Whether you're blocked or overwhelmed ACES manages the actors' needs and facilitates a connection that is aligned with the emotional life of the character.
“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system” (Van Der Kolk 2014:53). The ramifications on the survivor and their body can be a multitude of physical symptoms stemming from attempts to supress the resulting inner turmoil. Autoimmune diseases are one example of how the body reacts physiologically to a traumatic event (Van Der Kolk 2014). Autoimmunity has grown to epidemic proportions in the USA with 24 million people being affected[i]. Past traumas can also be linked to one in five Americans having experienced a mental illness in any given year.[ii]
The reason I’m bringing up trauma statistics is to demonstrate that a great majority of us on this planet have adapted psychological defences to preserve and protect ourselves from further harm due to trauma. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost. “Trauma is [that] scarring that makes you less flexible, more rigid, less feeling and more defended.” (Maté 2021). This is a challenging place to be for an actor. On one hand they want to express themselves to the world through the honest authentic portrayal of their characters. On the other hand, they may be stuck emotionally and therefore revert to ‘tricks’ or ‘cheats’ to represent the emotion. As a young actor I was always challenged to embody painful emotions. I worked hard at the multitude of acting techniques - sense memory, emotional memory, substitution, the magic ‘if’, script analysis, conditioning factors, anything that would get me into the headspace of the characters emotional life. Though I always managed to embody the general energy/persona of the character I was still faced with the challenge of embodying the painful emotional life. No doubt this was due to me having numbed out most of my emotions by the time I was fifteen. In retrospect, I realise that studying acting was my first attempt at ‘thawing’ out my emotions. I wanted to feel something rather than being apathetic and distant which was my defence to the ongoing violence, addiction, and serious mental health issues that existed in my family home. "The fundamental thing that happened and the greatest calamity, is not that there was no love or support in childhood. The greatest calamity, which is caused by that first calamity, is that you lost the connection to your essence” (Almaas 1999). Aye, that I did indeed.
Enter our Personal Defenses
Defences serve us extremely well and have helped us survive when we became overwhelmed and could not regulate our emotions during a traumatic event. It then becomes automatic to defend ourselves when there is a threat. In fact, it becomes part of our unconscious make-up. We walk around defended unaware that we are doing it. Unconsciously, the actor can bring their defences to the character. This is not a bad thing. They just need to be aware that they don’t need to defend as intensely today as they did while their own past trauma was occurring. A lack of awareness may result in the actor becoming stuck in their defence. This can be identified as an emotional ‘block’ by the actor. This ‘block’ or defence is triggered by something that happens in the present, i.e., a set of circumstances that a character is experiencing in a play, that is related to a past trauma that tells the actors’ brain to defend their vulnerability at all costs. However, for the character they’re portraying, they need to access that vulnerability. For the actor, it’s a way of protecting themselves from their own painful emotions. This is referred to in drama therapy as over distancing (Landy 1986), yet these emotions need to be accessible by their character.
At the other end of the spectrum is the potential hazard of the actor having easy access to their vulnerability and not knowing how to regulate themselves. The consequence of this could be overwhelming emotion with no ‘off’ switch. Landy (1986) refers to this as under distancing. Also referred to as flooding by James and Johnson (1996). Though the reactions are different, the initial response to being either over or under distanced is the same - the actor shuts down and defends against their vulnerability. In support of the actor, painful feelings need to be protected especially if they are feeling unsafe and unable to self-regulate. The fear of ‘going off the deep end’ or ‘losing themselves’ in the role can become a reality. What could end up happening as a result is the actor accommodates their defence and figures out a way to play the role avoiding the painful truths of their character. What Benedetti (1970) was referring to regarding forcing the character to fit the actor. The danger in that is the actor can believe that their defence is the emotion. I’m not saying the actor shouldn’t use these defences as choices in their work on character. I am saying that they need to be aware that they are defences and play them as such. Before they can do that, they must first experience the vulnerable feelings the defence is protecting. Then we get into a whole new sphere of layered performance that can be brilliant to watch as it unfolds. There is a beautiful example of this in a scene from Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman’s character is in session with her therapist. She first denies the abuse she is enduring from her husband. She protects him, a smile here and there, defending against the therapist’s comments until she can no longer ignore the painful truth. As an actor she was able to access both sides of the character – the defence and the pain under it. Another example I have pulled from Szlawieniec-Haw’s (2020:34) research that shows the result of playing a defence without the underlying vulnerabilities being acknowledged. An actor felt unsafe in performance due to another actor’s inability to follow the director’s note to “tone down the level of anger and aggression”. Although not noted in her study, I would call this a defence that the actor was bringing from their own life and completely unaware that he was not grounded in the characters emotional life but his own unresolved pain that he needed to protect himself from.
Defense Vs Emotion
What exactly is a defense and how does one identify it when it’s happening? It comes down to whether or not the actor feels blocked, that lack of flow or feeling disconnected from the character. The more they play at what they believe is the “emotion” the longer they stay in their defence and remain disconnected. In developing ACES, I found that the scripted material actors brought were either directly or indirectly related to traumas in their past. What’s even more interesting is they all identified the same issue - not being able to connect emotionally to their characters.
In reference to Landy’s distancing concept, the sweet spot for the actor is in the “midpoint between states of emotional immersion and cognitive distance” (James and Johnson, 1996:312). It involves a range between thought and feeling. In the Therapeutic Spiral Model (TSM) this is achieved through containing roles: containing double, body double, and manager of defences. The objective being to “titrate the emotions into measurable dosages that do not overwhelm” and “help the protagonist to stay aware and make meaning in the here-and-now of long dissociated emotions” (Hudgins Toscani, 2013:85). This is achieved by establishing safety through containing affect, verbalizing confusion, and giving clarity to the interpersonal world of the protagonist. ACES borrows from this method in applying the principal of defence management. By having the actor, in the guise of their character, give voice to their defence, we can begin to understand its purpose and manage its function. Once safety and containment are provided, the defence will trustingly step aside to allow the actor’s/character’s vulnerabilities to be accessed. As in TSM, the role of the defence moves into the actors’ awareness and can be used in a conscious, productive way in their acting choices rather than the defence being an unconscious, automatic response by the actor.
[i] National Institutes of Health
[ii] National Alliance on Mental Illness