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It’s widely accepted that life itself is a performance. If so, what can theatre teach us about how to be ourselves?


If all of the world is in fact a stage, and we are all merely players upon it, how good are actors at portraying us? And how good are we at playing ourselves? If in fact there is such a thing as a singular authentic self. Thalia Goldstein is a psychologist that spent several years as a professional actress. She now runs the social and cognition lab at Pace University.

Thalia Goldstein: Psychology and theater are the same thing. They’re both trying to figure out why humans do what they do and how we can affect and change human behavior. They’re just looking at it from very different viewpoints, through very different lenses.

Goldstein says that life itself can be considered a form of theater, particularly in high stress situations.

Goldstein: I think it is a theatrical process because you are aware of what you’re doing. In scenarios such as interviews, there is a level of metacognitive awareness where you are both yourself and watching yourself. That little voice in your head that says “Okay, you don’t wanna talk about this so much” or “Make sure you mention that you have this experience” or that you’ve done this task at some point. So this metacognitive awareness requires a lot of what we call working memory. The ability to sort of keep both the active conversation that you’re engaged in, in mind, but also this other superordinate set of goals that you wanna make sure that you achieve, in mind. There’s a great rule by the acting coach, Chekhov, that actors should always be in an 80-20 zone. 80 percent in character, where you are feeling the emotions of your character, really engaged with the other person that you’re talking to. But 20 percent making sure that you know that you hit your lights and “What is my next line?” And so this 80-20 rule I think applies really well to how we present ourselves in everyday life because we have a superordinate goal of getting the job, of impressing the person we’re sitting across the table with.

And just as we’re constantly giving a performance in our daily lives, actors are simply rendering a more dramatic version of everyday life.

Goldstein: Theater came from the fact that we are trying to figure out how to present ourselves to other people. And theater and fiction generally just sort of distills that down to its most basic elements.

Carmen Khan: Plays are an encyclopedia of archetypes.

And none more than the plays of the Bard. The master to whom Carmen Khan, director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, has dedicated her life.

Khan: Jung wrote about this cast of characters that we all hold inside of us. When you see a Shakespeare play, the body of work has all of these types in it that we are. So there’s the rescuer, the savior, the lover, the tyrant. And so Jung cataloged that and I believe that in Shakespeare’s plays, the reason that 400 years later, why are they still resonating? Is because we see ourselves.

And for performers such as Brian Anthony Wilson, a busy stage and screen actor, each new role calls for a unique approach.

Brian Anthony Wilson: Each character walks differently, each character talks differently. They breathe differently. They drink differently. Somebody asks me, because I play a lot of cops, “You get tired of it?” No, because they’re all different people.

But in order to embody another character on stage, actors first have to get their own personalities out of the way.

Goldstein: Most acting training starts with knowing yourself and understanding your own body and understanding your own reactions to events before you even begin to put another character on top of that.

Wilson: This above all, to thine own self be true. And it must follow as the night, the day. Thou canst not be false to any man.

Deaon Griffin-Pressley: I think actors, in a way, are kind of obsessed with the truth. That’s the whole thing. It’s not really acting.

For classically trained actor Deaon Griffin-Pressley, conveying the truth means digging deep into his own emotional memory.

Griffin-Pressley: Your sadness, your happiness, whatever exactly you’re going through, there really is not that great of a separation.

Wilson: I am who I am, so I have to bring myself to every role that I play. And I’ve played murderers, I’ve played child molesters. I’m certainly neither one of those, but you have to find a way to I guess acclimate yourself to that.

AJC: Are you changed by any of the characters you’ve played?

Wilson: Oh god, yes. You kind of start seeing the world through that character’s eyes sometimes. The character I played in Water By the Spoonful, I was so immersed in it and so enamored of him, I didn’t want to let that character go. And maybe because it awakened parts of me that I wasn’t that in touch with.

This focus on emotion is central to a more recent acting philosophy. The method espouses emotional memories as the basis of any convincing dramatic portrayal. But for some of its most dedicated practitioners, it can become a psychologically dangerous proposition.

Goldstein: The problem comes really when people try to sort of vaguely apply the method or teachers will push you to go back through traumas or emotionally difficult events that have happened in your past, and then once you’re done saying “Okay, we’re done, great, thank you.” The difficulty with the method is really spending a lot of time in a vulnerable emotional place and then sort of left at the end of it without recovery.

Wilson: I work with people who are very method and to the point where they almost can’t separate themselves sometimes, they’re that deep. And that’s a little scary. Because you have to be able to almost look at yourself from a side view sometimes. When you’re doing physical stuff, when you’re doing stage combat, that can be very dangerous. Because they get so caught up in it, I’ve seen people hurt. I saw a guy start bleeding out on stage because the other guy just got so caught up in it. That’s too much method.

And this kind of resetting is essential for the actor to return to his or her true self. Or as Carmen Khan would have it, true selves.

Khan: It’s like we are buying into the fiction of “I”, like you’re one unified thing. But there’s multiple sides of me and multiple sides of you. I mean, one of the things, I go back to Jung. If you ignore the shadow parts of yourself, they come and bite you.

Goldstein: There’s interesting work in the basic science of emotion regulation, how we control our emotions, that says that the more time you spend trying to put on a calm and happy face when you’re angry, the more stressed out your body is going to become. You know, we have prescribed ways that we have to act when we’re at work, when we’re at school, when we’re with our family. And the more those personas feel like acting, the less authentic they feel. The worse it feels, actually.

Instead, Goldstein suggests that by carefully observing our own emotions, we can react more mindfully.

Goldstein: You have to be fully, presently engaged in what you’re doing. You can’t engage in mind wandering, you can’t be judging yourself as you’re doing it, you have to be fully engaged in it. And I think that that applies both for acting on a stage and for acting in our everyday lives.

And so, in life as in art, you simply can’t fake it.