Inspiration and Emotion

Konstantin Stanislavsky has built a body of work on a central creative dilemma: How do I find the inspiration to create? Any creative practitioner clearly knows this is their central struggle. Whether it be a musician or writer, painter or sculptor, or interpretive artists in our craft such as directors and actors. To give birth to art, the artist must be inspired. As art has increasingly become big business and the invention of the moving image has turned a crude live medium of entertainment into a multibillion pound industry, it’s understandable that different theories and approaches, formulas and bodies of teaching have evolved all claiming to deliver success.

The use of emotion and heightened expressiveness is increasingly becoming a currency to purchase success. Applied in such a manner, it obscures the greater creative potential. Very much like too much salt or sugar, it can overwhelm or unbalance the experience of the moment. A clear example happened in my class this week with a young actor who’s now been studying with me for two years. I first met her when casting one of the end scenes in SELF-MADE. She caught our eye as she radiated a genuine and authentic sensibility that was right for the role. She was in fact initially auditioning for a more subsidiary improvisation in the workshop part of the film. But it was her vulnerability and emotional translucence that made us asks her to read and cast her in the specific role of Eve in a stylised end scene of Adam & Eve.

Subsequently she came and studied with me and initially she was the same extremely expressive young actor who could quite easily obtain heightened emotional states; however this left her in a fairly habitual position that in fact robbed her of evolving a relationship with the material. The techniques and tools in fact only became a catharsis for her own personal history. Diligently, session by session, these habits were considered and she slowly freed herself up from the floodgates of her feeling to a place where she could use experience to deepen the relationship with the material she was working on.

This session she picked up Catherine in Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge”, a role she could well be cast in a professional production. However what has truly evolved for her is the tools and techniques that she applies – no longer to simply unlock emotion – but in fact to deepen and solidify a perspective of what matters to the character. It is this sense of the character’s desires and needs that truly is inspirational. Previously she could have injected waves of emotion that may well have impressed others, but she would have been none the wiser about the integrity, passions and precocious sensibilities of Catherine in “A View from the Bridge”. She would have approximated the character, but not truly revealed her. This time she felt as much as she had felt before but channeled it within the construction and givens of the play and thus she truly began to see Catherine’s world and quite beautifully revealed it to us in her scene work.

Alongside the tools of Strasberg, she had engaged some specific movement exercises to unlock the habitual use of our own body in a desire to find Catherine’s. Clearly, she understood that emotions are universal, but the character’s body and logic are far more personal. When used correctly, any sense memory unlocks a heightened sense of need and the ability to investigate a theme rather than wallowing in emotion.

This May session of class, we are already seeing a selection of scene work that reflects this dilemma between creativity and the desire for result. As I talked about in my previous blog, many young actors are hungry to know what to do at a crucial moment of creative potential in their work. They are in fact desperate for a digestible answer that leads them to successful results. Here begins the problem as there is a huge difference between inspiration and making an impression. Even the statement “the creative state of being” is open to interpretation. For some, clearly it means creating results that colour the work of the writing, which brings form to the fiction and which moves the story on, whereas others are more concerned about a more evolved process of discovery and character revelation.

When we choose to turn what we love into a career, a strange thing happens. We no longer surrender and engage as an audience, but we start to observe what’s happening and try and work out how we would do it ourselves. This is true in sport or in fact anything. This alteration and increasing obsession to get things right takes away our initial love and playfulness. Consequently, the actors process can increasingly become the means to succeed rather than the opportunity to be creative.

The most seductive notion of success for the actor is emotion. Good dramas by their definition have dramatic moments, and in such moments, characters manifest the conflicted turmoil and emotional stress of their given circumstances. Therefore the actor in training believes that the production of a heightened emotion is the foundation of successful performance. I see this a lot in my class where new students are eager to run with powerful emotional tools or the more experienced actors in the class are seduced by their skilled emotional engagement – rather than discovering the perspective of the character’s needs and intentions. Much of modern drama is likewise seduced into the intensity of an emotional moment. To execute such drama requires skill and a craft, so the tools and techniques I teach can readily be used for such an agenda. But injecting emotion quite deliberately, to swim around in feeling or even whip yourself into an indulgent state, was never the purpose of this body of teaching.

The inspiration is in fact not emotional; it is a deepening sense of the characters perspective. It is about finding the character and what matters to them, discovering the means they utilise and the logic they engage to fulfill their needs and desires. It is about finding the means within you to place yourself in their shoes. Any good school of teaching that I have come across clearly desires that the actor transcends their own ego and personal needs and finds a bridge from them to the single creative entity that speaks of an individuals path of endurance or failure, or represents a more symbolised & collective construct of human drama. This is the true inspiration where the actor evolves a greater relationship with the world of the character and material. How they even alter the use of themselves into more heightened, theatrical, artistic, or realistic style of work. In all of this there is a simple truism the actor needs to consider as they learn or do their work – are you using your tools to show us something, somebody else, or just simply showing off?

It is in fact quite easy to know the difference between showing and showing off. In a dramatic scene, if the actor is showing off they become determined, pleased, even aroused at the intensity of emotions the craft is capable of making them produce. But if the tools are correctly applied, the painful reality of the characters perspective comes much more to the fore. Emotion is the by-product, a sign post, of what matters and unless the actor is particularly perverse, the use of their emotions would be painful – not pleasurable – when the actor is truly working from the unconscious to the material. The inspiration for the actor is not the emotional responses, but in fact a clearer perspective of the character’s integrity in such difficult circumstances, which is in fact what inspires an audience.

Whether stories are fact or fiction, it is not the emotion of the person – it is their endeavour, integrity, flaws, pride or even their stupidity that brings us, the audience, to laughter or tears. Many young actors ask me, as they ask any person whom they believe has the answer, what should they do on set; how they prepare their performance; how do they even give a good audition? In very simple terms, the answer is this: find the means to make it about them and not you. Your potential career is not a drama, it’s just the means and opportunity to contribute and be creative to a bigger drama – the characters.

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