Long journey through emotions: acting
This article is a result of recorded interview with Janez Vajevec; the conversation went on for several hours. It is recorded in a manner that best presents an artist – an actor: in first person, singular. In author’s opinion this is the best way of showing the actor utmost respect.
DUBRAVKA CRNOJEVIĆ – CARIĆ
When acting becomes devoid of imagination, will or faith (three essential things acting can’t exist without), when the »artistic truth« is gone, all that remains are traces, tracks, stored in the sense memory of a spectator, for a spectator also journeys through a specific sensory experience and, at the end, leaves with nobler soul. I’m talking about the process of catharsis.
Numerous psychologists say that emotional growth begins in the prenatal state and ends at around 12 years of age. Society is interested only in physical and intellectual growth. Thus we use mostly our left side of the brain while neglecting the right side. It is this disproportion that causes many problems we encounter in our lives. The society is simply not interested in the emotional growth of a person, it is completely overlooked. The only way to return to your neglected true self is through your body, your senses. A Method actor is consciously in contact with his own self, his inner senses, consciously moving his attention from one part of the body to the other.
It is necessary to learn to feel the difference between the state of tension and the state of relaxation. When you consciously detect a tension it has to be relaxed. Sometimes in the process of relaxation emotions that had been blocked, that the tension had prevented from appearing in public, surface. Relaxation also leads to psychological, emotional, even physical relief, because physical pain is often caused by tension. And the mood also changes…
When the actor is not relaxed he is unable to see the difference between a lie and esthetic truth.
Every creative act has to be free from burdens of everyday stress. So in order to be creative one has to free himself from worries and stress. The only way to achieve this is to face your worries first. Tension does not allow acceptance and forgiveness, or relief. The moment we free ourselves of the tension suppressed feelings emerge….mental and physical. We have to face these suppressed feelings because otherwise our creative process is paralyzed. We have to recognize our worries, accept them and communicate them through our voice, express our “trauma”. Only then we can begin with the emotional exercises. If we do not face our traumatic experiences and express them, we usually end up depressed instead of finding a solution. When we don’t express our emotions, our emotional system, our right side of the brain, atrophies. Our denied emotions are trapped in our body. Expressing them is part of human »hygiene«. After they had been recognized and expressed life becomes »easier«. But we actors don’t do relaxation for therapeutic reasons. It is a useful »byproduct«.
An actor has to create a sensation, and in order to feel this sensation he has to be relaxed, otherwise he doesn’t react in a natural way. Body doesn’t react when in tension, it is unable to feel, it is not expressive. But it is necessary for an actor to be expressive, to communicate with the audience.
In Method acting exercises are defined; they are a constant. But the reaction of individual actor to a certain exercise is specific. Each individual actor reacts specifically to a certain exercise.
The constants are as follows: we always begin with above mentioned relaxation, first physical and mental, then sense memory exercises follow. Through relaxation we come in touch with ourselves, begin to feel ourselves. It is only than we can begin with sense memory exercises. These exercises train each individual sense and all senses together (coffee mug exercise is a great one for training of all senses at the same time). Sometimes one concentrates more on touch, next time on taste or smell.
The exercise »personal object« helps one to train both physical senses and emotional memory. Our emotions are often associated with objects and this exercise enables a student to see how he reacts to a certain stimulus, what kind of emotions it stirs in him. Then so called »overall« exercises follow; designed to enable an actor to feel sensations all over the body and so help him to overstep the boundaries of his everyday behavior, his habitudes (shower, sauna, sunbathing, rain, wind, mud, bath, pain…). Exercise called private moment makes an actor conscious of the difference between his self-awareness when he is in public and when he is by himself, private… Actor’s goal is to bring this feeling of privacy onto the stage. This is necessary for instance in monologues. Typical for our society is that people do not know how to be themselves, be self-aware even when they are alone, by themselves. This exercise is not about »intensity« or vulnerability, which are also important categories in development of an actor, but helps an actor to obtain inner peace, almost meditative state, which he can bring onto the stage. Feeling private in public is also feeling freedom. All these exercises are a constant in actor’s life. The same as training is in an athlete’s life: training exercises are basically the same all the time, but the athlete becomes faster and faster.
Acting and the realm of expressiveness
Exercises developed by Stanislavsky and Strasberg are often argued to confine an actor to use only his own life experiences. It is not so. In Method acting one can enter the sphere of possible by various approaches, say by combining several imaginary elements, that can be done through a very interesting exercise called »animal exercise; it is an exercise that helps develop a character. This exercise breaks habitudes and enables an actor to be expressive; it is also done through senses: actor has to define which centers of energy are placed differently than they are in human body. For example, When Lee Cobb performed in The Death of a Salesman, in order to get the specific feeling of tiredness in his legs he did the elephant exercise. There’s another exercise that also breaks our habits, it is called Song and Dance. It shows how strongly our body is hooked on our intellectual patterns and our body is enslaved by these patterns. Song and Dance exercise tries to break these patterns. Students dance to one rhythm ands sing in another. It is a very difficult exercise.
The state of being is a spiritual category
The state of being is an exercise very unusual for our society. Physical actions are often used as an escape from our emotions, so in this exercise a student has to stand before the audience, activate all senses and feel all the sensations and emotions in his heart, than through his voice share them with the audience. Vygotzsky talks about two types of emotional expressiveness: peripheral and central; peripheral expressiveness is when emotions are expressed through hands, face, legs…; central when they are expressed through the heart. When all the sensations from the periphery are sent to the center we reach the state of being, because the pain that has to be confronted is hidden right there in our hearts. The same applies to the human voice – Cecily Berry talks about when a voice is hearty, human. If only intellectual part is used the voice sounds metallic, empty. Central expressiveness is always more powerful than the peripheral one. The “state of being” exercise also shows how powerful our fear of not being accepted by others is. The exercise also teaches us how to stop our mind from wandering. The answer is obvious: by activating our senses.
Those who experience stage fright but had gone through this exercise can testify that in the instant when the senses are awakened the mind calms down and the stage fright disappears. In the instant you “activate” the senses you pacify the left side of the brain. The brain then “controls the situation”. The sense memory is actually a starting point and a basis of actor’s training. Only when we are conscious of all our senses we make possible for our mind to rest.
When we talk about human spirit we talk about all the psycho-physical processes going on inside every one of us. Human spirit incorporates the intellect, the senses and the intuition.
If you have the spirit you have the courage to feel, to experience, if you lack the spirit, you (probably) only have the intellect; but the intellect is skeptical by nature, it does not want to rest, it tends to avoid the cooperation with senses. The intellect wants to figure out and decipher every single sensation – in advance. The “collectedness” demands of the intellect to constantly “catch” the information. The senses have to constantly feed the intellect with the information. The intellect is often greedy – it cuts off the perception and scans the memory for answers; thus it ceases to perceive. The intellect is often self-important for it knows everything “in advance”. But it can know “in advance” only when it has cut off the perception. On the other hand the intellect is “smart” if it does not give up constant perception. In order to be able to really “control the situation” you have to “accept” all the stimuli. Only when you have accepted all the stimuli you can neutralize those things you want neutralized – you can stop them from affecting you. For example the music playing here is a nuisance, it is too loud if you want to talk – it bothers me; but it is here and I have to accept it; only in this way I can neutralize it. We often find ourselves in such paradoxical situations: we have to accept the reality as it is and then we can choose our own reality. We have a choice. This choice determines the degree of tolerance. The collectedness makes possible the differentiation and the selection; it makes possible to decide whether something is going to be expressed or not. And this is a rational approach.
When the senses are at work we are in a state of “awareness”. Breathing also belongs to the sphere of “awareness”. When we are under stress our breathing is compulsive, uncontrolled and shallow. It becomes quicker and quicker and it can happen that we end up unconscious. Acting demands awareness, awareness can not exist without collectedness. Collectedness makes you calm, it tames your “raging” worries; it calms your body and stops it from behaving compulsively. We have to see to it that our breathing is normal; we have to rid ourselves of fear. The collectedness is a state of mind which is – among other things – also connected with breathing. There are cultures which think of “prana” as the energy of life; our breathing is “our food”, therefore it is important. I did not grow up in such a culture, but still, when I do it, that is, when I breathe in a certain way, I can understand their experience. Collectedness represents the means by which we can liberate ourselves from the dictatorship of ego. When I am in the state of collectedness, I do not “live in the past”, I do not worry about tomorrow, I live in the “present”. I am not bound by the past, I do not fear for the future; I enjoy “here and now”, and, what is the most important, I enjoy the company of people. The collectedness – being here and now – rids you of stage fright and also of depression.
Communication frees us of our traumas
The emotional exercise is often the subject of dispute. Many “new trends” are against this exercise. Anyhow, my brother Andrej and me, we have no intention of giving it up. We consider it very efficient. Almost all the traumas which determine our lives have roots in the period of our personal initiation. If people knew what to do with these traumas, their lives would be completely different. These primary traumas are often manifested in the form of egoism.
During the emotional exercise you return, using all the senses, to a traumatic experience. In the instant when the emotion comes, you (the student) fill it with some other content – with a joke, a song or a text. So, using all the senses you collect yourself and then dive into the traumatic event, into the sensory context of this event: what the weather was like at the time, what you heard, smelled, touched…At the same time you are in the state of awareness, you are relaxed and in charge of your will. In the instant of climax you have to sing a song or tell a poem, you have to communicate the traumatic content with your voice, you have to express this traumatic emotion – but you must not (I emphasize) talk about it directly. It is fascinating that through this exercise people encounter their trauma in public. They confront it physically, by way of senses. It is obvious that in order to do something like this with your own trauma (to use it for aesthetic purposes when you need it) you must be emotionally mature person. It is also a way to compensate for the absence of emotional development in life and to become emotionally competent. Here I have to say that this is not a therapy, the purpose of it is to obtain the means you can use for creating an aesthetic, artistic act.
The emotional exercise meant a lot to me, too. Going through the emotional exercises with the help of Strasberg I managed to face my emotions and to set up a specific emotional integrity. I learned that each person has to be responsible for his/her own emotional life. I let go of aggression and hatred, the negative emotions were quieted down. Of course they sometimes still come, but now I recognize them, I know they are an “ego thing”. They come when I want something. The emotional exercise also helps build the empathy; therefore it also serves its purpose in the social context. We become capable of reading the emotional state of other people. I have seen this in my students. They are not afraid of their own or other people’s emotions. In this way you can get close to people, you can communicate on non-verbal level. Words are not always necessary, the communication is a transaction – and emotional transaction is very strong, it is more profound than the rational one.
The work of a good “acting coach”
A good “coach” has to know how each student reacts to a specific exercise. Strasberg once said to me that I would have no problem finding a job while to one of my co-students he said that he would make a good pedagogue. These words awakened interest in me. I always enjoyed watching him when he was helping to solve, there and then, specific acting and personal problems, for what also determines each actor is his/her personality, personal growth. Watching Strasberg was highly educational.
I returned to Ljubljana with high hopes; I thought people would be interested in what I had learned and experienced; I wanted to share this with them. As it turned out, I was very much mistaken. Only a handful of people showed a slight interest. It was even more mistaken when I thought that institutions would be interested. Those were the times when individuality was not very popular. Well, I decided to give up my career as an actor; I decided to start “my own venture”, something I really believed in. So my brother Andrej and me, we founded Actor’s Studio in Ljubljana. This was in 1980 and we’re still working. It seems that the professional actors consider the demand that they continuously work on themselves as something having negative connotations – they think that this work makes them neglect their “active” careers. The truth is that according to Strasberg’s method of acting (Method Acting) the intensive training process should go on for seven years, but of course after that one should keep on practicing. Such a long period of intensive training is necessary if we want to be able to let go of certain things that the society had thought us: for instance, that it is not proper to express your feelings. Years go by before we are able to recognize the problem and to consciously confront it. Art is “self-expression”, we have to be aware of this. The cultural environment we live in is very “inadequate” for such view of life. I often witness how hard it is for people to answer the question: “What do you feel?” They start scanning their brain for the answer, they start searching their personal history; they browse through the things they had learned. If you think of it, this is alienation. Through my work I’ve realized how estranged we are from ourselves. To communicate what we feel – this is completely foreign to us; what is even more foreign is the thought that we can do something creative with what we are experiencing. I think that for poets it is easier – that’s probably due to the nature of their profession. The actors are often sort of removed from themselves. With actors in such a “condition” everything that happens on stage is accidental – no matter whether it is good or bad. But, the things are never accidental. Before I went to The States I was the same – 99 % of everything came out of my memorized knowledge, intellect, that is, the left half of the brain: you have to remember which role you are playing; you have to remember the text, the mise- en- scene. Art is an experience; the idea is brought to light by means of senses – but for this the skill is needed. There are huge talents – but more talented actors need more technique. The Method is the technique that keeps us “here and now”.