So when I am in character on stage, am I myself or not? The short answer is, of course, “yes”. We didn’t change bodies with anyone. If I am a blonde woman of 26, I am not suddenly an elderly red-headed man when I walk into the spotlight. Sadly, we actors are limited by physics in many frustrating ways. We always carry on stage with us our own genealogy, past experiences, and personality no matter what role we are playing and that is inescapable.
However, the question of “self” is far more tricky than that and actors tend to innately know this as well. Many actors, artists, and athletes have experienced a state that they refer to as “The Pocket”, “The Zone”, “The Flow”, etc. It’s that feeling of total focus and immersion in the process of the activity they are performing. Actors describe it as feeling like they are both no longer in control and in total control at the same time, a feeling of total awareness and yet, loss of time (“Suddenly, I was taking a bow at curtain call.”), and a feeling of euphoric joy in the task at hand. Chekhovians (those of us who study Michael Chekov’s technique) believe that this is when the actor is completely open and receiving his/her higher self into their Ideal Artistic Center and, in turn, radiating this creativity out onto the stage area and the world at large.
And this is when the idea of “self” becomes a far more complicated notion. Chekhov believed that our artistic natures have two aspects, “one that is merely sufficient for our ordinary existence and another of higher order that marshals the creative powers in us.” (On the Technique of Acting, pg. 15). In other words, while on stage, actors are themselves and not themselves at the same time. Our Lower Self (our physical body, thoughts, and experiences) serve as the building material from which our Higher Self (the real artist within us) creates a character on stage.
“Once the higher self has that building material well in hand,” he says in To The Actor (pg. 87), “it begins to mold it from within; it moves your body, making it flexible, sensitive, and receptive to all creative impulses; it speaks with your voice, stirs your imagination and increases your inner activity. Moreover, it grants you genuine feelings, makes you original and inventive, awakens and maintains your ability to improvise.”
The Higher Self creates the ‘Soul’ of the character, a unique creation separate from the actor’s sense of self (his/her lower self). This ‘Soul’ comes from the world of Objective Imagination, a place outside of our everyday self that we can nonetheless tap into in order to create character and truthful psycho-physical responses. Dreams, for example, are an excellent example of this. When we dream, we are not consciously creating the images and characters that we dream about. We very rarely are in control of our dreams. We are simply passengers in this dream state and yet the images and characters can be filled with depth and imaginative realism.
Many writers talk of characters coming to them in dreams and forcing the author to write them. Others talk of characters taking a “life of their own” in which any attempt to force them into a situation that doesn’t feel “true” is met with creative blocks forcing them to start over. As actors, we also look for a similar feeling with our characters. “My character wouldn’t do that,” an actor might say even though he/she knows that they themselves are the character and theoretically they could make the character do whatever is asked of them. And yet, the goal of acting is to find the truth of the character and the moment. An actor’s Sense of Truth must be highly developed in order to create a multi-dimensional characterization devoid of banality and clichés.
TJ Jagadowski, from the hit improv show, TJ and Dave, talks about an improv scene being “already there” before he and Dave even walk on stage. The end of the scene is already on stage with you, but you, the artist, must follow the thread in order to find it. This idea lifts the burden of being clever from the actors on stage as they are merely instruments finding the truth in the scene. The characters he and Dave create are already on stage as well, waiting to be played truthfully and creatively.
In order to work with the Chekhov Technique, we must acknowledge that there are certain universal objective truths, feelings, atmospheres, and ideas that exist and that the actor can tap into these truths for use in their work. A smile, for example, is objectively a manipulation of 10 to 12 facial muscles. As such, it should have no meaning beyond this as it is simply a physical process. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that manipulating your facial muscles in this way even if one does not feel it before performing the action will actually produce the effect of making one happy. Physical action creates psychological response. Children who are born blind and never see anyone smile have the same physical response to being happy as a sighted person has. And while different cultures tend to veil or unveil their smiles depending on what is culturally appropriate, the smile still shares the same general meaning over most, if not all, world societies.
Whether this is a shared evolutionary trait or a Jungian Archetype developed from elements of a collective subconscious, the point remains that there are certain universal responses to the stimuli of movement, color, character archetypes, etc. Additionally, there are times when the individual actor is not consciously creating characterization and that these characters maintain their own sense of truth in action and emotion that is free from the actor’s individual control.
What’s more is that the actor’s self can also be a hindrance to character creation by forcing the character to live within the actor’s lower ego. If played entirely through this part of the actor’s psyche, the character has no choice but to act within the prison of the actor’s clichés of mannerisms and personality. Chekhov felt that only by freeing our characterizations from this lower self can we have true freedom on stage to find meaningful truths and inspired acting.