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Actors in the Hot Seat

I have moved in the circles of the acting community for almost 40 years. Once an actor myself and now a director, I can relate to the journey of perfecting the actors craft. All this talk about being ‘in the moment’, ‘discovering the truth’ , ‘being spontaneous’ is hard to implement when you’ve been learning lines and/or rehearsing over and over and over again. Well, not that I have the answer to creating powerful performances (maybe I do, I dunno) but what I can offer is inspiration through a concept that will hopefully renew your vigour for the craft -- assuming your vigour has been de-vigoured.

Among other independent media projects I’ve been a dramatization director for educational content since 2005. In the fourteen years that have past I’ve had the pleasure of directing hundreds of actors. Some multiple award-winning, others new to the business, and others not even in the business! Like an actor, my quest is always to get to the truth of the scene. Find the emotional core and play it as subtext. That’s when the scene really comes alive and there is meaning in every action the actor takes, the lines he speaks, the thoughts he thinks. It’s in this ‘state of grace’ that the actor need only show up and be present. Such a lovely state it is but achieving it can take many years!

Twelve years ago I became a part-time private coach and acting instructor. About a year ago I started working with the well known hot seating method. It’s been around for some time and is a great tool for improvisational exploration of character. It’s a process in which its success depends on many factors. Firstly, the actor’s level of emotional preparedness. Secondly, a willingness to draw on ones personal experience. Thirdly, the commitment to research. Most importantly is the level of trust the actor has with instructor conducting the hot seating. If the actor doesn’t feel contained or held in a psychological and emotional context the chances of going deep and creating a multidimensional character will be greatly reduced. I believe that an actors performance is only as good as the direction they receive and if they receive poor direction it quickly diminishes the relationship eroding the trust the actor has in the director, coach or instructor. I’m not knocking hot seating, in fact, I’m a huge fan. It’s how it’s used that I want to expand on here.

It’s important to note at this point that I have been studying psychotherapy since 2016 and have integrated many, if not all, the therapeutic modalities I’ve learned into my private coaching and public workshops as well as my directing. I’ve always been an actor’s director but even more so now. So I will use the analogy of the therapist to discuss hot seating.

My strong desire to live vicariously through an actor as they journey and explore their characters is equivalent to a therapist being present for his client. Knowing what questions to ask, when to listen, and giving them the time to arrive at their own conclusions and their meanings. Similarly, the hot seating method has the actor building their backstory to create an internal life that makes sense to the current external circumstances of the character. All this is done ‘in the moment’ and spontaneously. That is, without having a good think. It must come instantaneously without blocking thoughts or feelings and without judgement. I have found that in my therapy training judgement is a huge barrier to accepting who we are. Actors must accept who their characters are. They can’t sugar coat it because it suits them. They must get blood on their hands. They must get deep into the trenches and experience the pain of loss, rejection, humiliation, isolation -- all the feelings that make great characters tell great stories. Hot seating assists in helping the actor connect to the characters’ internal world and emotional life. I call my approach to hot seating Character Actualization™. It’s based on the father of humanistic therapy, Carl Rogers’ theory of self actualization. If you allow for the right circumstances of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard then the client will find the answers that are right for them. Same is true for actors --each Character Actualization™ session is different from the next. They are as unique as the actors themselves. As such the character that emerges is through a process of osmosis. The actor closes the gap between their idea of the character and being the character by experiencing themselves and the character as one entity. There is no ‘other’.

At first this experience may feel foreign or strange, possibly unreal or even uncomfortable. Preference for the old way of working will present as a strong alternative because the new way of connecting and experiencing the character is too close for comfort - too truthful, too exposing. This may be followed by justifications such as; “I can produce tears without having to feel so vulnerable” , “There’s nothing wrong in what I do now. People think it’s believable.” My only response to these excuses, and they are excuses, is that an actors preconceived idea of the character is an artificial insight. It’s a judgement based on fear of exploring the self and finding the real truth that can connect them to their character. It pulls the actor outside of themselves thus disconnecting them from their own emotional life in the process. What they end up portraying is not an authentic person but a desensitized representation of a person. They’re acting in a vacuum and cannot reach or connect to other actors or the audience let alone themselves.

When JL Moreno, founder of Psychodrama, talked about spontaneity he defined it as “finding a new response to an old situation or finding an adequate response to a new situation” It’s not doing whatever pleases you whenever you feel like it. There is great responsibility that comes with being spontaneous. An actor needs to step up to this responsibility ‘plate’ and ‘hit the ball’ that’s being thrown at them during a performance. This form of spontaneity is called ‘being in the moment’ and any actor that has achieved this level of craft knows it’s worth striving and fighting for. It’s bliss. It’s beautiful. It’s the end all and be all of the art form. I suggest if you’re having trouble ‘getting into character’ you might want to explore Character Actualization™. It’s cheaper than therapy and you have the guise of the character to hide behind.

Happy acting!

About the author:

Alan Powell has been the Media Project Director at Facilitator Films since 2005 where he directs documentaries and dramatisations for educational purposes. He is also a student of psychodynamic psychodrama studies at the London Centre for Psychodrama in the United Kingdom. He holds a certificate in humanistic Integrative counselling and a diploma in psychodynamic integrative counselling skills. His short narrative films have been screened worldwide to critical praise garnering multiple awards. He lives in the UK and frequently visits Canada.