is Ophelia or even pretending to be. She is borrowing Ophelia’s reality or something from her own personal life that resembles it. She is trying to delude herself and create an illusion for the audience, who accept it as a gift. In everyday life there is also illusion, but how to define it is chronically unclear; the matter needs constant attention, continual questioning and testing. In acting, the illusion starts out as an illusion. In everyday life, that definition is always a possibility and never quite a certainty. On stage, the illusion leaves as it came, with the curtain. Off stage, the curtains close, too, but not at our bidding, not when we expect, and often to our dismay. On stage, illusion is a virtue. But in real life, the lie to oneself is a sign of human weakness, of bad faith. It is far more unsettling to discover that we have fooled ourselves than to discover that we have been fooling others.
This is because for the professional actor the illusion takes on meaning only in relation to a professional role whereas in real life the illusion takes on meaning with reference to living persons. When in private life we recognize an illusion we have held, we form a different relation to what we have thought of as our self. We come to distrust our sense of what is true, as we know it through feeling. And if our feelings have lied to us, they cannot be part of our good, trustworthy, “true” self. To put it another way, we may recognize that we distort reality, that we deny or suppress truths, but we rely on an observing ego to comment on these unconscious processes in us and to try to find out what is going on despite them.
At the same time, everyday life clearly requires us to do deep acting. We must dwell on what it is that we want to feel and on what we must do to induce the feeling. Consider, for example, this young man’s efforts to counter an apathy he dreaded:
I was a star halfback in high school. [But in my senior year] before games I didn’t feel the surge of adrenalin —in a word, I wasn’t “psyched-up.” This was due to emotional difficulties I was experiencing at the time, and still experience. Also, I had been an A student but my grades were dropping. Because in the past I had been a fanatical, emotional, intense player—a “hitter,” recognized by coaches as a hard worker and a player with “desire” —this was very upsetting. I did everything I could to get myself “up.” I tried to be outwardly rah-rah, I tried to get myself scared of my opponents—anything to get the adrenalin flowing. I tried to look nervous and intense before games, so at least the coaches wouldn’t catch on. . . when actually I was mostly bored, or in any event, not “up.” Before one game I remember wishing I was in the stands watching my cousin play for his school.
This young man felt a slipping sense of realness; he was clear that he felt “basically” bored, not “really” up. What also seemed real to him was the sense that he should feel driven to win and that he wanted to feel that way. What also felt real to him in hindsight was his effort to seem to the coaches like a “hitter” (surface acting) and his effort to make himself fearful of his opponents (deep acting).
As we look back at the past, we may alternate between two understandings of “what really happened.” According to one, our feeling was genuine and spontaneous. According to the other, it seemed genuine and spontaneous, but in fact it was covertly managed. In doubt about which understanding will ultimately make sense, we are led to ask about our present feelings: “Am I acting now? How do I know?” One basic appeal of the theater is that the stage decides that question for us: we know for sure who is acting.
In sum, what distinguishes theater from life is not illusion, which both have, need, and use. What distinguishes them is the honor accorded to illusion, the ease in knowing when an illusion is an illusion, and the consequences of its use in making feeling. In the theater, the illusion dies when the curtain falls, as the audience knew it would. In private life, its consequences are unpredictable and possibly fateful: a love is killed, a suitor rejected, another hospital bed filled.