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This will be the last in this series of articles. We’ll wrap up with a couple more personality disorders and discuss how to use some of what I’ve written about.

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is more severe and, among other symptoms, involves repetitive, ritualistic behaviors and persistent, worrisome thoughts. The personality disorder is manifested by rigid conformity to rules. They need everything to be perfect and feel that unless they’re in control, things will not go well. Poor roommate material.

The avoidant personality disorder is basically a really bad case of shyness. They feel inhibited in any kind of social situation and are easily hurt by criticism. Don’t sneak up on them and yell, “I hate your shoes!”

If you run through a mental list of people you know, you’re likely to believe some of them have one of these disorders. You may even see a little of yourself in one of them. But don’t self-diagnose because you’ll probably be wrong. And please, unless you happen to be a board certified psychologist, don’t ever label other people with any disorder or other psychological profile and then share your thoughts with others. That’s a seriously bad idea. None of these articles should be interpreted as scientifically accurate absolutes. I’m not a psychologist; I’m an actor and acting coach and these are tools I’ve used to help ignite a creative approach to development of a character.

At the beginning of this series I compared a human personality to an onion because viewing a personality that way makes it easier to construct a new one. At the very center of our own personalities are those things we keep secret, sometimes even from ourselves. Those secrets that we are aware of, but don’t want others to know about (fatal flaws) are the secrets that we’ll carefully guard at almost any cost. That’s the best place to start with your new character’s personality. Those secrets may be in the script’s text or you may have to invent them. They give you something internal to work against and clues to behavioral characteristics. For example, let’s suppose your character harbors a secret, conscious urge to murder people. His/her superego is doing a good job of keeping that urge in check so nobody is actually getting killed. But, that doesn’t stop the urge. Certainly he/she doesn’t want anyone to know about that secret. And good old ego knows that when it comes to the character’s long-term interests, being seen by others as a potential killer is probably not helpful! So, move out to the next layer and review ego defense mechanisms. How is this character going to guard against that secret and protect him/herself from its negative consequences? Deny, suppress or create a reaction formation around it? Find the mechanism that is the best fit for you, the actor. Sometimes, others can tell when someone is in denial. Other defense mechanisms might not be as obvious. The key for you is to enhance your sense of who your character is. That enhancement will offer up some very interesting choices for every facet of your character’s personality.

How about a personality disorder? Those are the outer layers that present a lot of non-verbal opportunities. For example, it may not be in your script but perhaps you decide to play with the idea of your character being obsessive-compulsive. There might be a moment where you can rearrange props on a table to be just so. Then, if another actor handles the one of those props and doesn’t return it to exactly the right place, you make a point of re-setting it the way you want it. If one of the props gets handled and misplaced still one more time, you have a golden comedic moment in the making.

Another big advantage to shaping the psychology of your character is the audience gets to know the character on a deeper level. Psychological characteristics are instinctively sensed. This makes your character predictable on a subliminal level. That predictability is powerful stuff in a performance because audience members will learn to expect certain characteristics from your character. In comedy, that can turn just a beat of silence before reacting to a stimulus, into a hilarious moment as the audience says to themselves, “Oh, boy. Here it comes,” and then laugh that much more when their prediction of your character’s reaction comes true. In drama it can be effective in similar fashion especially with the added bonus of pushing against the predictability. A passive and dependent character that suddenly becomes violent and murderous in the last act can shock an audience even more if you have internalized its urge to violence and exhibit behavior that guards against its discovery.

Creating a believable character means inventing a new personality, discarding your personality and becoming completely immersed in the new one. Knowing how personality traits affect behavior will provide you with a better foundation for a character and expose you to better and more effective choices.

Break a leg.

As promised at the end of the last article, we’re going to tackle personality disorders. They reside in one of the outermost layers of a personality “onion.” We can see them in action and they can be infuriating to others as well as to the people who demonstrate them. There are a lot of these and professional publications and organizations have categorized them using a lot of different criteria. But since I’m not a professional and this is a series about the employment of simplified psychology in an actor’s character development, my aim is to keep things as straightforward as possible.

First of all, a personality disorder is a personality trait that is maladaptive to the culture in which it is employed. Behavior that is acceptable in one culture will not necessarily be acceptable in another. The disorders are patterns of behavior that are inflexible and well ingrained. They can be the source of considerable distress.

Passive aggressive personality disorder may be manifested by resentment, skepticism and deliberate underperformance. This personality unloads its anger indirectly. For example, if a passive aggressive individual is asked to take out the trash, but does not want to, he/she will eventually take out the trash but do so angrily and in a rush, managing to spill a lot of it all over the kitchen floor.

Someone who always seems helpless and weak and constantly seeks reassurance from others is said to have a dependent personality disorder. They don’t like taking on responsibilities because they’re immature. They have very low self esteem and see themselves as useless and incapable. Not a lot of fun at a party.

If someone has a narcissistic personality disorder they see themselves as being superior to others and deserving of special treatment. He/she may be preoccupied with fantasies of well-deserved, enormous success. Could be that person who sits to your left in the dressing room.

A borderline personality is commonly underpinned by a desperate fear of abandonment and isolation. Wide fluctuations in mood will include rapid shifts between loving and hating. One second a borderline personality will see another person as wonderful, the next second that same person is seen as despicable. They’re considered unpredictable and even unstable. Do not let them near sharp objects.

I love personality disorders! They’re like a smorgasbord of ready-made choices for actors. You can pick and choose among all these traits and express them in performance. You can express them physically, emotionally or stash them away into subtext. Your character can be predictable or unpredictable or just plain “nuts.” They come in really handy when the playwright hasn’t given you a lot to go on.

There are plenty more of these disorders and I‘ll touch on a few more next time.

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.

(Let me take a moment to remind you I am not a psych professional. I spent three years working in a psychiatric clinic and received tons of training but that does not a psychiatrist or psychologist make. Everything I’m sharing in these articles is based on very superficial theories about human behavior that I have found really useful in my work as an actor.) 

We left off with a chapter concerning a character’s “fatal flaw.” If we put that flaw at the very center of our character’s personality, we can then start employing ego defense mechanisms to protect it. Remember, ego works to serve us in ways that benefit the long term. It doesn’t matter if those benefits are acceptable to society or not. The id wants what it wants and the ego decides how best to get it. The poor ego has to carry a lot of weight, doesn’t it? And it does not like being told it’s going about things in the wrong way, whether the criticism is coming from the personality’s superego or from someone else. Well, the ego has a quiver full of weapons it can use to offset any efforts to thwart it’s course.

Much of the time, ego defense mechanisms exist at one of the more inner layers of personality. People will employ them without even realizing it. But the other people around them might easily recognize defensive behavior. They’ll sense that “something just isn’t right” about what they’re hearing or seeing from the mechanism’s employer.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, denial. Good old denial. We know it when we see it and we all do it ourselves from time to time. This kind of denial isn’t about lying to others to cover up guilt. It’s about lying to oneself and totally buying into the lie. Let’s take another look at Shakespeare’s Richard III, this time the character of Lady Anne. In one of the play’s most well known scenes, Anne confronts Richard during a funeral procession. She knows he murdered her husband and father-in-law and she rips into him with a stream of invectives that could only come from a Shakespeare play. Yet, within just a few minutes, she is stopping Richard from committing suicide and fully agreeing to align herself with him. What the…? Why would she do that? What is her ego in search of that would drive her in such a counterintuitive way? In a historical context, to be a woman of royalty, widowed and essentially alone and powerless in the world, was a dangerous predicament. It’s understandable that Anne would search for effective protection under the circumstances. The task of that search falls to her ego. But Anne must know, on at least some level, that hooking up with Richard  cannot possibly be in her best, long term interests. He’s a murdering, sleazy liar and total creep. No good can come from such a relationship.

Enter denial, stage right. Her ego cloaks itself in denial and sends Anne a message: “Well, those murders were simply out of necessity. That’s just the way of the world. And besides, just look at him. It must be awful to live with those deformities. The poor man. Nobody to love him. Come on, Anne. Are you made of stone?” For a modern day woman that kind of inner monologue would be impossible. But for Anne, in her time and circumstances, Richard is better than no one. There you go. Denial overrides common sense but Anne’s ego is feeling all warm and fuzzy because, by using denial without even being aware of it, she has convinced herself that Richard is really an okay guy.

This is all about looking at a specific behavior, then understanding it because you have some sense of how and why people behave the way they do. The actor’s personality must give way to the character’s personality completely. For an actor playing Anne, knowing and internalizing the circumstances in their historical context will make Anne’s choice more believable for the actor. Then, her subtext can be that Anne is in denial. Once the actor believes the whole inner package enough, it will find it’s way into her performance, she will project it, the audience will read the denial and buy the choice.

In the last article I briefly went over id, ego and super ego, the three components of a personality that can be applied to character development. They’re right of the center of our onion. This time around let’s take a look at some application possibilities, starting with ego.

To begin with, I’m going to add a fourth component. I’m not aware of anything Freud had to say about this, but I’m guessing he might approve! That extra aspect is what I call the character’s “fatal flaw.” In an earlier article, I mentioned that all of us have secrets that we keep to ourselves: certain thoughts, beliefs and perhaps past transgressions. Buried amongst those secrets might be one that, if known to the outside world, could very well humiliate its keeper beyond repair. That’s the fatal flaw. An example can be found in Lès Miserables. When Jean Valjean allows Javert to escape the clutches of young revolutionaries who want him executed, Javert is shamed to the point of suicide. Why? What is it about his obsession with Valjean, an obsession that already informs us regarding Javert’s skewed personality, that would drive him to jump to his own death after being extended an act of mercy? In a very real sense, he’s allowing Valjean to execute him. It’s because he has been exposed; his fatal flaw has surfaced. Valjean has exposed Javert’s deepest fears. He’s a coward and a failure. All of that is pure conjecture on my part, of course. But it gives an actor an initial peek into Javert’s psyche and that can be built upon to shape the character.

If the ego fails to provide a character with what he/she needs and wants, the ego jumps in to defend itself. Here we’re adding another layer to the “onion.” There are a variety of defensive tricks at ego’s command. Looking again at Javert, his ego is pushing him to fulfill what it perceives as a need, the capture of Valjean. Valjean is, of course, just a symbol of what Javert is really after: affirmation of his competency and courage. His overactive ego has gone to great, unhealthy lengths to move Javert to protect his fatal flaw. The mechanism his ego has employed to shield itself might be compensation. But it is going too far. His ego is overcompensating to make up for the weakness that Javert really feels (whether he’s aware of it or not.) Then there’s a defense mechanism known as a reaction formation. It’s a form of overcompensation in which the character embraces what is actually feared. His frantic pursuit of Valjean constantly places Javert in the path of the failure he so greatly fears.

If you know what your character’s fatal flaw is (and, depending on the script, you might have to build it out of the whole cloth of your imagination) you have a really good frame of reference for determining an important facet of the new personality you’re creating. It gives you more than a character’s objective to work with. It begins to give you a “why;” why does the character want what he/she wants. By first internalizing the reason and then projecting it through behavioral choices, you give your character a little something extra that will make that character more real to you and thus to the audience.

I’ve been playing with some character development ideas over the years. They’re based upon three years of working in a psychiatric outpatient clinic. I had some 400 hours in the classroom and 40 hours a week in the clinic. I learned so much about human behavior that has since been a real help in my acting work.

When you’re shaping a character, just how deep do you go? Is it possible to go too deep? According to Jack Lemmon it’s possible. When he did The Days of Wine and Roses he went too deep during a scene that takes place in a mental institution. At least, that’s what he said in an interview some years back. He said he lost control and that’s something an actor should never do. But you can go plenty deep without losing control and find whole new levels and ideas that will enrich your character. For the next few entries I write, I’m going to share some theory with you. I hope it turns out to be useful.

What do we actors do, exactly? Actors invent new human beings. That’s a pretty simple definition that carries a lot of weight. After all, humans are very complex critters. Especially when it comes to personalities. A human personality is layered like an onion. So, we’re going to start peeling.

Personalities are, of course, invisible. How well can we really know anyone? I promise you, each of us has certain thoughts and we all do certain things that we don’t share with anyone else. (There are people that will say whatever is on their mind or behave however they choose, regardless of the consequences. They’re called “annoying” at best, “psychopathic” at worst.) We have to get along in society. And we want that to be as simple as possible. So there are things we keep to ourselves. That’s good. Some realities are yours and yours alone. Without them, you wouldn’t be human. Knowing the difference between what is appropriate behavior and what is inappropriate behavior is something we expect everyone to know.

When working on a character wouldn’t it be cool to get to know his/her secret realities? They’re right at the core of who that person is. There are outer layers we have to peel back, first. Next time we’ll get started.

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.

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!”

What’s your first step when it comes to building a character, especially for a role you’ve never played before? What’s the first thing you do when you pick up a script for the first time? Do you read through the entire play from cover to cover or do you flip through to find your scenes before reading anything else? I would guess most of us zero in on our scenes out of curiosity if nothing else. When you’ve finished looking over your scenes, then what? Is that when you read through the entire script?

I doubt very much if I’m the only one who does this but here’s what I do. I go to my scenes, first and immediately start making choices and jotting down notes. Once I’ve done that with all of my scenes, I go back and do it again. And again. I’ll even start learning my lines before I read the whole script. Crazy, I know. There’s a whole lot of information in the rest of the play that is bound to inform my character choices so I really should work within the context of the story. But frequently I’ve found I make my strongest choices that way. I never allow myself to become totally committed to these early impulses because I know they’re going to be shaded or changed during rehearsals. It’s surprising, though, how often I’ve ended up returning to those first ideas and using them in performance. Here’s my reasoning behind the idea:

In real life, by the time we’ve reached adolescence, our personalities are pretty well set. The basic wiring in our brains isn’t going to fundamentally change all that much. We’ll learn new things, become wiser and our interests will change and mature but we’ll still perceive the world around us and interact with it in basically the same ways. If one is shy at the age of sixteen, odds are that he/she will still be shy at the age of thirty. How he/she deals with shyness will evolve over time but the fact of foundational shyness will stay (I learned all that stuff working in a psychiatric outpatient clinic for three years). Since as actors we’re in the business of inventing new people and personalities, can’t we come closer to the character’s truth by shaping the personality outside of the circumstances of the play?

I’m not the type of guy who produces profound revelations so others must work this way, too.

What about you? Please share your thoughts. Thanks!