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How Deep Should I Go With My Acting?

I never miss seeing my students when they do shows in town. So, the other day, I went to see one in hers. And found, although much of the piece was clever and entertaining, that the actors invested very little emotional life into their performances. Except my student, who drew me so profoundly into the reality of her monologue that my heart raced with exhilaration and tears welled all at the same time. The rest of the show, however, left me feeling ripped off.

When I discussed it with her a few days later, she told me that the director had complemented her that night. And had been encouraging the other actors to connect more emotionally with their performances without success.

I once had a private acting student who insisted that she didn't have to use her inner life at all. I vehemently disagreed. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I think an actor's first responsibility is to fully express whatever emotional requirements are called for in the script.

Stephen Wangh describes acting in An Acrobat of the Heart as "a practice that requires openness and vulnerability" and "is at once the most joyous and most terrifying of acts to practice . . . actors are asked to present real, live human beings, beings like themselves, on stage. They are required to feel . . . and to proclaim in public . . . what most people would scarcely allow themselves to say, or even to think, in private . . . " So if you're not willing to fulfill the emotional requirements of a role, you cheat not only your audience but your acting.

My private student, who was too afraid to use herself, couldn't breathe life into the lines she spoke. Instead, she left them on the page. And she also couldn't wait to leave my house.

Actors are always asking me "how deep should I go" into the emotional life of the scene. And my answer is always, "as deep as you can!" It's such a sticking point that there are many, many stories in the theatrical community about it.

One that was continually retold at the Actor's Studio was about an actress who, after finishing a very emotional scene, asked Lee Strasberg if she had to go to those emotional depths every time she acted. When Lee said yes, she quit acting and became a famous psychologist.

Shelley Winters, in her Inside the Actor's Studio interview, defended Marlon Brando, who often said he hated acting, by explaining that he was no longer willing to work as deeply as he used to produce that great body of great acting. Acting considered by many to be the best of his generation. If you've ever seen the scene in Last Tango in Paris, where he totally dissolves when he sees his dead wife, you know what I mean. The rumor around the Studio was that he used his mother's funeral as an affective memory to give him the emotional intensity he needed. I saw the film 25 years ago but have never forgotten that moment! It rang in my soul.

Conquer Your Fear

Plunging to emotional depths is a job requirement. Most actors understand that. But I also think that many are afraid to go there. And, let's face it, feeling that intensely all the time is scary. And then there's that lingering fear that we may go askew if we go too far.

We spend our socially-acceptable lives repressing emotion. So reclaiming it takes some doing . . . a restructuring of our emotional apparatus sometimes down to a cellular level. It's just like building muscles. It takes time and attention to pump them up. As well as make them do exactly what we want them to do. At first, they're weak and can't lift any weight. You hate the effort. Then you strain something and have to hobble around. You consider giving up. Just thinking about continuing may fill you with fear.

But, with a lot of practice, you can press pounds with ease. The effort also eventually becomes exhilarating. Working with all that emotion on a daily basis may even be healing for you. Then you wake up one day and find you can't do without it. The exercise or the emotional intensity.

Continue to Push the Envelope

Sanford Meisner said, "If you have the emotion, it infects you and the audience." So how do you create it? Well, develop the capacity safely and slowly . . . like learning how to walk on a balance beam. An avowed klutz, I was terrified of learning gymnastics. But was fortunate to work with a genius gymnastics coach. In my fifties!

He had the capacity to break down a physical skill into little tasks unique to your particular way of moving so that anyone could learn complicated gymnastic moves. I began on the floor and traversed four different beam levels before I could make it across an Olympic-height balance beam and back without falling. It was a huge accomplishment for me. I never did a split or a handstand. But perhaps if I continued to push the envelope?

Meisner also said, "as you develop you become confident. You come to believe in what you're doing and trust it because it's out of you." I certainly felt that way about my gymnastics.

You can also feel the same way about your acting with the right coach, technique or safe place to stretch and experiment.

So just keep going. That's the key. You'll find your emotional balance. And fear going askew less and less. Because learning how to find the emotional life of a scene takes lots of practice. But it is doable. And, heck, if you find at some point that you don't want to dredge up all that emotion anymore, you can always become a shrink.

Acting is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion.- Kate Reid

By Jill Place
Article printed with permission from and Rick La Fond. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. - iActing Studios is a premiere provider of Online Acting Classes. They feature hundreds of hours of in-depth classes; hosted by professional instructors and coaches who've taugh some of Hollywood's most famous A-listers.