Sep 16, 2009

- An actor prepares

Getting read to ‘act’ in life is just the same as getting ready to act on stage, says Michael Neill. And the methods he learned in his actors’ training, including how to put more passion into your performance, have a lot to teach us on how to get up out of your seats, get on the boards, and get things done.
Getting read to ‘act’ in life is just the same as getting ready to act on stage, says Michael Neill. And the methods he learned in his actors’ training, including how to put more passion into your performance, have a lot to teach us on how to get up out of your seats, get on the boards, and get things done.
An actor prepares … and so does anybody else who wants to succeed!
PROLOGUE: Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is the study of how certain people manage to produce exceptional results in their lives, and to isolate and share the strategies and states which allow them to do that.
But NLP is not the only discipline interested in replicating human excellence, nor is it the first. For thousands of years, actors have been exploring the human psyche in an attempt both to instruct and inspire audiences, and to gain a greater understanding of what it is to be human.
One of the most important facets of actor training is preparation: the work done before acting in a role which allows you to commit your full attention on stage or screen to the task at hand. In this article, I will be sharing with you a selection of exercises from ‘actor training’ that will enhance and enrich your ability to prepare for any major or important real life event.
In order to make this as useful to you as possible, you might want to take a moment, now, to think about an upcoming event that is important to you – whether it is an interview, a meeting, a phone call, or even a decision that you have to make. And so, without further ado …
ACT ONE: Acting on Purpose
Here’s a little experiment for you to try. Imagine that somewhere nearby is hidden a priceless collection of diamonds. Your mission (objective/intention/outcome/goal) is ‘to get the diamonds’. Begin repeating the words `to get the diamonds’ over and over in your mind, like an affirmation or a mantra.
After a few moments of silent repetition, look up from the magazine, and begin scanning the room for a possible hiding place. If there are other people around you, they might stop you from achieving your outcome. Notice any thoughts that come into your mind as you continue repeating your silent mantra, `to get the diamonds, to get the diamonds, to get the diamonds …’
You may decide to put this magazine down, get up, and walk around for a minute or two, aware of how your thoughts, and perhaps even your persona, begin to change as you continue to repeat your outcome. I’ll see you in a minute …
Whatever you discovered as you went through that little experiment, you now have a reference for one of the ways in which an actor may create for himself or herself an alternative reality. Repeating your outcome over and over again in your mind automatically begins to generate thoughts which go to support or surround this outcome.
Actors (in Stanislayski’s method of acting) must always have a clear intention (outcome) on stage. These intentions, or objectives as they are sometimes called, are then made up of actions. The purpose of the rehearsal period is to experiment with different outcomes, actions, and emotions until the ones that work best have become second nature.
In performance, the actor can then trust his `unconscious competence’, and ‘play the moment’, re-acting to whatever is going on around him- or herself, ensuring that each performance will have its own personal effectiveness. The point of the preparation has been to be able to forget about it in the moment of action, and focus your full attention on the task at hand.
Here’s the strategy, in a nutshell:
1. Choose your outcome.
2. Decide some of the actions you could take that will lead to your outcome.
3. Choose what emotional state (or combination of states) you want to be in as you pursue your outcome.
4. Put yourself in the appropriate emotional state, rehearse going after your outcome, and make adjustments to your actions and feelings, until what works has become second nature to you.
(A more complete description of how to put yourself into an emotional state and mentally rehearse an important event is contained in `Act Two’ below.)
5. When it comes time to actually do what it is you set out to do, take a moment to review your preparation. Focus briefly again on your outcome and actions, and put yourself into an appropriate state of mind.
6. Do it!
And pay attention to what is going on around you, trusting that your preparation will cause you to do and say just the right thing to create your desired outcome.
If at any point your mind starts to wander, you can repeat your outcome in your mind, over and over, until you are refocused on the task at hand.
INTERVAL:
Releasing the Emotional Hostage.
When I was a teenager, I was playing the Puerto-Rican gang member ‘Chico’ in a production of West Side Story, the musical version of Romeo and Juliet. We had been doing the show for over a month, and I tended to just ‘go into automatic mode’, a sort of pleasant, day-dreaming trance that got me through the tedium of doing the same thing day in and day out (even if that ‘tedium’ was dancing in front of 1,000 people a night).
There’s a scene early on in West Side Story called the ‘Dance at the Gym’, where the two gangs assert their national pride by attempting to out-dance each other. It was great fun to do, involving much dancing, leaping about, and in the case of my Puerto-Rican gang, the repeated shouting of ‘Ay Caramba!’ and other assorted cod-Spanish ejaculations.
Two scenes later comes ‘The Rumble’, a darker dance, where the two gangs assert their masculinity by attempting to out-kill each other.
On this particular night, one of the members of the American gang, a character named `Snowball’, came out on stage and began to make fun of the way we had been dancing, in particular, mocking the shouts of ‘Ay Caramba!’ which had filled the air so joyously only moments before.
Suddenly, I felt a surge of very real emotion swelling up inside of me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been discriminated against because of your race, your gender, or your sexuality, or your class, but I was furious and was fully prepared to kill this ‘American pendejo‘ .
Now, one of the traits that most actors share is that, no matter how intense the situation, no matter how involved they are in what’s going on, a small part of their attention remains on the outside, monitoring internal and external reactions, and storing them away for future use.
(As a friend of mine was fond of saying whenever one of us would get upset, ‘Use it in your acting, dearie!’)
So, as part of me was preparing to rumble with the Americans, the actor part of me was having a conversation with myself in that moment which went something like this.. .
SELF: That pendejo, who does he think he is?!
ACTOR: Wait a minute, wait a minute, this is cool!
SELF: What do you mean, cool? Snowball is making fun of me, and everything I stand for!
ACTOR: No, he’s not. You’re not really Puerto-Rican. His name’s not Snowball, it’s Mike Dufault. And you guys are friends – it’s only make believe!
SELF: Then why does it feel so real?!
After the show that night, I was filled with excitement. My emotions were clearly more flexible than I had thought, because they had been so genuinely stirred by make-believecircumstances. If I could create emotional states within myself simply by repeatedly and vividly making believe that certain things were true, what would happen if I did the same thing off-stage, designing my emotional life to fit in with the circumstances I most wanted to create in my life?
One of the most fascinating of all actor skills, and probably the least understood, is the ability to create emotions ‘out of thin air’. In the sections below, I’ve laid out four of the different methods for doing this that I’ve come across in my own actor training. Again, I would encourage you to think about applying them in the context of that important event that’s coming up for you. Now …
ACT TWO: Emotional Mastery and …
There are two primary blocks to emotional mastery.
The first is physical tension. Any emotion is expressed through your physical body. When you’re tense, certain emotions find it difficult to come out and play. A good habit to get into is to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and relax. Become aware of:
- the sensations in your body, from head to toe;
- any images flashing through your mind;
- anything you might be saying to yourself, on the inside.
This ‘personal inventory’ is frequently taught on NLP courses as a means of increasing self-awareness, and has the useful side-effect of relaxing your mind and body.
The second block to experiencing emotions fully is the fear that, if you allow yourself to really feel an emotion ‘deeply’, you might get `swallowed up’ by it, and be unable to shake it off for hours, or even days.
Personally, I think this is one of the best reasons in the world to repress your feelings, and I would no more throw myself into a fit of rage. or sink myself into a morass of depression, without knowing I can get out of it easily than I would go technical rock climbing without a safety rope.
Fortunately, there is a very simple way to get yourself back from any emotional exploration. The classic NLP model for the structure of an emotional state is that it is made up of your physiology (or the way you use your body) and your internal representations (or the pictures, sounds, and words you say in your head).
In order to ‘break state’ after an emotional exploration, vigorously shake your body (changing the physiological element of the emotion), shake your head (clearing the mental screen of images), and `blurble’ your lips in a sort of a ‘raspberry’ sound, which will clear out all of your internal dialogue.
(Try telling yourself you’re a bad person while making a loud luting’ sound with your lips. It loses some of it’s emotional impact, doesn’t it?)
You might want to practise this ‘break state’ thing once or twice before reading on, and before you participate in the upcoming emotional experiments. Then again, depending on who you’re with. So, now …
.. How to Create an Emotional State
1. Affective Memory
This is one of the basic elements of so-called `Method acting’, and was one of the primary methods taught by the late Lee Strasberg, mentor to, amongst others, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Marilyn Monroe. It is taught on many NLP courses as ‘Contextual Hallucination’, or more prosaically, ‘Think of a time. . .
Affective memory is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that can be used consciously and unconsciously to make you happy, or to make you miserable. If you were to take a moment now to think of some past sad experience, you would probably begin to feel a little bit sad.
If, on the other hand, you think back to a funny experience, and really go right back to it in your mind, so that you’re seeing what you saw, and hearing what you heard, and feeling what you felt, you will probably begin to smile right now.
This process can be heightened by repetition, by ’stacking’ one funny memory – or `trigger’ – on top of another, and by making the images, sounds, and feelings of that memory more vivid. Involve your body in the memory, and you will find the feelings begin to intensify – for any emotion that you want to feel.
2. In the Beginning was the Word …
Another exercise for developing the facility of emotional choice is simply to notice that every word you can use to describe an emotional state has a corresponding location in the body.
So, take a deep breath and relax. Now, repeat the word ‘curiosity’ in your mind while tuning in to the sensations in your body. When you’ve got a sense of it, point to the place in your body where you most feel that word. With ‘curiosity’, most people will point to their heads, but your response will be unique to you.
Now, take a few moments with each of the following words: suspicion – anger – desire -love – joy. In my experience, most people will feel suspicion in their eyes, anger in their chests, desire in their loins, love in their hearts, and joy from their bellies through their upper body. Again, wherever you notice is the right answer for you.
Now, once you’ve tuned in to the specific location of an emotional state, you can intensify it by doing anything that raises your level of autonomic arousal, eg, by walking round the block, taking a few deep breaths, doing some push-ups, or by a couple of dynamic gestures.
With practice, you’ll be able to not only create these states at will, but to carry them around with you, to use in any situation you desire.
3. The Magic of As If’
Stanislayski, the godfather of 20th-century acting technique, considered the words ‘as if’ to be magic, and the key to unlocking the world of imagination. An application of the magic of ‘as if’ to your emotions is to act ‘as if’ you feel a certain way. This idea has been sometimes described as ‘using the tail to wag the dog’.
The following technique, long a mainstay of Stella Adler (she was Marlon Brando’s first acting teacher), is especially useful when you want to change your emotional state quickly. Simply by changing the way you sit, you can change the way you feel.
Let’s say you want to feel happy. Well, one thing you could do is to think back to a happy experience, but let’s pretend that you can’t think of any just at the moment.
So, how would you be sitting right now, if you were already happy? What kind of an expression would you have on your face?
How would you be breathing? In a nice, relaxed, gentle rhythm, or something more intense?
Answer these questions with your body -actually shift in your seat so that you are sitting and breathing, scowling or smiling, the way you imagine you would be if you were already happy.
If you want to feel even happier, go ahead and move around the room the way you think you would move if you were already feeling happy. (You can take this article with you!) How quickly or slowly do you move? What’s the feeling behind your eyes?
Go ahead and gesture in the way you imagine you would gesture if you were already feeling happy. If people are beginning to look at you strangely, what would you say to them if you were feeling ridiculously happy now? How would you say it? In a slow, low, growly voice, or a light, high, fluffy voice? Or somewhere in between? What kinds of things would you say to yourself? How would you say them?
4. Role Modelling. (A variation on the magic of ‘as if )
Sometimes, when an actor is just starting out in her or his training, she or he will find her-or himself unable to ‘let loose’ and experience emotions fully, particularly it in life, he or she is not especially expressive, a bit of a ‘low reactor’.
One useful technique for experiencing emotions beyond your normal range is to pretend that you are someone else, usually somebody famous, or a character in a book or film. (Anthony Hopkins claims to have based his Oscar-winning portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs on Margaret Thatcher – ‘A woman,’ he said, ‘who was so confident that she was right as to be bordering on the psychopathic.’)
Let’s now go back to your important situation, the one you chose at the beginning of the article. How would you need to feel in order to best do and express whatever it is you want to do and express in that situation?
Perhaps you’d like to feel more confident, more patient, or more loving. Think about someone who, for you, epitomizes the quality or qualities you would like to embody, and who could carry off the situation with ease and aplomb. [NLP Practitioners will spot the affinity here with one step of Dilts's 'New Behaviour Generator - Ed.]
Imagine that person is in the room with you right now. How do they look? What is it about the way that they move or speak that lets you know they are the way you would like to be? Shift your body so that you are standing or sitting like them. Gesture the way they would gesture.
What expression do you (they) have on your face? How do you look around the room? What sort of things might you (they) say to yourself? If you like, walk around the room as if you were your role model.
As an extension of this exercise, imagine that you are the director of a film based on your ideal life, and you have cast in the leading role the actor you would ideally like to play you. Coming up is the scene in the film where you make that phone call, or have that meeting, or whatever your important real-life situation is.
Imagine your role model acting in the scene, and pulling it off brilliantly. The phone call is a success, the meeting has gone better than you could possibly have expected, the situation is a success. Keep adjusting the scene until it’s perfect. (Don’t worry about your actor. He or she is used to constant rewrites, and any number of re-takes!)
When you’ve got it in your mind the way you want it, it’s time for the ‘understudy’ to rehearse the scene. Imagine that it is now you in the film, doing and saying the things that your ’star’ did. Perhaps there are one or two refinements you think of that your ’star’ left out. Rehearse the scene until you are completely happy with it, either in your home, or in the privacy of your own mind.
(In case you feel in any way daunted by the prospect of actually doing what seemed so delightful when your ’star’ did it, I offer you the advice Laurence Olivier gave his understudy, the young Albert Finney, before Finney took over from Olivier’s acclaimed performance as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
When Finney asked what to do about his pre-show nerves, Olivier replied, ‘Do what I do, dear boy. . . amaze yourself with your own daring!’)
ACT THREE: The Performance Itself
On the day of the actual event, you can simply review your preparation, and then improvise, trusting that the rehearsal time you have put in will be sufficient for your success. As with any performance, be prepared for things to go slightly different than they did in rehearsal.
And, as every actor discovers, sooner or later, you ultimately evaluate your performance not so much by how you felt while you were doing it, but by how you made your audience feel.
 
 
(nlpconnections) 

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