Acting with Passion - Emotions on Cue


The connections between your body and your brain are even more powerful than the voice of the frightened child that lives in your head. We must harness that power so you can count on it every time you act.

In a few minutes you’re going to stop reading and begin your first exploration of self-tuning. For example, you will touch your face, as we know the tiny muscles lurking there have spent years reminding you to hide feelings. Think of how often you’ve seen fellow actors looking like they are wearing a kind of mask. They stand up to act and their face is not the same as it was ten minutes earlier during the break when you were all talking together. You’ve probably felt it in yourself at times. Children learn to construct a mask very early. They are trying to please those adults and know that revealing various emotions will not be well received. A popular parental command is, ‘Wipe that expression off your face.’ Interesting, hmm?

We begin with your face and upper body since this is the armour that tends to be the most obvious and hence easiest for us to approach, and then move on to the whole body. Think about what actors we all became at a very early age.

  1. We learned to make a neutral face, not permitting the muscles around the mouth and eyes to express anger. We lifted the chin and made ‘brave shoulders’ that didn’t reveal how frightened we really were.
  2. We learned to smile when we were sad, even as the chest began to tighten and we wanted to cry.
  3. We developed muscles under our eyes to prevent tears, and tension in the neck to control the back of the throat where crying really begins.
  4. We learned to clench our jaw and tighten our lips to suppress disagreeable sounds or words – even as the stomach would clench, knees begin to lock and hands become rigid.
  5. We became expert at tightening all the muscles that move the pelvis so that any expression of anger would be immediately suppressed – often a smile might be produced at the same time.
  6. The mask, securely in place, fooled everyone, no matter how heavy and tight the armour became.

These habits produced masks and armour that protected us – or so it seemed at the time. The problem for actors is that with the tiniest ‘danger’ cue, all those muscle groups are recruited. Hardly helpful for an on-camera audition!

Of course the insidious facts about these tensions is that they are triggered by your Intellect and also deep in your unconscious – in your limbic system where your survival instincts have been threatened. Trying to ‘relax’ the muscles as in a classic ‘relaxation’ process would do you no good. Nor do you have the luxury of a half-hour relaxation at the moment you are cued that the camera is rolling.

Instead, we are going to signal directly to the muscles with movement and touch. Do not underestimate the remarkable sensory feedback from the lightest touch. We are so accustomed to forcing our bodies to do difficult things. ‘Lift that leg higher, pull up your knees!’ shouts the ballet master. ‘Add another twenty push-ups and add another mile to your morning run.’ Doesn’t that sound good?

Acting with passion will take you down a different road. You can work out as vigorously as you wish. But to tune yourself and access your emotions on cue takes a more nurturing, gentle approach. Let’s take a moment and marvel at the sensitivity your skin. Yes, that outer layer we carry around and never think about unless it itches. Your skin is one your most potent sense organs. Doctors frequently note the connection between emotions and the skin. You will learn to communicate with this fragile bundle of sensitivity with the lightest of touches. As you feel this touch reverberate throughout your body you will learn to trust the powerful messages you can send with so little effort.

Opening the Dungeon activates the entire body and all of your feelings. Even though Reich attributed specific feelings to specific areas of the body, I have found them to be quite intertwined. In your Dungeon, they all live together: joy, surprise, hate, love, anger, fear, greed, abandonment and infinitely more. Don’t be surprised if you encounter anger when you open your broken heart or touch sadness, only to then discover terror.

Unlocking feelings through the release of these subtle tensions is like peeling an onion one little layer at a time. You may feel as though you have Mt Vesuvius living inside you, but we won’t release it all at once. So, patience please. All we are looking for is a crack of the Dungeon door opening.

If you can work with a partner or a small group there are some advantages. It is very helpful to see the muscular structures in someone else. Looking in the mirror will not be particularly useful except now and then to check something specific. Ultimately however, when you act you will be on your own so learning to sense when your back is straight, your chest open and your arms free is your ultimate goal. If it is most likely you will be working through these exercises by yourself, you will be fine.

This is an excerpt from Acting with Passion which publishes in spring 2015.