Eric Bryant

Playing Emotion

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special
observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. 
~Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

An interesting question came up on one of the many theater forums on Facebook recently. The poster said that they were a new director, and needed help coaching one of their actors on how to cry onstage. They said that the actor was wonderful and nuanced in every other respect, but that in a scene where they were to express grief they couldn’t muster tears.

If you’ve been an actor for any length of time, I’m sure that you have run into this situation where the scripted, or desired, emotional response just wasn’t happening. And you may have been given some advice such as “think of something sad/happy,” or “try playing against the emotion” much like the advice of “try to not be drunk” when playing a drunk person.

First, “drunk” is a state of being, not an emotion (although the drinking may have been in response to an emotion), although I would also point out that states of being should be approached with the same level of specificity as any other circumstance. Second, we can’t “play emotion.” We can only play actions. So while “playing against the emotion” might provide some technical insight into the ACTION of trying not to laugh, or cry, or whatever, it will, at best, create some vague, unspecific action that is completely divorced from the specifics of the circumstances.

The biggest issue with this type of suggestion, though, is that it makes the emotion more important than the honest, truthful interaction between the characters. It is far more interesting to watch someone who is fully vested in the circumstances of the play, who has made strong choices regarding what the character wants, and what they are willing to do to get it, what the stakes are if they don’t get what they want, and how they deal moment-to-moment with their partners and the unfolding of the story. When that happens, I am willing to go along on the journey with the actors, and I as the audience have an emotional response, even if the actor doesn’t.

That is not to say that as actors developing a sensitive emotional instrument isn’t important, or that the actor shouldn’t be feeling something. It simply means that the emotional part of the character is the result of the circumstances, not something that is laid on top of the character like a coat.

Emotions are very specific things. No two people react to situations exactly alike. They react based on their own history, personality, the situation, and myriad other factors. If the actor is just trying to reproduce tears, or laughter, or is using a substitution or stimulus that is not grounded in the specific circumstances of the play then the result is uninteresting and general.

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