Choose your emotions

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Over the years, I’ve signed up for literally dozens of acting classes. Some of them have been excellent, some of them have been poor. With the lesser acting classes, the ones that seemed more-focused on making students feel safe than readying them for the real world of acting, I frequently encountered instructors who subscribed to the overly-artsy notion that there’s no such thing as a wrong choice of emotion — that whatever you’re feeling in the moment, that’s the correct emotion to go with.

I’m about to explain to you how wrong a premise that is, but in fairness there is something to be said for allowing emotions to express in an almost knee jerk reaction through the character. Many an interesting stage occasion is born from emotions allowed free rein in the moment. If, for instance, in a scene where you have been confronted by the police for the murder of Professor Plum in the Study with the Iron Pipe, and the emotion rising to the surface of your awareness is the uncontrolable impulse to laugh, well, that’s a perfectly viable response to being caught red handed for murder; people caught dead to rights doing something wrong usually act instantaneously in some kind of way that deflects suspicion. To that end, it’s not a bad choice to bellow laughter in this kind situation: “Bwahahahah! You cannot possibly be serious, Inspector! Me? The murderer? Ludicrous! Hahahahahahah!”

That exception duly noted, it is rarely best practices to allow allow emotions the liberty of self choice. As an actor, it’s your job to stream pure, organic emotion through your character —  not indicate (or fake) it — but it is also your job to be the responsible administrator of what I like to call your emotion bank. In other words, you need to be able to wisely choose what emotion is appropriate as a reaction to the particular situation. 

If, for example, you’re in a scene where your character has just learned the results from her dad’s dementia screening have come back negative, your director might not want you to react with explosive anger to this amazing good news. It won’t fly to explain it away as, “Well, this is how I feel right now… so maybe I’m reacting this way because I’m angry about being put through the agony of having to wait for the test results?” 

More likely, your director will wisely instruct you to tap into reactions matching up with ordinary feelings of relief, and to deliver a believable emotion based on that simple calculus. There’s nothing wrong with choosing an expected, even ordinary emotion to convey an intention. If you’re in tune with your emotion bank, if you’re able to tap it easily, you’ll have no shortage of appropriate emotions to summon up to fulfill your director’s request. Problems arise when you allow your emotions to choose themselves, as it were — to simply allow them to fly out onto the stage without having gone through a process of consideration. I call it emotion puking — a slightly vulgar way of putting it, but to the point.

I like to say, the character rules the stage, the actor runs the show. But with regard to how the character expresses him or herself in each progressing moment, it falls to the actor to take on the role of administrator in order to manage the allocation of their character’s emotions. Every moment on stage must be smartly managed. If you think this is a huge undertaking, to be saddled with the task of academically choosing each and every emotion you are to use for each and every moment you are performing on stage, well … if having to intellectually choose emotions from a proverbial grab bag were the only option available, then it would, indeed, be quite the hassle. On the other hand, you can surely understand why an actor cannot allow emotions to simply have free rein on stage. To allow just any emotion to express itself, is to introduce nothing short of uncertainty and chaos. 

So, if intellectually choosing each emotion seems to you an arduous task (and an artificial one, to boot), and if you’re also inclined to agree with my logic about emotions running amok being a recipe for disaster, what is the best practice to manage the expression of intentions?

The answer is to make it a process similar to a military command situation, one in which you allow your intuitions (your officers) to suggest a host of emotion options but with you (the captain) regulating the process and having final say over which emotion is chosen to represent your intention. You can accomplish this by simply asking yourself, how do I (my character) feel about this? 

You might think it a bit contrived in artistic terms, to intellectually choose a “correct emotion” for each of the hundreds of moments you play out on stage, but acting is an art and craft … and making smart choices is part of the craft aspect. It just won’t do to have your performance morph into an emotional free for all; your work will come across as insane, at best. Even the most gifted of actors — Joaquin Phoenix comes to mind — engage a process of emotion selection in playing characters who are emotionally unbalanced; it only seems they’re riding an emotional roller coaster. Behind the scenes, these actors make smart choices about how their characters react to the situations in which they find themselves.

Another excellent actor who comes to mind is Gregory Itzin. Though not a household name, his most memorable role (in my opinion) was that of President Logan in the hit Fox series, 24. Now, this show is kind of intense, often brutal and violent and not to everyone’s tastes, but if you want to experience an excellent example of how a professional actor imbues every single moment of screen time with an appropriate emotional reaction — largely in subtle facial expressions for the camera — it’s well-worth subscribing to Hulu for a couple months to watch Mr Itzen’s award-winning work as this fascinating, albeit nefarious, character.

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