The Role of Emotion

Several years ago, I played Howie in David Lindsey Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. Howie and his wife are trying to figure out life following the sudden and tragic death of their 4-year-old son. It was by far the heaviest role I’ve played, even to this day. The actors are not supposed to cry except in a couple specific instances (this is strictly explained in the foreward by the playwright). One of those instances was for me. It took some effort. First, I got emotional too fast. I jumped “there” too quickly and unrealistically. So I slowed it down, ramped it up. And finally, there they were. Genuine, made-in-the-USA tears. Mission accomplished.

crying-babyBut here was my flaw that I didn’t realize until recently. My goal was to cry by the time I got to the end of my monologue. Why is that a flaw? Because emotion should not be my objective. My objective should be my objective. It’s easy to think, “If I can just cry by the end of this scene, I’ll have done my job.” But that’s not the way real life works. Our emotions well up through the process of pursuing our own goals. If my objective is to win my father’s approval, and he doesn’t come to my graduation, I cry. If my wife’s objective is to convince me to go to the party, and my objective is to stay home, I get angry. If my objective is to convince my boss to give me a raise, and I get it, I am happy. Emotions emerge through pursuing a goal.

Ivana Chubbuck, Hollywood Acting Coach, warns about making emotion your goal in her book The Power of the Actor. “Emotions are a reaction to an action, not the other way around. Finding your overall objective first keeps you form having to pump up emotions before you begin acting, and it allows the emotions to emerge in a more natural, human way… If you’re attempting to pump up emotions from some disconnected place, the result is emotional vomit. And, as in life, throwing up is pleasant neither for the participant nor the viewer. It is an emotional explosion, accomplishing nothing.”

frustratedMore recently, I played Henderson, an IRS agent in You Can’t Take it With You. His objective is clear: convince Mr. Vanderhoff that he needs to pay his back income tax. Their objectives conflict, of course, and Henderson’s demeanor spirals out of control. He soon becomes so frustrated that he loses his 1930’s social graces and his temper explodes, resulting in a harried retreat out of the house. Though this emotional outburst differs a bit from Howie’s, I was determined to implement what I learned. The goal was not to ramp up into the explosion of temper. The goal, I reminded myself, was to get Mr. Vanderhoff to pay his taxes. The more clear it became that I was not going to achieve my goal, the more frustrated I became. The resulting explosion, then, was not a goal but a reaction.

Before we end, I must ask—

Why does it even matter?

So what, if you, as Howie, just tried to cry, and that’s all? Because that story and that character is about more than just you and what emotions you can dredge up. There is an audience who has come to your show to watch someone learn and grow, and maybe even learn and grow a little themselves. They may relate to Howie more than you know, and they don’t need to see a sobbing, emotional actor. They need to see a struggling, hurt human being who is doing the best he can to figure this mess out and get back a piece of what was lost. That’s what we can offer as actors. A chance for someone to process their life vicariously through our character. We owe them a passionate pursuit of our goals so they can pursue theirs.

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