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Michael Costello

Facing a Prime Fear in Acting
by Michael Costello

March 2000

A psychological barrier that often prevents actors from achieving success in their work is their unwillingness to take on the character’s emotional and/or psychological state within the given circumstances of the script. I’m not speaking of a conscious rejection. Most often actors are not even aware they are avoiding these states. Their inability to fully express the inner life of the character is usually attributed to lack of talent or training, or some other flaw that is far from the real problem.

When an actor is unable to realize the character’s emotional/psychological state in class, one of the first things I ask him to do is to look at his willingness to enter that state. Most often than not, I find that the actor doesn't like the character or doesn't feel comfortable with the character’s actions. The fear is that if they portray convincingly a character with certain objectionable traits they will be perceived as being that kind of person. They don’t yet know how to personalize the character’s flaws without making it personal.

The actor must be willing to own the character’s behavior, whatever it is; to embody the character with joy, even if the character is ugly and disagreeable. The actor playing Richard the Third must, with his whole being, love being Richard or it will be a long, torturous evening. Most times, though, what makes the actor uncomfortable is something small; an area within himself that is sensitive and he fears exposing.

In playing a character, the actor must be on the inside looking out; viewing the events in which he is involved from the character’s point of view. If the actor finds the character or any of his actions distasteful, it can be very hard for the actor to walk in the character’s shoes, see life through the character’s eyes or feel the character’s feelings. The actor’s judgments will keep him at a distant from the character, and all he will ever be able to present on stage will be a shell of the character.

Actors must find a way to work outside of their moral and ethical comfort zone. When actors face a romantic scene that requires being physically and emotionally familiar with each other, I suggest they create a contract between them -- a structure that defines what is acceptable and what isn't, and that it is perfectly all right to be in love within the confines of the scene. It eliminates all uncertainty and creates an environment in which the actors feel free to give themselves fully to the scene. The same is true for any material that is uncomfortable. The actor can make a contract with himself that says, in effect, I give myself permission within the world of this story to experience and express this character with total commitment and that it will not reflect in any way on who I am, except maybe that I’ll be thought of as a very good actor.

Certainly we all have our limits--even great actors. We each must decide what we are willing to do and what we are not willing to do. What is important is that we know that the choice we are making is based on personal standards and that we are not sabotaging our work by thinking it is something else.

Sometimes the resistance to act is even more basic than avoiding uncomfortable feelings. It’s that the actor has not made the commitment to be an actor. The heart wants to do it but the mind knows all the reasons not to. Until the actor commits completely, and puts his desire to act into action, he will never know. The willingness to act must be in us if we ever hope to fulfill our dream to act.

This article was first published in the ACOT Newsletter under the title Acting Tips: Willingness to Act.

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