ACES engages the actors' personal strengths grounding them in the present before they begin exploring the emotional distress of a character.
ACES cornerstone of Resilience resources the actor, safeguards them and builds capacity for increased vulnerability by reminding them of their strengths and/or developing new ones. It puts them in a positive place where they can feel their own agency, be less anxious and more present. It’s their foundation on which they can explore their characters and from which they can return. A home base if you will. In ACES I call it the actor’s centre.
In the Therapeutic Spiral Model (TSM) this is a process referred to as a “state of spontaneous self-organization”. Prior to any work with trauma a series of “Prescriptive Roles” or “Restorative Roles” are created and embodied in support of facing the horrors of past trauma. The roles are designed to reclaim lost spontaneity, build creativity, and ultimately gain resilience (Hudgins 2019). For the most part this is accomplished through the embodying of internal or intrapsychic, interpersonal, and transpersonal strengths. In ACES, an actor knowing, stating, and embodying the strengths they bring to their work is a stark reminder of their resiliency. It’s this resiliency that gives them security and a safe space from which they can venture out and explore familiar and unfamiliar emotional terrain. In attachment theory (Bowlby 1982) this is considered a secure attachment. A child needs a secure base from which they can explore the world knowing they always have a safe haven to return to. In the case of ACES, it’s a secure attachment to one’s self rather than a caregiver.
The Actors Centre – Creating the Home Base
Much like the trauma survivor who embarks on their healing journey in TSM, the actor embarks on their characters journey uncovering past and present traumas that awakens an emotional life. As a result, Szlawieniec-Haw (2020) found that actors who portray emotional suffering, distress and violence in their work are prone to character ‘lingerings’ after a performance or several performances as is the case with theatre production. Her study found that one way actors ground themselves to their everyday life is to reach out to a family member or close friend. Long established relationships helped these actors drop “back into themselves and their everyday lives. For example, when one participant experienced intense lingering, a telephone call to their father instantly grounded them in a familiar parent/child relationship and, through that, re-established a sense of self” (Szlawieniec-Haw 2020:101). In TSM this is considered an interpersonal strength, i.e., a strength that one obtains through a dependable relationship (past, present, real, or fictionalized) in volatile times (Hudgins, Toscani 2013).
In working with ACES, I ask actors to embody a strength that they either get from someone else or that they give to others. Either way they are connecting with a relationship that gives them strength. As Szlawieniec-Haw discovered and, has been proven clinically with TSM, the purpose of this strength is to ground the actor to someone trusting in their lives. In so doing it also grounds them to their own identity - prior to stepping into the world of their character.
In addition to interpersonal strengths, I also ask the actor to bring a personal strength to the session. This strength comes from within and is something that the actor relies on to get them through difficult situations. In this instance I will compare the struggling actor to the Hudgins & Toscani (2013) description of survivors of trauma. Both can feel isolated in their respective worlds and need to rely on their own skills for survival. In this context, both have within them inner strengths whether they know it or not. This internal strength is self-generating and needs no one else to prompt it or inspire it. It lives with them and is readily accessible and can be summoned whenever they need it. It can be courage, honesty, empathy, self-compassion, humour, analytical, assertiveness, playfulness, anything that supports their survival.
TSM defines transpersonal strengths as “anything bigger than oneself and are clearly different from religion” (Hudgins & Toscani 2013:84) although Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and other religious figures have been used and concretised. Music, Nature, and Poetry can also be used. Anything that is larger than oneself and can be relied on to hold super-human, universal power. The need to go beyond personal and interpersonal strengths in TSM is encouraged because it is this level of power that the survivor will need behind them to confront their trauma (Hudgins & Toscani 2013). The same can be said for an actor embarking on a trauma-based character exploration. Szlawieniec-Haw’s study (2020:54) showed that some actors found it “calming or soothing” to be with their higher power, religious or spiritual beliefs, “Such relationships could provide a great comfort”. Based on my own work with actors this can also include fictional characters, past iconic figures, even make-believe characters that the actor has created themselves!
The challenge with Szlawieniec-Haw’s study was a number of actors found it hard to maintain a transpersonal connection when representing emotional distress and human suffering. “They found it more - if not impossible - to connect to their higher power or spirituality”. This left some actors “feeling lost and alone” (Szlawieniec-Haw 2020:53). However, those who could maintain their connection to their transpersonal beliefs reported feeling more resilience and peaceful. For this reason, I introduce a transpersonal strength to concretise the actor’s existential truth. It’s the core of their being and, if needed, could be an in point to reconnect them to their other strengths. Szlawieniec-Haw also noted that a relaxing hobby or activity can also connect actors to themselves. This could involve being in nature, watching mindless programs on TV, video games, exercise, etc. Although the latter few are not considered transpersonal, they are activities that can be acted out to bring the actor back to their world where they can continue to ground themselves in their strengths.
Knowing there is an established ‘home base’ of personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal strengths grounds the actor and gives them the safety and containment to move confidently away from their own selves and into a character’s emotional distress and suffering. This speaks to Bowlby’s healthy attachment theory as well as Hudgins’ and Toscani’s (2013) clinical TSM map with Restoration or Prescriptive Roles. The ACES cornerstone of resilience also gives the actor a head start on boundary creation (another cornerstone of ACES) between themselves and the character.
[i] Dolesse is defined by the author Szlawieniec-Haw as the Latin word for pain, suffering, sorrow, and grief (dolor) and essence (esse).