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Feb 05 2012

Taking Off the Act

Today is a travel day. In lieu of fresh writing, have a repost that almost none of you read the first time. The original of this post is here.

Thursday morning, my iPod was speaking to me. In a half hour walk to work, three songs all talking about the same subject–acting.

Is there anybody in there in this self-inflicted tomb?
If you peel away the layers, is there someone in this room?

Of course, they were all talking about it because I was already thinking about it. From an email I sent earlier in the week:

I’ve never met an actor who wasn’t in character backstage as well as on. They’re just different characters. That’s what makes acting as a profession so simultaneously appealing and appalling.

Successful acting requires that you be someone else for a while. It isn’t enough to speak the lines and to make the gestures called for in the script. We’ve all seen the sort of dreadful productions that result. You don’t have to dive into the excesses of some of the method actors, but you must at least put on the mannerisms–physical and vocal–and the body language of the part.

There’s no way to do this without being affected by it. It calls for an understanding of a fictional character that few people take the time to find. The mannerisms and body language change your emotional state every time they’re rehearsed or performed. Try practicing smiling in front of a mirror until you can put a sincere-looking grin on your face on demand. Then do it again where you can’t see your reflection smiling back at you. You’ll still feel happier for doing it.

Of course, most acting isn’t about being happy.

As an actor, if you’re any good, you end up living little pieces of the lives of all of your characters. You rehearse them in a way you don’t practice being yourself. You explore them and spend time with them in a way that the world tells you is a selfish thing to do on your own. If you act, you have to enjoy being someone else. You don’t have to enjoy being yourself.

I’m a good actor.

No, my love, we can’t be friends
In fact I liked you much better
When you’d just pretend.

The days of declamation and broad emoting are gone from most stages, and the places where they still find homes are mostly in comedy. Even so, characters in modern theater and film are just a little bigger, a little simpler than any real person. Simple is seductive. People like simple.

If you act, it’s all too easy to find the right simple character for any situation. Few and far between are the people who have the time and inclination to get to know you in all your complex, contradictory glory. It’s much easier to figure out what your audience wants and to give them only that. More rewarding too. Fewer fights. More praise.

There are a few problems with this, of course. One is that everyone wants something different of you. An audience of one is very manageable. More than that, and which audience do you serve? Whom do you please, and whom do you disappoint?

Beyond that, few and far between doesn’t mean nonexistent. While you’re performing for the people who want you to be predictable and easily categorized, what happens to the others? They aren’t the sort to appreciate a shallow facade, you know. Can you act a more complex character for them? Can you drop the act entirely, and what’s there when you do?

I’ll dance for you, pose for you
Take off all my clothes for you
Speak your words, sing your song
I’m up for auction, going, gone!

When you’ve gotten used to generating your behavior from the outside, it’s very difficult to relearn how to let it come from inside again. All of the voices in your head are yours, but none of them is you. Almost everything you do has become associated with a character, a person who isn’t you. What’s left for you to build you from?

I don’t know whether it can be done while you’re still acting. I can’t imagine giving up that immediate approving feedback of individual performance while still indulging in the mass approval that is theater, but maybe someone else could do it. My process required misanthropy, solitude and a certain ruthlessness, for which, ironically, acting had prepared me beautifully.

The first step was deciding who was worthy of being my audience and ignoring (hard to do at first) or avoiding (much easier) everyone else. Whom did it please me to please? That doesn’t sound like much progress, but it was, because what it really meant was who pleased me?

It’s a question that took years to answer, and the answer changed drastically over time. This is where the ruthlessness came in. I’ve abandoned or let lapse more friendships than I really care to think about. There are only two things that reconcile me to that. One is that it was necessary. I couldn’t find another way to do what I needed to do. The other is that it was successful. These days, I mostly add friends.

I don’t avoid people much anymore either. Ironically, I’m still acting around the mass of humanity. They’re still never going to appreciate complexity and contradiction, and I’m still giving them what they want. Only now I’m doing it because it’s easier for them. And I certainly don’t do it all the time.

Now I’m willing to stop to think about what it is that I want, how I think, how I feel. Now I’m willing to risk disagreement and disapproval, even (or especially) from the people I give a damn about. I’m willing to be that geek who will stop in the middle of a sentence to try to reconcile the three tangential thoughts that just occurred to me. I’m willing to be awkward and persuasive and flirtatious and serious and sympathetic and argumentative, because all of those are who I am.

No act. Just me. And that feels pretty good.

If you peel away the armor is something underneath
If you look below for hidden treasure underneath another layer
Are you hiding underneath the skin

4 comments

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  1. 1
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I wish I could act. It would probably help a bit.

    Thanks for the insight.

  2. 2
    inflection

    Thanks for your detailed explication of this question. I’m no actor, but like everyone I had different personas for different situations and began to wonder which one was “real.” Even when alone we’re often thinking about how what we’ll do would appear to others. Being sufficiently self-aware means to some degree that you’re always acting a role that you can observe from outside; being skeptical always means that there’s a certain contingency to your statements, even if it’s glossed over at times.

    I finally came at what I think you might consider almost the opposite solution; I decided that they were all real. Just because I’m constructing a personality doesn’t make it fake. Executive function is about deciding what I want to say and do and, very importantly, what I don’t want to say and do. So what if this changes when different people are in the room? It also changes when the weather does. I took ownership: I mean what I say and do, and none of my projected styles of personal interaction are lies.

  3. 3
    octopod

    “We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people.”

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    inflection:

    That’s interesting. I certainly have different personality sets – I wouldn’t really call them personae – but which are active only depends partially on my environment. Mostly they will reflect my internal state, hopefully including a semi-appropriate filter. On top of which I may or may not include some mild morphing which riffs off some of the people with whom I’m interacting.

    Sometimes, I have entirely the wrong combo going on. Most often, it’s just heavy, raw, conscious filtering of everything, not just personality. Except occasions like right now, where you get the full dump. (Of course, this is text-only, which is its own filter.)

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