Roger Voight, playing the role of Sorin, explores another challenging aspect of bringing a character to life on stage.
Making a commitment to acting requires a great deal of openness and a willingness to push yourself outside your comfort zone in order to create a character on stage that is authentic and interesting to the audience. To do this, the actor must be able to believably portray emotions that are appropriate to the circumstances of the scene. There are several approaches that the actor can use to achieve this (Stanislavski, Meisner, Strasberg, Adler and others). Every actor who is serious about his/her craft must find the technique that works best for them if they want their performance to be engaging theatre rather merely reciting memorized lines.
Bogdan, the director of the upcoming production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, is always watching and listening carefully during rehearsals for any of us just “acting” – that is, inauthetically reciting our lines during our scenes. I’ve lost track of the number of times he has said to me, “You were just acting; do it again and make me believe it!” It has been a huge but rewarding challenge to take in this feedback and keep striving to show him an increasingly authentic character. Over the course of several months of rehearsals I had a real sense of progress.
Then came the bombshell a few weeks ago when he said, “Every one of the characters in The Seagull is doing their best to hide their true feelings from everyone else. You still need to have these emotions, but I would like to see you try to hide them from the other characters.”
In other words, be authentically inauthentic!
Once again I went home with my head spinning. How in the world does one manage such a thing? I went back through all my acting books and searched the internet and couldn’t find a single thing that seemed at all relevant. After a while, though, I began to notice that my internet searches would frequently include items from psychology about how you can recognize when people are trying to hide emotions. Some of these articles provided fascinating insights.
Seven different so-called microexpressions have been identified: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness and contempt. There are a number of facial characteristics that are consistently associated with each of these when the emotions are genuine. When someone is trying to mask one emotion with another, however, some of the facial characteristics of the hidden emotion “leak” through. Here are a few examples:
Basic emotions can all be combined as well. Here is one example:
Of course, there are also many non-verbal clues as well, such as tone of voice, the pace of speaking, excessive movement, hunched shoulders, leaning forward or back, and the position of the arms and hands. There are also behavioural clues; for example when men are upset or stressed, they often mask this with signs of aggression, frustration and anger. Women on the other hand might become either more talkative or be withdrawn and quiet.
I ended up with several pages of ideas that I could take onto the stage to try out with Bogdan, so I was happy with that. The result of all my study, though, raised some important questions for me about how I was relating to the people around me in my real life.
If I could look at these pictures when they were side by side and immediately sense that something was inconsistent, why was I not noticing these things in my everyday interactions with others? I started to look and listen to others in a new and deeper way, especially when I noticed that I was feeling annoyed or irritated. I was astonished that I could sense fear being masked with constant laughing and non-stop talking masking great sadness. Connection replaced annoyance and opened the door for me to connect with them and give them the gift of my compassionate listening.
So, my actor’s journey began with being inauthentic on stage without awareness. Over time I learned a bit about creating believable emotions for my character. Now I have returning to inauthenticity – with awareness – as one of my tools for creating an even more believable character. In my life’s journey I have arrived at a new level of understanding of my humanity. It reminds me of the famous quote from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where started and know the place for the first time.”
Theatre is such an amazing gift!
Text: Roger Voight
Pictures: Katrin Fegert
Examples of Facial Expressions: McLellan, T. L., Johnston, L., Dalrymple-Alford, J., and Porter, R. (2010). Sensitivity to genuine versus posed emotion specified in facial displays. Cogn. Emot. 24, 1277–1292. doi: 10.1080/02699930903306181