We all know how to act; we do it every day, with different intentions. Sometimes we are being playful. Sometimes we are displaying bravado. Sometimes we are simply lying. We are not always aware that we are acting. But professional performers - players who are paid to enact fictional stories for an audience - have special techniques, rights, and responsibilities unlike those of everyday life. Their task is to lead us spectators through vicarious adventures that we could not otherwise have, even in our own imaginations. When an actor is paid to guide us, in some diffuse sense she is accountable for our experience. But, in a more immediate sense, she is paid by a production company and therefore has enforceable contractual obligations to the producer, the director, and the playwright.
What, then, are these responsibilities? There are clear understandings about the authority relations within the production team. Apart from the rare cases such as Street Time, an actor must say whatever lines appear in her script. Any changes must be approved by a producer or, in films, the director. (In television, the producer is king, whereas in movies it is the director.)
However, the way a line is read is more open to interpretation. When actors are getting along well with the director, they have enough leeway to slant the performance as they like - so long as they do not change one word. And this leeway is consequential over the course of a series, for as the writers become familiar with the ensemble of characters, they tend to write dialogue that conforms to what the characters have said and done in previous episodes. As a result, the actors' interpretations influence the kinds of scripts that are written for them in the future. In a single play, of course, that kind of influence is impossible.
But what are the actors' obligations to their audiences? In contemporary theatre and television, actors are far less aware of this than of their responsibilities to the company that hired them.
This was not always the case. At the time of the American Revolution, the audiences in theatres were sovereign. Mostly male and including all social classes, they milled around, carrying on a vigorous political debate throughout the performance and rowdily interrupting it whenever they felt critical. Riots not infrequently resulted. In such a social environment, actors tried to curry favor with the audience, simply as a matter of survival.
But that time is long past. Today audiences have influence only as consumers by their minimal impact on ratings and ticket revenue. In fact, several performers have acknowledged to me that they prefer not to know how the audience responds to their work. And, even more generally, almost no one in the entertainment industry acknowledges any responsibility for the psychological effects of dramas on their audiences.
Nevertheless, the same actors frequently express a contrary view as well, maintaining that their calling is indeed important to society. For example, Scott Cohen says that he disciplines himself not to be concerned about whether or not the viewers like his performances, as measured by the ratings. Yet he believes that acting is a vital therapeutic project - both for the actor and the audience. He said, "My feeling is that an actor is performing a service to the people.... We are priests. But it takes years of practice and years of work. It's like being a shaman."
Priesthood and shamanism are strong concepts - not terms that entertainers often use in describing their work. Yet primitive societies have always had shamans or sorcerers - mystics and healers with special powers who, in public performances, transform themselves into another person or spirit. They become "possessed" and capable of leading audiences on journeys into alternative realms and into their own psyches. These were the first actors. As early as 4000 BC, actor-priests in Egypt may have celebrated dramatic religious rites in which they worshipped the memory of the dead. In ancient Greece, drama began as ritual choral dances worshipping the god Dionysus. These historical origins should remind us that the enactment of stories can be such profound experiences that no one should mistake performances as socially trivial. But what are the processes like for the actors themselves?
The mysterious thing about acting, of course, is the way a performer can evoke emotions different from his own. Ordinary people usually cannot "will" themselves to laugh or cry on cue, so how do actors do so?
Actually, they do not just turn the emotion on at will. That does not work. In fact, some actors do not even want to feel the emotion that they are supposed to manifest on stage. One important school of thought within the acting profession maintains that the audience is more affected by a performance if the actor does not feel the emotion than if he does. The eighteenth-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, in Paradoxe sur le Comedién, maintained that the greatest actors were those who felt nothing at all while performing, and some actors today take the same point of view.
The predominant view among contemporary American actors is otherwise. Most actors today have at least some training in the "Method" techniques that Lee Strasberg taught. He was influenced by the eminent Russian director, Konstantin Stanislavski, who called his approach "The System."
Although ideally a Stanislavskian actor will experience the emotions that his character is supposed to feel, such feelings are not generated by deliberately trying to feel the emotion. Instead, the training involves a process called "affective memory." The student actor identifies a memory of a time when she felt that emotion. She then recalls all kinds of sensory details about the experience, vividly re-living the temperature of the room, her posture, the feel of the clothing she was wearing, the sounds of the street, the smells of the room, and so on. If recalled accurately, these sensory memories presumably will then evoke the emotion of the experience. With sufficient practice, the actor can combine those recollections with the other activities he or she is experiencing on-stage during the play.
In any case, for all its emphasis on truly feeling the character's emotions, the Russian tradition does not suggest that any particular emotion can be created by direct intention. Always the feeling emerges as a side effect from other experiences - a sensory memory, a bodily state, or some other psychological condition. As Eugene Vakhtangov, the most gifted disciple of Stanislavski, wrote:
"...the actor should not be concerned about his feeling during a play; it will come of itself. ...Stanislavski [advised]: don't try to experience, don't make feelings to order, forget about them altogether. In life our feelings come to us by themselves against our will. Our willing gives birth to action directed towards the gratification of desire. If we succeed in gratifying it, a positive feeling is born spontaneously. If an obstacle stands in the way of gratifying it, a negative feeling is born - `suffering.' ... Thus, every feeling is a gratified or a non-gratified will. At first a desire arises that becomes the will, then begins to act consciously aiming towards its gratification. Only then, altogether spontaneously, and sometimes against our will, does the feeling come. Thus, feeling is a product of will and the conscious (and sometimes subconscious) actions directed towards its gratification. ... An actor must not simply stand upon the stage, but act. Every action differs from feeling by the presence of the will element. To persuade, to comfort, to ask, to reproach, to forgive, to wait, to chase away - these are verbs expressing will action. These verbs denote the task which the actor places before himself when working upon a character, while the verbs to become irritated, to pity, to weep, to laugh, to be impatient, to hate, to love - express feeling, and therefore cannot and must not figure as a task in the analysis of a role. Feelings denoted by these verbs must be born spontaneously and subconsciously as a result of the actions executed by the first series of verbs. Desire is the motive for action. Therefore the fundamental thing which an actor must learn is to wish, to wish by order, to wish whatever is given to the character... Stanislavski did not invent anything. He teaches us to follow the road pointed out by nature itself."
Actors describe their way of working as either "inside-out" or "outside-in," depending on whether they are concentrating on the inner experiences and wishes of their characters, or instead on their way of speaking and moving. Sometimes both approaches will end up in the same place, for stimulating the body tends to produce the emotions too. However, all the actors whom I know work primarily "inside-out." And they do have powerful emotional experiences, both wonderful and terrible.
Another issue that sometimes arises for actors is the blurred boundary between their own personality and that of their character. A friend of mine, a woman psychiatrist, went to a play that her son had directed. One actress played all the roles - the child, her father (who molested her) and her mother. After it was over, there was a discussion with the audience, many of whom had also experienced such abuse. The actress had no opportunity to get out of her roles before participating in the discussion. As a result, she had a psychiatric breakdown. My friend and her son stayed with her for two days because she was suicidal. She got into the roles and couldn't get out.
When I mentioned this to Scott Cohen, he said, "That happens. It has happened to me." One director, Suzanne Burgoyne, has written that student actors are rarely taught to expect such effects, and that the "blurring" of boundaries may cause either growth or emotional distress. "You're not taught how to attune yourself psychologically and how to get back out of that state."
Actors are more involved with emotions than most other people. Is this good or bad for them? Do they suffer more than the average person, or do they learn great wisdom from their excursions into alternative personalities?
The answer is complex. The research psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig has compared the mental health of artistic workers to other kinds of workers and finds a much higher rate of mental illness. Actors in particular tend to have mood disorders. On the other hand, he maintains that they are often able to use their dark experiences in remarkably productive ways, so that they might be less creative if they were more stable.
Brian Bates agrees. In his capacity as a psychologist at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Bates got to know many actors well and wrote a book about their sometimes mystical way of experiencing life. He wrote,
"Inevitably, actors allow more of themselves into their conscious lives - negative as well as positive aspects. I find this refreshing.... I have found many individual actors that I know to be far from the `neurotic' stereotype. Actors I have met, from drama students to international `stars' tend on the whole to be open, integrated, lively, balanced, and stimulating people."
Bates also points out that actors need a combination of mutually antithetical personality traits: They must be both introverted and extraverted - not just half-way in between, but "at one and the same time, extremely introverted and extremely extraverted." He quotes the classic actor Franchot Tone as saying of actors: "They are both introspective and exhibitionist, ... half narcissistic and half self-critical."
But again, reality is more complex than this; whether an actor is "up or down" depends on the emotional content of the role he is performing. The "down" moods may produce actual heath problems. Dr. Dale Anderson reports that an actress patient of his kept coming for office visits over several months, complaining of different aches and pains. No diagnostic tests explained her trouble, but she eventually offered one theory herself: "Could it be the part? I can't live as the person I've become. I'm playing a hateful, disgusting character on stage and this `witchy' role stays with me 24 hours a day. It's an angry, uptight, wretched part. It's a painful part."
Within a few weeks that play was over and she won a new role - as an upbeat character in a comedy classic. Soon she was happy both offstage and on - and healthy again.
Of course, one case does not prove much. It would be necessary to carry out biochemical comparisons of a number of different actors in particular emotional states before one could conclude that acting either improves or harms one's health. Not many studies of that kind have been done. In fact, I have only found two, and their conclusions differ somewhat. First, the psychoneuroimmunologist Nicholas Hall studied professional actors who portrayed contrasting personality types in a one-act play. He took blood samples before and after each performance and found that when the person was acting the depressed role he had lowered immune system functions but not when performing the uplifting role.
The other study involved 14 male actors, trained in "Method" acting, who were told what mood state they would be experiencing. Their first blood samples were drawn and they read the scenario and were told to create the specified mood and act it out. They expressed their feelings and thoughts to the investigator, then after each mood was performed, a second blood sample was drawn for comparisons. The moods included friendly, content, satisfied, irritated, pleased, bored, unhappy, etc.
The results were not as anticipated. Whereas the researchers expected to find that the immune system would be impaired by bad moods and improved by good moods, this proved not to be the case. Instead, the immune system increased for about twenty minutes with the expression of any affect, regardless of the specific quality of the mood state involved. In other words, all the moods had beneficial health effects if they were expressed.
This seems inconsistent with the aforementioned study by Dr. Hall. If the two studies can be reconciled at all, I think it might be in terms of a principle that is not fully established, but suggestive: that stressful emotions may not harm an individual so long as that person feels in control, rather than helpless. Perhaps the actress who complained about her `witchy' role felt that she was not in control - that she could not shed the role when the curtain fell. Still, that does not explain away Dr. Hall's finding - that actors had impaired (rather than improved) immune responses after performing as a depressed character. Hence we cannot say which of these studies to trust more.
Obviously, it would be premature to reach any firm conclusions on the basis of these contradictory findings. However, it is prudent to suppose provisionally that there are may be physical health risks for actors who perform roles that put them through unpleasant emotions - especially when the actor feels helpless to control his feelings or unable resume his own personality when he leaves the stage. When that "boundary blurring' problem occurs, the emotional distress and the likely immune impairment probably are responses to a particularly distressing meta-emotion - a negative emotion about a negative emotion.