Last time, we discussed our understanding of proxemics, the use of personal space to define relationships. As actors, we can consciously position ourselves among the others on stage to communicate how we feel about them. How we feel, though, may be another matter all together. We can be physically close or distant; we can, at the same time, be emotionally close or distant.
I’d like to introduce a simple exercise to help you translate your emotional distance into physical distance. This exercise heightens your ability to think in character, act on impulses, and pursue your objective in a scene.
Designate a rehearsal to be your “emotional distance” workshop.
If your director has already prescribed your blocking, you may want to communicate with your director something like “Today, I’d like to experiment with a few things, and it may affect the blocking. It’ll just be for today, though.” The director should give a nod to your initiative and your process.
The idea, then, is to represent your emotional distance from the other characters with physical distance.
If something somebody says makes you feel closer to that person, move toward them. If they offend you or give you the cold shoulder, step away. If you feel alone and unsupported, move to a place away from everybody. Those are examples of passive reactions; take initiative to open or close gaps with your own words and actions as well. Physically pursue the target of your affection, or retreat from an unwanted pursuit.
Let your mind and your body remember what it physically felt like to pursue and retreat emotionally.
Next time you run the scene, stick with your regular blocking. Sometimes you will feel like to want to close a gap, but your character can’t. Your yearning will pour through your words. A desire to retreat while your fet feel trapped will be seen in your eyes.
I was sitting in on a rehearsal of Curious Savage, directed by my wife, Kelsey. The entire rehearsal was dedicated to exploring this concept of emotional distance. This was before blocking was ever discussed, so the actors felt free to experiment however they wished. Also, the crucial groundwork of discovering objectives and obstacles had already been laid, so the actors could act on educated impulses. It didn’t take long for some poignant moments to emerge.
One memorable bit of emotional distance occurred when Ethel Savage, played by Maria Barry (who was a top-three NHTA finalist for her performance), was confronted by her manipulative children. They were convincing her doctor, whom she had just begun to trust, to administer a truth drug in order to extract information only she had. As Maria realized the betrayal and grievance that Ethel was experiencing, Maria slowly retreated from the group. The conversation continued, and she retreated more quickly. She never said a word. By the end of the conversation, she was at the opposite end of the very long rehearsal room. Maria’s bold impulse to retreat so drastically helped her discover a profound loneliness in that moment. In the final product, Ethel does not move a step. But if you looked into Maria’s eyes, you could see that same desperate retreat and despair.
When your body is restricted, your voice reaches out further. When your voice is silenced, your eyes speak louder.
This emotional distance discipline, then, attempts to pour as much motivation through that funnel (body → voice → eyes) as possible. Then, regardless of which outlet is available, a strong impulse is right there behind it.
If you find this method interesting, try it out, and remember to come back here and share how it went!