"Think of your
pet dog having a thousand needles stuck into him over
his entire body. Think of his pain. Now, while in this
state, do your monologue for me." An adult student told
me that this is what his acting teacher instructed him
to do in order to play a character who's terrified.
student informed me that her previous acting coach had
told her that just before starting an emotional scene,
she should think of her mommy dying. Little did this
teacher know, the girl's mother had recently been in a
major car accident and was pronounced dead at the scene
in front of her daughter before regaining consciousness
and being rushed to the hospital. Months later, the girl
was still traumatized by the acting exercise.
Fortunately, she's no longer studying with that
As an adult, I
don't ever want to think of those images, especially
before shooting a scene. I can't imagine how terrible it
would be for a child. I thought acting was supposed to
be fun. As a kid, I pretended to be a cowboy. I never
had to do things like this to be a scared cowboy.
aren't playing yourself; you're playing a character. How
can remembering a Brad Heller experience evoke emotion
effectively for a character I'm playing? The amount of
terror I feel from thinking about my personal experience
won't properly fit the scene I'm doing. The character is
not Brad Heller. It's like trying to put a piece of one
puzzle into another, it just won't fit.
These are the
kinds of acting techniques I have experienced myself and
have heard about from my students, ages 7 to 70. Some
call it affective memory, a technique used in Method
acting: using your memory of a personal tragic event to
catapult you into a state of mind, at which point,
supposedly, the character takes over and you'll be
emotional for the scene.
What is emotion?
To me, emotion is the electricity in your body and your
heart when you feel, which then beams out through your
eyes. Like the electricity of rage you see in Anthony
Hopkins, eyes when he says, "Hello, Clarice," in "The
Silence of the Lambs." I believe we need this
electricity for great acting, and it beams out through
our eyes. It's the engine that runs the car. Without it,
your motor will be dead and your character will be
flat, like old 7Up lacking carbonation. So how do we get
that without ending up in therapy?
hundreds of thousands of wasted dollars and hours spent
on crappy acting classes across the country, I found
that the most effective way to evoke emotion was not
taught to me in any university, but nearly 20 years ago
in L.A. by the late Don Richardson, my acting mentor.
Don wrote an
amazing book called "Acting Without Agony: An
Alternative to the Method." He taught some of the
greatest actors of my generation: Grace Kelly, Anne
Bancroft, Zero Mostel, and Helen Hayes (who wrote the
foreword to his book). He directed more than 800
episodes of TV shows, many of which I watched as a kid:
"Get Smart," "Bonanza," "The Defenders," "Lost in
Space." He also directed plays on Broadway and was an
original member of the Group Theatre, alongside Stella
Adler and Sanford Meisner. This was important for me to
know, as I wasn't looking for some fly-by-night,
changed my outlook on acting and made it fun again. I
discovered that it's possible to get emotional without
having to think of anything personal.
Here's the deal.
It may sound weird, but it works. Try it and you'll see.
Evoking emotion doesn't have to be done by thinking of
something from your own life. You can do it by simply
verbalizing the name of the emotion. Don explained that
the body is so familiar with emotion, you'll feel it by
simply saying it aloud.
aloud. Don't you feel an electric tingle in your chest?
That's where the center of the emotion anxiety is
located. Say the word "joy." You may feel a tingle in
your chest that rushes up your throat to your mouth. It
may make you smile. You're feeling this small amount of
emotion. It isn't enough to carry you through a scene,
but it's the epicenter, if you will, of that
emotion, where it starts in the body.
I learned that
after saying the emotion aloud, there's a very simple
breathing exercise to get my body filled with a
tremendous amount of the required feeling. I could
suddenly feel very angry, happy, or terrified at the
snap of my fingers, without having to delve into my
Let me explain
the breathing and why we do it. Whenever we're
emotional, our body has the same type of physiological
reaction,the same one we get when we're panting and out
of breath after exercising. We get a little lightheaded,
our muscles tense up, our heart rate increases, we
sweat, and so on. No matter what the emotion is, our
experience is the same.
In my classes, I
teach how to get really emotional: terrified, happy,
angry, etc.,simply by saying the name of the emotion and
breathing heavily for a few seconds, and then we start
the scene. The technique is built around the muscle
memory that will automatically produce the lightheaded
electricity we have when we're really emotional.
I taught this
technique for five years at UCLA (where Don Richardson
taught me) and then opened my own school in 1994, the
Acting Without Agony Academy, where I currently teach.
Don's technique changed my life and completely
rejuvenated my passion to act.