Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
Photo: 27-year-old Charlie Chaplin, sans mustache and makeup in 1916.
REFLECTIONS ON CREATING A LIFE IN THE PERFORMING ARTS
Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
One of the most memorable things I learned in my days as an acting student came from my favorite teacher, Eileen Vorbach: “All the things you think are fucked up about yourself? That’s your gift.” What I think she meant was that the ways in which each of us feels like we’re an outsider or that we’re broken or that we’re just plain weird are the same traits that both fuel our creativity and make us interesting to watch onstage.
Aye, there’s the rub. In order to use our gifts we have to be both willing and able to allow ourselves to be seen. For most of us, showing the world what we consider to be our least attractive traits is damn hard. Every fiber of our being urges us to protect ourselves, to keep those shadowy traits tucked away out of view. But if we give in to the urge to play it safe and keep our true selves hidden, we cut ourselves off from the elemental source of our creative energy. It’s quite the paradox.
And, it’s quite the challenge. Our innate instinct for survival (self-protection) and the ways we’ve been socialized (to be polite, to “put our best foot forward” and so on) combine to create a powerful barrier to freedom of expression. This self-imposed layer of protection, while necessary in “real life”, prevents those of us in the performing arts from accessing and using the beautiful mess of our full humanity in our work. That’s why we need to learn how to get out of our own way. You wanna be an actor (or dancer or singer or fill-in-the-blank)? Then you’re going to have to learn to embrace your vulnerability.
To be vulnerable means to be “open to being wounded”. Why on Earth would anybody want that? It sounds scary and downright foolish. But think of what the opposite way of being implies: being defended, closed off, protected, hidden. As author and researcher Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Learning to be vulnerable is also the key to getting out of your own way.
All of the mainstream acting techniques place a high value on the use of the actor’s true self as a means to convey the truth of a character or a dramatic situation. Stanislavski recommends using one’s observational skill and personal memories. Strasberg’s Method teaches the actor to use their own experiences to develop an emotional and cognitive understanding of the character. Meisner favored a more spontaneous, irrational approach that requires actors to put their attention on the other people in the scene, which then allows their honest emotional responses to be expressed in the moment. What these acting schools all have in common is that they stress authenticity and reject artifice. To be authentic is to be genuine, real, truthful, worthy of trust. To that definition I would add unfiltered, direct, transparent, amenable to influence and, you guessed it, vulnerable.
We’ve all seen performances where the acting feels false, insincere and/or forced. That kind of work is the death knell of theater. As soon as we sense any kind of fakery onstage we detach and lose interest. This also happens to the other actors who have the misfortune to share a stage with an inauthentic performer. When an actor is unable to share their true self, it often indicates a lack of training, an overabundance of anxiety or some combination of the two. It is painful to witness.
I’ll have more to share with you on the subject of anxiety next time.