The Best Language for Talking to Yourself
Grumble grumble grumble grumble grumble
Don’t overthink. Just do. Feel the impulse. Get out of your own way. Follow your gut.
Direction like this is a familiar refrain to me. Being too thinky is a charge frequently levelled at actors. I’m guilty. It draws from a division in which we are head actors vs body actors. You might have your own vocabulary - mind and heart or something.
In this separation of the world, some actors spend every moment buried in text analysis and worry. The others just get up and do it. Most systems of acting try to find a happy medium between the two but the idea that you have to be one or the other pops up everywhere. I came across it this week in an interview with Vincent Cassell.
I can’t help feel that the implication that if you want to break everything down in a script and examine its constituent parts like an engineer, then when you reassemble it you will give a performance like an engineer, is anti-intellectualist. At the end of the day, we all have a sense of ‘me’, a voice inside. Our job is to harness that voice for an audience’s entertainment. If drawing lines under stage direction does that, then why not?
But recently, I’ve been wondering if it’s not that I’m too thinky. Maybe I’m not thinky enough. Or maybe I think wrong.
Picture Yourself in a Visualization Exercise
As actors, we try to access the bit of our brain which produces that voice efficiently in order to give truthful performances, and we do so with a very limited understanding of the brain.
We seem to have hit upon ways of communicating with ourselves that go beyond me muttering to myself about trying to find tinned sardines in oil not tomato sauce while walking around LIDL.
Close your eyes. Picture yourself covered in mud. It’s a nourishing, warm mud. The weight and warmth relax your muscles. Now picture it sliding off. Give it a hand. Start scooping handfuls of mud off yourself and fling them away. Fling! Fling! Fling! Now scraaaaaaape the remnants off, and step out of the mess of mud at your feet. You feel renewed. Your skin is glowing and fresh. You’ve been reborn, filled with energy and relaxation.
You may have been led in an exercise like this before a rehearsal, in an acting class, before going on stage… But equally the tone might be familiar to you if you’ve ever been led through a guided meditation or consulted a hypnotist. We use visualizations a lot but never seem to talk about why they work. Maybe the imagination is a better language than just words for talking to ourselves.
If that’s true, I’d like to know if all imagination exercises have to be tailored to the individual or if there are enough shared experiences that we can develop a consistent language.
In last year’s Netflix documentary Stutz, Jonah Hill interviews his therapist. Phil Stutz is credited as the therapist to the stars, Hollywood’s go-to guy to help you be productive and happy. During the documentary, he describes a few of the exercises that he gives to his clients to help them cope with a variety of situation. He calls these exercises tools. Feeling unmotivated? There’s a tool for that. Holding a grudge? There’s a tool for that. Paralyzed by fear? Yep, tool.
Five of these tools were published in 2010 in the book he co-authored with his protégé Barry Michels, The Tools. Each tool is a visualization exercise, one general enough to apply to anyone. They focus on helping you feel nice emotions to get through life - love, gratitude, courage and so on.
Actors have been working like this for ages, and not just with nice emotions. If you’ve ever used an affective memory or a substitution, you’ve used a visualization exercise. But there’s a difference. In these techniques, specific real life memories are used to affect a fictional script. The tools, used to affect real life, are fictional and general.
In both cases, the active part of your brain communicates with the passive part to bring about change in how you are reacting. On the one hand, ‘I am not in danger, please stop acting like I am in danger’ and on the other ‘I know I’m not in danger, but according to the script that tennis ball is a werewolf’.
So how can we put all this together?
I think the key to understanding it all is dreams.
(Please don’t go).
As our brain processes the last day or week, it throws up what needs processing in the form of dreams.
For example, last night, I dreamt I was wearing glasses. Coincidentally, my partner recently got new glasses. I used to wear glasses. I think I miss glasses.
If our subconscious communicates with us through imagery, are imagination exercises doing the same in reverse? If yes, we can have a conversation.
So what’s more efficient? Real memory or general imagery? Is it one size fits all? I’ve no idea. But if we could figure out the imagined visuals that trigger our brain to react in certain ways, we could build a language to talk to ourselves more effectively and usefully when it comes to character work.
Instead of a motley selection of other people’s exercises, we’d have a language of visuals to draw on and combine. It’s the difference between a phrasebook and a language class.
To try this out, I turned to my best friend, ChatGPT.
I asked ChatGPT to come up with an abstract negative visualization designed with an actor in mind. In other words: “AI, make me sad.”
It didn’t get it, the idiot.
So I plugged away, tweaking and refining, telling it the kind of abstract imagery I wanted it to play with.
Here is what it eventually spat out:
The actor stands at the beginning of a vast open plain. In front of them, they see a glowing ball of energy that represents the feeling of being loved. They walk towards it, but as they get closer, they notice that the air around the ball has become thick and difficult to move through, like trying to walk through a deep pool of water. They keep moving forward, but with each step, they feel like they are struggling more and more against the thick air. Eventually, they reach the ball of energy, but as they grab it, they feel a sudden jolt, and the ball slips out of their hands and disappears into the thick air, leaving them feeling a deep sense of loss. The actor then continues walking through the thick air, still feeling the weight of the loss of the ball of energy as they struggle to move forward.
I think we probably want to replace phrases like ‘represents the feeling of being loved’ with concrete sensations (eg ‘the only warmth and guidance in the landscape’) but other than that… it sounds plausible.
And when all this sounds too complicated, we can always give up and go back to the script aka the writer’s guided visualization exercise.
Maybe I’m overthinking.