Archives for category: Teaching

So, we’re now looking at defense mechanisms. Last time around I got into some detail about denial because we’re all so familiar with it already. One more point about that mechanism: It’s sometimes referred to as “primitive” because it’s not very effective over the long term. Since this is not meant to be a series of articles on abnormal psychology, I won’t go into a lot of detail about other mechanisms. But here’s a summary of several more that you might find useful as you invent your new personality.

Regression is another primitive defense mechanism. It’s when someone seeks the shelter of an earlier stage of development. Someone who is regressing might start exhibiting behavior that is clearly out of the ordinary, like withdrawing from normal activity or becoming unusually reclusive.

Acting Out is primitive behavior, too. When someone has a difficult time facing their own anger, rather than express it verbally they will “act it out” nonverbally, like throwing an ashtray at you! A toddler whipping up a tantrum is a type of acting out many parents have to deal with.

Disassociation, also a primitive defense, is basically “unplugging” from reality until the hurtful, negative feelings are no longer a threat. An individual will even go so far as to separate from him/her self. Events and time slip on by without the individual’s awareness. Sometimes, people will disassociate themselves right into another personality or two, or three. Frequently incorrectly called “split personality” or “schizophrenia,” multiple personality disorder is a severe, deeply imbedded form of disassociation.

Compartmentalization is kind of like disassociation. Ever cheat on your taxes and sort of push that misbehavior aside, away from your other values and leave it to rot? Welcome to compartmentalization.

Projection is the misplacement of bad feelings onto someone or something that is really not the source of the feelings. Coming home after a bad day and taking it out on the dog is an example (Poor dog! Shame on you).

Reaction Formation is taking something negative or threatening and embracing it. That crazy cat lady with 150 felines crawling around her house might actually be deathly afraid of cats. If someone hates their boss they might behave like an insufferable suck up. Strange.

Those are examples of primitive ego defense mechanisms. They can be interesting pathways to the discovery of a character. They can be expressed in a character’s behavior. Think about some of the favorite theater characters you’ve portrayed in the past. Looking back, can you find scenes where he/she might have employed one of them? Or just read through any script, focusing on a character you would like to play and see what kind of ideas you can come up with; ideas that are kick started by looking for the use of primitive ego defense mechanisms.

Next time, we’ll take a look at mature, not so primitive, defense mechanisms.

I’ve been meaning to get to this for some time but my schedule has been mighty full!

In Part 2 of this series, we looked at the outermost layer of a personality and how transparent it can be. This time, we’re going to jump to the center of the “onion” and start to work our way out. It’s a lot easier to explain and understand that way.

Let’s begin with a crash course in a little Freudian theory. Freud has fallen into disrepute with many psychologists and psychiatrists but, nonetheless, he has posited one idea that works well for our purposes. That is, three factors which govern many aspects of a personality: id, ego and superego. I’m going to blow past most of the conscious and subconscious mind stuff Freud wrote about because once we go down that rabbit hole, things start to get pretty convoluted. But, as we go through this process I’ll be using those terms from time to time just for the sake of clarity. That’s because much of the time we humans behave in ways we’re not aware of.

We’ll start with id. The id is our inner pleasure seeker. The id is not always rational. It just wants what it wants, period. It also seeks out our basic human needs. When you’re feeling “needy” or feeling “frisky” that’s your id talking.

Then there’s ego. Ego gets a bad rap. Its purpose is commonly limited to one’s self image but it does more than that. The ego is more organized. It seeks ways to satisfy the id’s drive to the benefit of the long term and utilizes defensive mechanisms to justify its means. Those mechanisms will become really important in your acting work.

Finally, there’s super-ego. Your super-ego is your inner cop or judge. It decides whether choices you make are appropriate or not.

So, being just about as basic as possible, let’s sum up. The ego attempts to satisfy the id under the supervision of the super-ego. It could be said that criminals have weak super-egos. Hedonists possibly have overactive ids. Selfish people might have more active egos.

Those three components are at the center of the onion. They’re huddled in our subconscious for the most part. We don’t think about them. They just keep on doing what they do, like a heart beating. When they work in harmony, they help form the foundation for an emotionally healthy individual. When they don’t, things get interesting.

We’ll start playing around with the “Subconscious Trio” next time.

It’s a drug, acting in theater is. An addictive one. It must be. Oh sure, it starts out innocently enough. The first few doses go down easy, seductively. We get them slipped to us in high school or college or community theater. We’re hanging out with people just like us. And, damn! It’s so fun! The crowd laughs when they’re supposed to. They applaud us. Our friends and family compliment us. Acting is the most awesome thing, ever!

Then we go for it in the real world. (By now, we’re left with no choice in the matter. The needle is in to stay.) We do without money while we pursue it. We give up our days and nights to stay involved. It can take a dozen auditions before getting a callback or even a nibble. When you’re working regularly, it’s tempting to feel as though you’ll never be without work again. When you’re not working at all, it’s tempting to feel as though you will never work again.

There have been many evenings when, after working the day job for eight hours, the last thing I’ve wanted to do was go to the theater and do a show. I’ve continued to feel that way while dragging on wardrobe and killing time in the green room wishing the night was over, already.

But then, I step out onto the stage and there’s no place on earth I’d rather be.

We all have our reasons for pushing through the hard parts so we can get in front of an audience. What are yours?

Personally, I get off on the communal experience. It’s me, the rest of the cast, the crew and the audience all sharing a different place and time together. Here’s deal we make with the audience:

“Okay, you give us a few bucks and we’ll get up here and transport you away from your particular daily grind. You might learn something or maybe you’ll laugh your ass off for a couple of hours. Whatever. We’re going to bust humps to make some magic. And what all of us on stage, everyone backstage and all of you out there experience together will be totally unique. The next audience will not see or hear the exact same things you see and hear. Because this ain’t the movies, folks. And you get another, really interesting benefit out of the deal. We’re working without a net up here. You just might see us really embarrass ourselves. Enjoy!”

I think I’ve just talked myself into seeking out another fix.

Leslie Nipkow is an amazing talent. Her stage presence and believability are seamless. Lucky me, she was one of my scene partners in Wynn Handman’s class. Her work elevates the work of anyone fortunate enough to share the stage with her. You know that feeling you get after a performance in which everything clicked for you? You spent the entire show in “the zone?” That was how I felt every time Leslie and I worked on a scene together. What a buzz that is!

I had an audition for the Actor’s Studio and Leslie generously agreed to partner up with me. We had decided on a scene from Dylan by Sidney Michaels. We had spent weeks on it for class and it worked very well for us. The scene is between Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin. They had a tumultuous relationship on one level and a deep, mutual love on another. The scene we did shows both of those levels along with a significant emotional arc for both characters. It’s a great and challenging piece.

To get to the performance space at the Actor’s Studio we had to go up a set of narrow stairs and wait just outside a door for the call to go. While we were waiting I noticed Leslie had her arms extended and was pushing herself back and forth by pressing her open palms on the opposing walls of the stairwell. She was doing this at a pretty brisk pace and I was afraid she might fall down the stairs. But I knew Leslie well enough to keep my mouth shut.

After the audition, which went really well, I asked her why she had done that back and forth business on the stairs. “Because Caitlin is trapped,” she said. Simple enough, right? But the fact was, she had landed on a subtext for Caitlin and found a way to express it physically right on the spot. Waiting on those stairs she had discovered and, right up until the last second used, a focus mechanism that grounded her in Caitlin’s reality and exploited it.

What’s my point? Leslie could have skipped that step and still delivered a remarkable performance because that’s how talented she is. But she wasn’t about to give less than 100 percent of everything she knew and everything she had learned, no matter what. That’s what lifts her from ‘talented’ to ‘unbelievably amazing.’

Finding a way to “kick open the door” to a character’s mindset and world and using it consistently for every performance is one of those basics that we too often ignore. After working at our craft for a long time it’s easy to stop feeling the need for such things. I know I’m guilty of it, just hanging out in the green room until a few lines before the first entrance.

Sorry, Leslie. I’ve got to fix that.

This video speaks a lot of truth to everyone, especially actors and other artists. Take a moment and watch it.

That video is brilliant and everyone should see it. Better yet, everyone should live it.

It brought back a very fond memory. I was in Wynn Handman’s class in the mid-nineties. (If you’ve never heard of Wynn, Google his name. He’s one of the great gifts to American theatre.) In Wynn’s class you worked on whatever you wanted to work on. A monologue, one-person show, whatever. Or, if you had nothing specific in mind, Wynn would pair you off with another student and give you a scene to work on. He assigned a scene from Beyond the Horizon to a male/female pair of students.

Beyond the Horizon was Eugene O’Niell’s first full-length play. Written in 1920, it’s a story about two men in love with the same woman and the personal compromises each is willing to make to win her over.

The actors did their first read through in front of class. After the read through, Wynn got up and made his comments and gave his notes. He started by telling us that O’Niell’s play was a uniquely American tragedy. He then explained what constituted an American tragedy. One of the most profound facets of American life is the freedom to choose the life we want to live. In 1920 that choice was not and, in some cases, is still not available in many of the world’s other cultures. In those places, from the time one is born their life is mapped out for them: where they will live, how they will earn a living and even whom they will marry. But as Americans we have the freedom to make our own, individual life choices and follow dreams no matter how crazy they may seem to others. We can choose the path we want for our lives and even change paths if we want to. An American tragedy results when someone makes the wrong choice. Wynn closed those remarks by saying to the class, “And here’s to all of you talented people for choosing the right path!”