What is a thought?
An actor friend recently asked me: ‘How do you actually think? What is specifically going on in your head?’ I didn’t get it so she explained: ‘Ninety percent of the time, I have a song in there.’
After I wiped the tears of recognition off my cheeks and established that we weren’t secretly related, I told her I’m the same. My brain has a collection of about two dozen records it’s picked up over the years and every day chooses one for the jukebox. Any time you see me staring blankly and wonder what’s going on in my head, there’s a reasonable chance it’s the theme tune to The Animals of Farthing Wood. Even if I have something on my mind to work through, the question gets processed in the deeper, quieter recesses of my skull while upstairs is given over to one hundred percent hold music. Then, when I have a dead moment in the day (usually with my morning coffee) an answer will pop up like the price on an old cash register.
Many of us have an inner monologue: a constant companion chattering away about what’s going on and how we feel. Years ago, I was asked to do an exercise in an acting on camera class: in a very disciplined manner, I had to read a script that was entirely stage directions, write out the thoughts that accompanied them, memorise those, and then go through the words in my head - with a camera pointing at my face. I was never allowed to speak a line, just think the thoughts. Nobody would really know if I’d done it except me. Effectively I was scripting my inner monologue.
I don’t have an inner monologue.
One of the great crimes I was always taught about working with text is that of painting your performance with what gets called an emotional wash. This means identifying that, for example, your character is happy and therefore playing the whole scene happy. Or perhaps they’re hungry and you spend the whole time clutching your stomach. It all gets very general and as actors, we like specific. Perhaps our characters start and end in a good mood but along the way there will be fear, anger, envy… Every read or rehearsal, we go a little further into the lines to find the subtleties until eventually the character’s mood over the course of the scene starts to look like a human’s and not that of an emotion robot. It’s the difference between driving directly from A to B versus starting at A, ending at B, and in the process not destroying somebody’s house.
For some, that work starts on the outside - how do I move, what do I usually do in these circumstances? (Niki Flacks’ book is an interesting version of this.) For others, it begins internally: thought leads to action. Inside-out and outside-in. Either way, thought will be engaged. The writing out your thoughts exercise is an inside-out approach. The interesting thing to me is that, even though I don’t go through life like that, it worked.
It still felt a bit clunky though.
Back to my friend’s question: ‘How do you actually think?’
Most text analysis is an exercising in taking something large and complicated (a script) and breaking it down into understandable chunks. Typically, the drawing of lines is involved. Sometimes, little numbers will appear. Or letters. Arrows will proliferate. And highlighters. At some point, a BIC four colour pen will go walkabout.
A script is a repeatable record of communication. Communication is an end point of thought. Therefore, much of our line drawing and script scribbling is in aid of figuring out what it is our character is thinking to make them say what they say. Therefore, a step-up that we can offer ourselves is to figure out what goes on in our heads on a day-to-day basis and how we can apply that process to the character.
If you don’t have an internal monologue, what do you have?
For some, the world inside their brain is populated with images. If that’s you, maybe try figuring out what images pop up into your mind’s eye that would cause whatever line you have to come out of your mouth. This is slightly me. But one difficulty I run into is that when I try to cover my script in drawings it a) takes time and b) never looks like what’s in my head.
Besides, much more than images, I tend to think in terms of conversations. Conversations past and conversations future. And songs of course. But when the jukebox is quiet, I’m either replaying conversations I’ve had or predicting ones I might have. My brain sees the world through things that people have or might say to me. If you are like me, a useful thing I have found is to go into a scene knowing the words I want the character I’m talking to to say. When Lady Macbeth says: ‘Hello Macbeth, please do the murder,’ and I am expecting her to say that (because I’ve read the script), it’s going to be a lot more effort to find the surprise and fear that goes into that scene than if I expected her to say: ‘Hello Macbeth, please do the dishes.’
The curious thing about this realisation is that there must be many other ways of thinking too - be it inner monologue, images, or something completely other. The inner monologue exercise worked for me, even though it’s not how I go about life which implies that these different modes of thought are somewhat transferable. Perhaps figuring out how the character thinks is another tool we can use when we’re first figuring them out. I haven’t a clue how you’d begin but it’s worth a thought.
Happy St Nicholas! When I was a kid in Belgium, we would make Saint Nicholases out of toilet roll holders and cotton wool and hang them in classroom windows.