All puns intended and my apologies to Arthur Miller for the title of this piece. But I’ve been thinking for a very long time about the dilemma actors have of using themselves fully. I’ve studied every major acting technique of the 20th Century. And I know that many actors . . . and famous ones at that . . . have great successes using Meisner-like imagined preparations. But that never worked for me. Me . . . I had to use my own experiences and emotions . . . virtually all of myself . . . to create a role.
I also studied Meisner with Meisner, Uta with Uta, and improv with Spolin. But Strasberg’s Method most resonated with me. That’s not to say that I didn’t use those other acting gizmos such as adjustments and as-ifs. But my favorite part of acting was using Lee’s Sense Memory exercises and any other raw tidbits of myself to create a character. Throw in some animal characteristics, get that personal object cranking that makes me cry, and create the energy of that haunted place in Beverly Glen where I used to live that scares the hell out of me. Toss about an adjustment like thinking I would float away if I didn’t touch something solid. Yes, using myself became an absolute obsession.
I also did extensive research when needed. We did Brecht on Brecht years ago at the Strasberg Institute. Because that’s what Brecht’s epic theatre style demanded of us. Just tell the story! Then the audience will feel the emotion. A tall task for emotional and emoting Method actors. Especially since I was portraying a Jewish wife married to an Aryan doctor in 1939 who on the phone agonized over taking the children and getting out of Berlin. Fast.
Where was all this agony leading me? I howled when I heard Daniel Day Lewis thank his wife for putting up with some strange men that he brought home at the Academy Awards two years ago. He’s famous for inhabiting a role so totally that he stays in character throughout a movie. Sounds harrowing, but it definitely works for him. And he’s done such a large body of work that he must have found some way to cope with this total immersion process. And still stay safe and sane.
I often wondered if all this preparation was personally a hindrance or a healing. Using myself helped my acting enormously. But eventually I began to wear about the edges. I had panic attacks at that time, and they grew progressively worse. And at times I thought characters were not only inhabiting my psyche but actually speaking through me. I remember playing the crazy second-act girl in Last of the Red Hot Lovers and suddenly hovering above my body watching myself perform. It was eerie. And also exhilarating. I got terrific reviews that night. But at what expense?
It reminded me of that Nietzsche quote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”. So when you act and keep staring into that big ol’ abyss how do you keep it from staring back at you? Here’s some ideas I came up with . . .
Hang around other actors. I don’t know how I would have survived in those days without the community created by the Actor’s Studio, the Strasberg Institute and other acting companies I was affiliated with over the years. You may disagree, but only actors and other creative people really understand what you go through when you obsess about your art.
And, let’s face it, we not only embrace but brandish our craziness like a glittering beacon before us. So it’s beyond nice when we can look at others and say, “I know you!” And have them do the same for us.
I held many a colleague who cried over lost roles. And rejoiced with others when they won theirs. I remember the day when Jim Kelly, who was in my class at the Institute, got cast in Enter the Dragon. And made movie history. I also remember wrapping myself around a toilet and weeping about something or other while my good friend, Corinne, stood over me screaming, “Perhaps it’s time you went to a therapist!” Which brings me to . . .
Go to therapy. Shelley Winters said in her autobiography that therapy saved her life. It certainly did mine. Here I was gazing into the abyss on a daily basis. And my psychic guidance was turning up the volume to boot; it took me years to understand and control that gift. I was becoming that monster. Using myself not only unleashed angry demons but all those tortured souls that I portrayed.
Over 30 years of therapy saved me. And the therapist that Corinne eventually sent me to did advanced things like regression and guided imagery that healed me on a deeper level than talk therapy ever could.
A recent documentary on Abraham Lincoln explained that “He looked directly into the darkness. Most people look away”. Perhaps that’s what made him so great. Lincoln also suffered from severe depression and invited mediums to the White House to cope with his demons. They hadn’t invented therapy yet and people had to figure it out themselves. So I found it interesting that Lincoln chose an alternative form of spirituality to heal his dark ills. Therapy is quicker, but all by yourself you can also discover a way to . . .
Find balance. Some people meditate. Others exercise. Others seek spiritual paths. I’m really sold on doing all three and more to chase the monsters away. I also like the structure that these disciplines demand. They truly fish me out of the abyss.
I also have learned to select my thoughts and feelings through these processes. It doesn’t mean that I know what I’m thinking and feeling 100% of the time. Who would want that as it can put the kebosh on that spontaneity so important for good acting. And other things I do like counseling and psychic co-creation. But practicing balance disciplines do help you negotiate through life in a focused, exemplary way. Finding personal and professional balance will make you soar instead of sink.
Oh, and don’t forget fun! That’s important too. RAZZberry! Gosh, I think I’m dating myself.
Leave Your Comments About The View from the Abyss Below
What do you do to chase away your demons? Do you have some sort of discipline that works for you? How do you select your thought and emotions?