Posted: 21 Dec 2012 07:59 AM PST
How to Keep a Character from Bleeding Into Your LifeBy Katherine Schreiber
Having a flexible (read: not rigid) sense of self is key to emotional well-being. Yet even the most psychologically sturdy actors can find themselves overtaken by a role if their character’s situation hits too close to home.
The key to effective acting, argues Artistic Director and Founder of T. Schreiber Studio Terry Schreiber, is finding an optimal psychological distance between yourself and the character you’re playing. Too much distance results in an emotionally disconnected and noticeably inauthentic performance. To little distance risks exacerbating psychological wounds actors may have lurking beneath their façade.
“You can’t work from things in yourself that you’re not emotionally resolved about,” Schreiber emphasizes. “That becomes acting out of neurosis. If you’re working from neurosis, you have no objectivity.”
How can you tell if you’re losing yourself in a role? If the character’s behaviors and thoughts creep into your off-stage life — say, while you’re out to dinner with friends, snuggling up to a significant other, or just spending some much needed alone time.
“If any part of the character consistently haunts you after a performance, a rehearsal, or a shoot,” Schreiber says, “that’s a sign this character’s behavior or situation may be tricking off something in you that you’re not psychologically resolved about.”
Being haunted by a character could simply mean you can’t get his emotions, thoughts, and behaviors of your mind. Or it could mean you literally begin acting like the character when you’re supposed to have left him or her in the dressing room — say, obsessively dimming the lights, lying about your past, inveighing against your sister’s ape-like boyfriend, and depending on the kindness of strangers. (Or having a legitimate nervous breakdown.)
If a character is bleeding into your life (or your unhealed psychological wounds are eroding the psychological distance required to sustain a role), Schreiber recommends immediately alerting the director or teacher you’re working with so that s/he can help guide you towards achieving a more sustainable relation to the character’s truth.
And if a character’s scenario really stirs up your own personal trauma — drama therapist Robert Landy recalls situations where a bit too much acting has elicited war veteran’s or rape victims’ PTSD symptoms (sweating, shaking, sudden emotional shut downs, excessive anxiety) — your best bet is to seek support in the form of a qualified therapist.(See our blog on drama therapy or check out the National Association for Drama Therapy’s network to find someone specifically trained to address these blurred self/character lines.)
To ensure optimal psychological distance from a role, Schreiber and Landy agree, all actors must find some form of differentiating the “me” from the “not-me.”
Find a moment before, during, or after each performance where you can experience a catharsis, Schreiber advocates — a letting go of the character in the interest of returning to your off-stage self. (Curtain calls often make for the most popular moments to demarcate where your character ends and where you begin gain. Runners up include removing the character’s makeup and hanging up the character’s costume.)
Listening to the same song after a performance, engaging in a particular physical activity, or plugging back into your social world can also do the trick. But if you do find yourself unable to transition back to who you were before you embodied a role don’t hesitate to ask for assistance in relocating your off-set self. And be mindful of what psychological baggage you may need to address with a therapist in order to sustain the supple yet strong emotional boundaries an acting career requires.