ACES assists the actor in keeping the character distinctly separate from their own lives. While at the same time, safely and ethically, explores alignments with the actor.
Stanislavski talks about the many inspirations an actor draws from to create “an external characterization out of himself” (Stanislavski 1949:8). From the power of observation and different art forms to the actors’ own experiences of life to imagination itself. The only stipulation Stanislavski makes is that the actor “must not lose his inner self” (Stanislavski 1949:8) in the process of their research. Interestingly enough Stanislavski’s emotional memory[i], and later Strasberg, who believed that the Method[ii] was about “bringing the actors lived experience to imaginary circumstances” (McFerrin 2003), unintentionally and possibly unknowingly were blurring the boundary between actor and character. In reference to Stanislavski’s system Jean Benedetti (2013) suggests this blurring is a creative state. Though I understand the need for blurring to actualise a character, my focus is on unblurring the boundary between actor and character after a day’s work. I am speaking specifically about actors who are portraying human suffering and emotional distress. Szlawieniec-Haw’s (2020) study found that out of twenty professional actors interviewed all of them experienced either long-term or short-term lingerings from portraying such characters. These lingerings were categorized as either physical, mental, or emotional or all three and ranged from intense to subtle and everything in between. There have been many more studies conducted that have concluded that boundaries can and have been blurred between the actor and the roles they take on. The result is collateral damage to the actor’s psyche and their personal relationships. In Australia acute pressures associated with demanding roles are driving actors to use a wide variety of prescribed, over the counter, herbal and illicit substances in an attempt to separate from their characters or ‘cool off’ after a performance (Maxwell, Seton, Szabó 2015).
One of the pathways to maintaining the actor’s well-being is to keep their personal histories separate from the character they are creating. Before the actor can ‘be’ in character and in order for the actor to step out of character cleanly and decisively the actor must have a starting point of where they end, and the character begins. As pointed out in McFerrin’s (2003) research, another example of why boundaries are important can be found in the acting teacher, Robert Benedetti’s explanation of Stanislavski’s ‘Magic if’ referring to it as the difference between self-expression and self-expansion in acting. “There is a potential danger in personalizing (i.e., Self-expression) the role. If you do not truly reach out into the character’s experience but instead merely force the character to fit you, you may end up distorting the character and damaging the play” (Benedetti 1970:89). Although actors should be mindful of not ‘forcing’ the character to suit themselves, there are actors I have worked with who unknowingly blur boundaries and bring their own lived experience to fit their characters regardless.
In unpacking Markus and Nurius’ (1986) definition of “possible selves”, Gregory Hippolyte Brown (2019:8) shares his perspective in his phenomenological study on actors, “the exploration of a role, as it might relate to an investigation of elements within the actor’s own personality, as well as research about somebody else (a created character) and a fantasy connection to that character” thus creating the desire to be ‘in their shoes’. He further suggests that the creation of a role is influenced not only by the research and approach to the role but also by the actors own “social world, culture, past experiences, idealized or damaged self-perceptions, and, often, experiences of trauma”. In my work with actors, I found that their characters’ circumstances either directly or indirectly represented their own past traumas. For this reason alone, it is important to create explicit boundaries between actor and character.
Creating an Ending in the Beginning
Knowing where the actor ends and the character begins is ongoing in the ACES process and starts in pre-production or before the first rehearsal, continues through the length of the production and winds down weeks after the last performance. It involves in depth discussions between me and the actor and though its personal it’s also conducive to creating healthy boundaries. It develops the ever-powerful perspective of objectivity. Although it’s impossible to have a neat, separate divide between the world of character portrayal and the reality of everyday life, the safe and sacred space of the stage or set also allows actors to “ground material there” thus creating a separation in their own minds from their characters and providing some degree of protection from intense emotions experienced through representing emotional distress and human suffering (Szlawieniec-Haw 2020). It gives them permission to ‘leave it on the stage’ and have their own lives outside of their character’s suffering.
At the end of the day, the actor must remember a character is a collection of emotions and thoughts in response to a fictional conflict that they have been asked to imagine and to create a visceral experience for others. The character is an illusion of a real person and is the vehicle for this experience. They exist to tell a story and for no other reason. They’re like a hologram – projected in time and space but not really existing in any time or space except in that of our imaginations. It’s like entering a twilight zone. On the other hand, the actor is a real person and exists in the world, outside the story of the character, with their own personal challenges, conflicts, and history. ACES enforces those boundaries and honours the separation that actors need to preserve their well-being in the world in which they exist.
[i] Stanislavski’s technique of the actor recalling events in their life to trigger specific emotions for use in the character’s they’re portraying.
[ii] The Method requires the actor to draw from their own personal experiences and use that and the emotion that arises for the character being portrayed.