Monday, August 11, 2008

Seeking our shadows

From recent discussions with some of my actor friends, including Dan Niven, who is portraying Bottom in this picture, I have come to realize that many of us find it easier to portray characters who are less like ourselves, or, conversely, that the more different a character is from the actor who portrays it, the more successful the portrayal is likely to be.

Which means, I think, that from now on I will approach the roles I play with a conscious effort to seek out that aspect of the character which is most opposite my own personality. In thinking about this, I am reminded of an exercise I had to do a couple of years ago in a workshop given by the folks at Washington Courage and Renewal, a wonderful organization which helps people in the teaching profession.

The purpose of the exercise was to get us more comfortable with our shadows, and it went something like this:

1. List three positive qualities about yourself
2. List their opposites.
3. List three things you are trying to become.
4. List their opposites.
5. Look at the six opposites -- which are, essentially, your shadow self -- and find positive qualities about each of them.

I'm not quite certain where we were officially supposed to take all that -- it's been almost two years since I took this workshop -- but when I look at my notes I see, and remember, that this process was a great revelation for me: I learned that the aspects of my personality which most shame or embarrass me actually have value -- particularly in connecting me with the rest of humanity.

Which may explain why, when I am acting, finding the aspect of my character that is least like myself can make her so much more readily accessible -- and believable -- for my audience. I suspect it also makes it easier to PLAY the role: we get to tap into that unexpressed part of ourselves, which wells up in joyful response at the opportunity to be seen.

My reading this morning took me to a passage written by Ken Wilber about dealing with our shadows. He says:

"As you begin to explore your opposites, your shadow, your will start to see that most battles between you and other people are really battles between you and your projected opposites... with the shadow projected onto other people, we hate these people as we once hated the shadow...To take back your projections is simply to tear down a boundary, to include as yourself things you thought were foreign, to make room in yourself for an understanding and acceptance of all your various potentials."

Which, I think, explains why portraying our characters as opposites makes them so successful: we are tearing down our imagined internal boundaries between "us" and "other," and providing an opportunity for integration.

I'm thinking that might be part of the value of theater, not just for the actor but for the audience as well -- that it allows us to see that there might be something loveable in traits that would normally be distasteful to us.

But of course, it also explains why acting takes so much courage: to be really good at it, we have to walk into those places in our psyches that we find most difficult, and not only face them, but allow them to show through us to a larger audience -- which may often include the family and friends from whom we try hardest to mask those qualities.

PS: to read more of what Ken Wilber has to say about shadow (it's really interesting, and very accessibly written) follow this link:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I once heard in an acting workshop, “Play your character no more than 90% in a given direction; remember to play 10% going the other way.” Perhaps this is partly to keep us in touch with our character’s shadow self, no matter how clearly-defined the character’s intentions seem to be.

In Rob O’Neill’s “Fundamentals of Embodiment” and “Habits” workshops, I learned to begin identifying personal traits I bring to my acting, often subconsciously. Once I am aware of them, I can choose which tendencies suit a given role and keep them, and make informed “other” character choices where necessary.

I’ve discovered the that what motivates most people in theater is not chasing some supposed star on the rise, but rather our passion for storytelling and an intense fascination with humanity. I’ve found that as the stable of characters I’ve played increases, the more empathetic I become toward humanity in general, finding it easier to accept people much different than me. Although I doubt that will ever become a serial arsonist, racist sheriff or homophobic prosecuting attorney, I’ve played those roles on stage, and have had the opportunity to explore my shadow self through them.

It’s privilege to be able to don the mask. But the payoff--on a personal level--is when it comes off.