Monday, May 01, 2006

The actor's disease?

The New York Times has an interesting article about Jan Maxwell, an actress in the successful Broadway play "Entertaining Mr. Sloane, unexpectedly giving notice that she intends to leave the production. Reportedly her reason is that she finds her co-star Alec Baldwin unpleasant to work with. She hasn't said so publicly, but apparently the New York Post got ahold of one of her e-mails in which she tells a friend that

Baldwin "created an unhealthy and oppressive situation." She referred specifically to an incident in which Mr. Baldwin punched a wall because he was angry that the air-conditioning was not turned high enough.
Farther down in the story we find Baldwin's reaction:

Mr. Baldwin admitted to punching the wall, but said he had been sweating onstage and, as his character wears glasses, the sweat was making it difficult to see. He said Ms. Maxwell had not spent much time with the cast and did not participate in some of the talkbacks after performances.

"Maybe the misogyny of the show was wearing her down," he said. Over the course of the play the character of Kath, the only woman in the show, is treated, in Mr. Baldwin's words, "like a piƱata."
It is this last statement that I'm interested in. Can role-playing actually reproduce in actors the emotions their characters portray? No merely while on stage, but as a continuing feature of their lives, as long as they play the part?

I have heard similar anecdotes. I remember reading many years ago that Julie Christie complained that her character in John Schlesinger's Darling, a somewhat shallow woman who claims to be looking for love but is fairly easily corrupted, depressed her so much that her roommates found her unpleasant to live with. There is also a story that Elia Kazan secretly asked the cast and crew of A Face In The Crowd to treat Andy Griffith in an unfriendly manner to enable him submerge his naturally affable self in the scheming, contemptuous character he was supposed to play. According to the story, it worked--and it also disgusted Griffith so much he withdrew from making movies altogether. (I can't vouch for the truth of this story; someone I knew said he had heard it at an acting workshop.)

There is some acadmic evidence on this subject. In August 2002 Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker about the study of facial expressions, all of which are catalogued in a document titled "Facial Action Coding System." The principal author of the FACS is psychologist Paul Ekman, who as part of his research taught himself to recreate every one of the emotion-expressing actions it contains. In the course of concentrating on expressions of anger, distress and sadness, Ekman and his coworker realized that they were having these emotions, without any apparent cause, long after they had stopped practicing them for the day. It seemed that the muscle movements of facial expressions could cause the emotions they usually merely reflected. Ekman later did a blind study that confirmed that the effect was general, and published the paper in Science.

This subject is of interest to me for a couple of reasons. One is that all my life people have been saying to me, "Smile!" Evidently, I glower and am unaware of it. I've never taken that officious advice to "Smile!" I don't know how. A deliberate smile, as Gladwell explains in his article, differs substantially, anatomically, from a spontaneous one. How can you deliberately be spontaneous? Besides, people who go around smiling all the time look brainless to me.

But all my life I've been subject to depression, which has been so severe at times that I've seriously considered killing myself. Medications help only so much. If I'm open-minded, I have to consider the possibility that my life-long serious facial expression could be a cause of my often unpleasant interior state, and that I could perhaps improve the latter by jovial-upping the former. It's true that a deliberate smile is not the same as a spontaneous one, but maybe there are other, neutral, expressions I could practice.

The other reason for my interest in emotional feedback from the body is that I, too, am an actor. I don't belong to a theater company; I only rarely go into a theater at all. But my job places me in front of the public on a regular basis, and how I act there is a very substantial part of what I'm expected to do. I wear a costume. My lines aren't written, exactly, but many of them are mandated by custom, court rule, or statute. I take part in a play in which I'm the only constant actor; others play transient characters. Few if any of them take parts in my play because they are happy. They bring unhappiness with them. The subject matter of this never-ending story concerns crime, violence, failure, hostility, greed, deception, and other negative acts and intentions. I am not required to act out any of those things, but I am required (in a loose, derivative sense) to register the feelings they cause in others. Unconsciously, I am probably mirroring how some or all of the other characters feel, their confusion, their anxiety, their anger, their depression. What effect does that have on me? And what effect may it have on the people who come to be in my play because something very serious, often life-changing, has happened to them?

I'm interested in knowing if others have had experiences of this type. Some of you are experienced actors. Have your emotions ever derived not from events in your lives but from your characters? If so, does it happen with pleasant emotions as well as with unpleasant? In particular, I'm interested in whether anybody has ever tried deliberately to modify feelings by modifying his or her expression.

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