ACES encourages the actor to reflect on their own lives and reasons for playing the role as part of the process of character development. It's not therapy but it is therapeutic.
The term meaning making is often referred to in the Therapeutic Spiral Model (TSM) when post traumatic growth roles are introduced. This is part of the healing process that requires one to reflect on what they have been through and where they have ‘come out’. How will they make meaning of it? The same goes for the actor who is creating a character. At every step, and every corner there’s opportunity to reflect on similarities, differences and who they are as artists and people. When coming out the other end of a character how do they make meaning for themselves?
I start all my sessions with the very important ACES principal of self-reflection. I ask the actor to talk about why they feel they were hired or why they chose to accept the role. If they are working on an audition monologue, then why did they choose it? What does it represent in their lives? What issues may be lying dormant or are very much alive and at the forefront of the actor’s conscience that need to be explored, reflected on, or revisited? I don’t ask these questions to nose around in their personal lives or to try to solve their issues. I ask them because I want to create a space for the awareness of their own personal material. They cannot ignore the mental, emotional, and physical impact that portraying characters of emotional distress and suffering has on them. What personal material it may trigger – resolved or unresolved? Either way, self-reflection needs to be part of the actor’s process. Hannah, et al. (1994;278) theorizes, “the actor does not create a role in a vacuum but brings his or her own personal history—emotions, memories and drives into the role”. We cannot not be ourselves (Reekie 2009).
In my experience as a director and acting instructor I have found that actors, whether conscious or not, are reflecting on who they are through the characters they play. This may be my own personal bias given my history and reasons for wanting to act when I was younger. However, I realized that it’s in the safety and guise of the ‘character’ that the actors I’ve worked with in the ACES process can express their unprocessed feelings about past traumas whether it be relationships gone wrong, the loss of a loved one, abuse, rape or a plethora of other events that were too overwhelming to process at the time it happened. Through their acting they are looking to express themselves, be heard, acknowledged and to heal. A perfect example of this is Canadian actress Kate Drummond. During a podcast discussion (Powell, Key 2021) she revealed her award-nominated[i] performance in Nowhere to Be Found was a catharsis for her recent personal losses. While in service of the character she also gave herself permission to grieve. With a regimented daily self-care routine that included regular calls to her therapist, she was able to maintain her boundaries and resiliency from her characters emotional suffering throughout the shoot.
With each actor I have worked with there have been self-revelatory moments that have increased their understanding of their character as well as themselves. Consequently, they become more connected, more grounded, more authentic in their character portrayals. I am not a therapist, and I don’t assist in healing trauma. I help actors actualize trauma-based characters by expanding their own self-awareness. The vehicle for doing this is the actor’s artistic development. Without question their personal development is wrapped up inside that. If there is personal work to be done outside the work of character creation, I set the boundary and always sign post the actor. My responsibility as I see it, and why, on top of my directing career, I trained for years in psychotherapy and experiential techniques is to support the actor’s well being before, during and after they dive deep into the characters they are embodying. This involves providing a safe and contained space and the ability and willingness to help connect dots while they embody their characters. It’s very personal and creative work but necessary for the serious, health-conscious actor who wants to grow with every role they perform, become emotionally stronger, more self-aware, and resilient in their craft.
[i] In 2020, Kate Drummond was nominated for Best lead performance in a TV movie, for Nowhere to be Found by the Canadian Screen Awards. The same film was nominated for Best Movie, Best Writing and Best Photography.