Sunday, June 17, 2012

When You Need To Cry Onstage

As an organic company with a focus on intense plays, we tend to work on material that requires huge breakdowns onstage.  This season alone, we've done Closer and Three Sisters, both of which call for large swaths of emotion.  People are constantly asking:

How are we able to bring ourselves to tears in our work on a nightly basis?

The answer is going to seem unsatisfactory:  We insist on a belief in the situation.  We don't insist on crying.  In point of fact, it's rarely necessary to actually cry.  If an actor and an audience believes a situation to be real, then the amount of emotion is inconsequential.  The simplest truth goes a long way.  Marlon Brando used to say, "A little bit of blood is still blood." - and that's coming from man constantly regarded as the most sensitive actor ever...who cried ONCE in his film work (Last Tango in Paris).  Crying without a supported reality is about as effective as a faked orgasm.  You may fool the audience, but you'll never get the satisfaction you were looking for.

Generally, when actors are called upon to cry, they think they need to create a time in their lives when they were that distraught.  Especially considering that The Seeing Place builds shows organically, people assume that we encourage people to go back in their lives and find a time to relive onstage.  Many even think that people like Lee Strasberg built his whole teaching career around this theme.  This has to be the biggest piece of misinformation about "THE METHOD".

There was a sign above Lee Strasberg's office when he was alive.  The sign read, "It's not about emotion."  People seem to think that his work revolved around "Emotional Memory".  That couldn't be further from the truth.  First of all, you can't work on an "Emotional Memory".  You have to create an Affective Memory (the circumstances of a past experience), which may or may not lead to an Emotional Memory.  But we can't work for emotions.  Emotions are like deer - if you confront them, they run away.

Even with that, Affective Memory is the most talked about and least done exercise of Strasberg's.  He even said that if you work on more than one or two Affective Memories in an entire lifetime, then you're probably a leading actor with a focus in the classics.  I've been studying Lee's work for seven years.  I still haven't worked on an Affective Memory - and I've only seen it done a few times in class.

Emotions take care of themselves.  Really, what is of importance to create is the character's situation.  If I come home from work to this dramatic break-up scene, then all I need do to break down in some kind of a way is to believe that my scene partner is someone I want to come home to.  The script will take it from there.  I don't need to create the time when my heart was broken.  I can literally let my heart be broken on a nightly basis.

The moral of the story:  Reality is much bigger than real tears.  Acting isn't crying - it's believing.

Now, let's say that your director INSISTS that you must CRY RIGHT HERE AT THIS POINT IN THE SCENE!...

Here's what Strasberg would say (with a smile):

"Okay.  Good.  First, what I would do is to do nothing.  What if you were going to cry anyway, and if you just RELAX, the tears will come?  If that doesn't work, then I like to go way upstage where people can't see and pull a nose-hair.  That brings tears to my eyes.  If I've pulled so many nose-hairs that I have none left, then I fake it - there's an audience out there!  And then I figure out that night why I needed to do that and what needs to be addressed in my work."


Thoughts?  Experiences?  Share with us!

16 comments:

  1. I once had to shoot a scene in a film where I'd be looking out a window, and then turn around toward the camera and have a single tear fall down my face. It was a long day and we had been shooting out of sequence (as usual) so it had been a little tricky getting my body to give into the emotions I needed to encourage that tear to fall. But I got lucky - the sun came out really brightly through the window, so for each take I'd simply stared into the light for a good five seconds and then turn around, and wouldn't you know it - there were tears! :)

    But the most interesting part of the story: the acting was there underneath the tears, so in addition to the physical response there was a sense of distress and confusion in my performance (I played a bride who was having cold feet.) Because of this, the tear was rendered unnecessary and wasn't even used in the final cut. (Seriously!)

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  2. Bravo. This is the crux of the matter for many actors. "Emotions take care of themselves. Really, what is of importance to create is the character's situation. If I come home from work to this dramatic break-up scene, then all I need do to break down in some kind of a way is to believe that my scene partner is someone I want to come home to. The script will take it from there. I don't need to create the time when my heart was broken. I can literally let my heart be broken on a nightly basis."

    "Trying" to cry everynight (in some respects, trying to do anything) can be tough and frustrating onstage. I have to allow myself to think about the situation, apply Hagen's Substitution/Transference and pay attention to the actually verbs and actions that are inherent with in the text. Another great post!

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    1. Thanks, Ben - so glad you enjoyed it!

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  3. Where is my Kleenex! Funny, just seeing the word "cry" made me tear. I can cry on queue (if requested) just about every time. I'm not sure why. Maybe I'm lucky in that I usually "like" the people I perform with to help make the scene real. But if there is a time when that is difficult, I can close my eyes really tight and that will normally start a tear or two. If I had to cry for film, it would probably be a problem if more takes were needed because I'm not a pretty sight after crying like some people. It takes a bit for the swelling to go down. (To Erin, an edited out tear; makes me wanna cry.)

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    1. Ha! Thanks goodness all of my crying came at the end of THREE SISTERS - my eyes get all swollen and I lose my voice if I cry for a while! :-/

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  4. Vaseline under the eyelids!

    That's what they used on me in one of my earliest acting experiences, 12 years old making a sci-fi movie as part of a kids' film camp!

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    1. Ha! When I was in my first play at the age of 9, I had my first experience with spirit gum on the face, which consequently produced some tears...

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    2. When I was a kid, I used to yawn for like ten minutes offstage, before entering. When I got older, I graduated to the school of hitting myself offstage to get myself worked up. And then, before I started studying, I would just keep wasabi packets on me.

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  5. I’ve cried on stage; I’ve cried in rehearsal; I’ve cried in life. Rarely, if ever, was crying planned at any of these times. When playing Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, I worked very hard to play the final scene with the full emotion of tragically losing a young man who was like a son to me and knowing that I had a hand in his death. When I was “off,” I expected no tears – getting through the scene was more than enough. When I was “on,” – I didn’t expect tears, but they did come sometimes, though not with every performance. I learned that the act of crying on stage is much like it is in my real life: it simply happens, often not when I expect it. I try my best to create the emotional reality of the character in the time and space I am given, and all actors know that that has variations from performance to performance. If the tears fall or don’t fall, so be it.

    As for working with a director who demands that an actor cry on cue, I fortunately have escaped that. And I hope that I continue to work with directors who have some idea of the actor’s process and know how superficial and downright silly that type of direction can be. I do think men still get a bit of a pass on this. Men may be expected to be emotionally distraught, but not necessarily to cry.

    I will remember the nose hair trick; it might come in handy!

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    1. Men may get a pass. You may be right. But I've certainly had major crying breakdowns written into the last three shows in which I've acted.

      Really, though, I think men mostly sweat their emotions out much of the time. Food for thought.

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  6. If I truly understand the character and the circumstances and my state of being is open and available, the tears will come. If the tears don't come, a theater audience wouldn't notice if everything else was truthfully there. For film, it would be more difficult but again it's understanding what is happening and trusting your sensitivity. Perhaps it would help to prepare a personalization just in case the tears don't come and the director insists. I would find it more challenging to sob uncontrollably because for me that would definitely involve inner work that would include an affective memory and a "what if" to sustain my truthfulness and reality. - MAnisi

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  7. This is one of those topics that I find kind of funny when speaking to people about acting that don't have an understanding of craft. They always wanna know how I remember the lines, or what it's like to kiss someone, or have I ever done a love scene, or be naked, or can I cry on queue. My response is always pretty simple; that I don't worry about that stuff. I only try to be honest and real with whatever that given situation is. Most times I receive blank stares, ha. But I'm not concerned with those either....

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  8. When I used to try to force the tears, the further away they fled. One time in an opening night my cast mates and I were moved to tears by our situation, and when we went backstage the director chastised us for crying. She said, 'the audience should be crying, never the actor!' That definitely scarred me for awhile.

    I agree, if you're not feeling it don't force it. The older I get and the more I allow my emotions to flow (when appropriate) when I feel them in real life, the more the emotional aspect of my instrument is in tune on stage.

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    1. Personally, I think that actors should try not to cry (and maybe fail) - just like people do in life. :O)

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