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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.

We’ll finish up our cursory look at defense mechanisms with a brief examination of “mature” defense mechanisms.

For the person utilizing it, a mature defense mechanism is thought to be more helpful than a primitive one. For one thing, they can be  learned on a conscious level and with practice help an individual feel better about themselves and more comfortable in their environment. Here’s a sampler.

Sublimation is redirecting unacceptable thoughts or impulses. If you feel like beating the crap out of somebody, but instead choose to work out on a punching bag, you’re sublimating. Or, if one is capable of seeing humor in their own unacceptable impulse they can derail the impulse. Fantasy is another means of sublimation. If you’re angry about not getting any callbacks for six months and feel the impulse to fire your loyal, hard working agent, allowing yourself to imagine and focus on a successful career will take the edge off.  Are you working on a character whose behavior belies their thoughts or impulses? It can be a lot of fun to behave appropriately toward other characters while thinking very inappropriately about them. Don’t forget: you’re building a new personality with its own secrets. It’s amazing what you can do with those secrets.

Compensation provides escape from the pain of focusing on a perceived weakness by shifting focus to a strength. Maybe you don’t do great auditions but in performance you rock the house. It’s pretty obvious how the latter serves the ego’s long term needs better than the former. This works very nicely in comedy. Think about Felix Unger from The Odd Couple. He may be a neurotic mess but he sure knows how to make a great sandwich or bowl of spaghetti, I mean linguini (there’s an Odd Couple reference there; if you didn’t catch it you really need to read that play or see the movie).

Assertiveness is a comfortable zone between passivity and aggression. It’s refusing to be a welcome mat while recognizing that too much aggressive behavior will be counterproductive. You can get your needs across in a rational and acceptable way by asserting yourself without threatening or hurtful language or behavior. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella does that when she’s trying to straighten out Stanley. That’s a tough road, throwing mature assertiveness up against committed, primitive behavior. But in the long term, it better serves her needs to do so.

Well, that’s enough for defense mechanisms. Remember, they’re learned behaviors. Primitive ones only provide a short term defense but the mature ones better serve the long term and are less self-destructive. They are an important layer to any personality and exploring their usage for a particular role can help reveal sub textural ideas for your character.

Next up: Personality, or Behavior Disorders. They bring us closer to the “skin” of a character and offer a wealth of choices.

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.

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.

This is the second article in a series about some psychological aspects of character development. In the first article I defined acting as the invention of a new, human personality. Personalities are multi-layered, like an onion. And in this article we start peeling.

WYSIWYG is an acronym used by web designers and it stands for ‘What you see is what you get.’ It’s used to describe certain web designing applications. In describing the outer layer of a personality I would amend that to the unpronounceable  WYSMBWYGBIASPOTWS or, ‘What you see may be what you get but it’s a small part of the whole story.’ Okay, I suck at acronyms. Marlon Brando put it nicely when he said that everyone is an actor. That’s true and it’s important to remember. All of us, with rare exception, adapt our personalities to current circumstances. Your director knows a certain ‘you’ but the ‘you’ your parents, spouse or partner knows is quite different. As I said in the first article, we all move through society in ways that we believe are most appropriate. It’s this layer of your character that the audience sees. To use the onion metaphor, the outer layer also happens to be the thinnest layer and it can easily fall away given the right circumstances.

Shakespeare’s Richard III, by all outward appearances, is a sardonic, sociopathic beast. But in his first speech we see a bit of that outer layer flake away when he says of himself,

“…I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton, ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature…”

(As an aside, it’s interesting that he blames nature, not God for his deformities. In a time when God was universally accepted as the Creator, what does that tell us about Gloucester?)

We’ve all heard the expression, “I can see right through him.” Seeing through that first layer is pretty easy for most people. And in Richard’s case, under that tough, Machiavellian façade is a man who feels totally inadequate. Shakespeare has given us early insight into Richard to make him a somewhat more sympathetic character.  But, on the other hand, one look at the guy and you have a pretty good idea of why he’s so bitter. Shakespeare has just made it easier for us.

So that’s the outer layer. The easiest one. What does your audience see and what do your character’s words tell us about your freshly minted personality? Are you guarding against something? Is there something about the things you say that reveal an important aspect of your character’s nature? You shouldn’t have much trouble discerning that sort of thing. It’s going to get a little more complicated and challenging as we go deeper. Every layer has something interesting teach us.

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.

During a party a few years ago a younger actor (more and more of them are younger, lately!) asked me for some tips on auditioning. I wasn’t sure what to tell her because I was not the best at auditions. So I started out by telling her just that. Then, I started thinking out loud with her and this idea about the ‘balance of power’ materialized.

When auditioning, keep the balance of power in your favor. Don’t give it all to the auditors. Since you have no way of knowing what they’re thinking anyway, why give them more control than they already have? You won’t be the one who decides upon the look of the character you’re reading for. You’re not going draw any conclusions by reading your own resume’. For all you know, the director already knows whom he wants for the part.

What you do control completely is your performance. That gives you the power over your audition. Even if you’re reading for Steven Speilberg, the moment you begin, he is putty in your hands. You can take him anywhere you choose. You’re the one with the acting talent, not him. That gives you a lot of muscle. So, show off. Own the room. Take it to the limit. Break rules. Show him, or whomever, who’s boss. Then, if you don’t get the part, you still have the satisfaction of knowing you did one hell of an audition. And so the real loser is not you. It’s the production that’s losing out.

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.