Acting and the Unconscious

Acting and the Unconscious

The Unconscious Mind

We need to recognise as actors, that humans tend to operate largely in the unconscious. The majority of our day-to-day faculties and machinations are taken care of by our unconscious. Only a small percentage of what we experience enters into our conscious mind. This is perplexing to many of us as we tend to assume everyone else around us is a wholly conscious agent, acting in full awareness of their intentionality. This is especially true when someone wrongs us and we attribute their misbehaviour to a willful act of malice.

However, if you take the time to properly reflect on your own moment-to-moment experience, you'll find this is rarely the case. Much of the time we are operating on autopilot. Buddhism cottoned on to this reality long ago. This is where the systematic cultivation of awareness known as Mindfulness came from. It posits that our suffering and inability to find wellbeing and peace, with the world and our experience, comes ultimately from an ignorance of reality as it truly is and this especially pertains the moment-to-moment awareness and acceptance of experience.

This is where both acting and Mindfulness best and most wholly overlap. To my mind, both are proposing the same strategy, to make the implicit explicit. We are trying to bring our awareness and scrutiny to the unconscious so that we may better know and understand our experience, emotions, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, imaginations, actions, and arguably most importantly, our intentions. This is where it really strikes a chord with a great deal of acting theory/methodologies (especially those derived from the work of Stanislavski).

Character Pyschology

In the majority of Western acting traditions at the core of character are two primary questions: “What does someone want?” And “How do they go about getting what they want?” When I come to ask actors these questions, many rightly point out that they don't think their character knows what they want (deeply) and that's true. Most of us don't really know what we ultimately want in a situation most of the time, unless we spend the time in contemplative practices, getting better at recognising these motivations. However, as actors it is our job to understand what might be going on in the psyche of the characters we are playing so that we can give a holistic interpretation of the character's experience and actions that remains in line with the script. This requires us to know more than the characters know about themselves. Or to say it in another way, ‘make the implicit explicit’  ‘make the unconscious conscious’; ‘make the unknown known’. By doing this, we are not only empowered in a deeper understanding of what the playwright has written, we also now have the opportunity to change in an informed and accurate way how we go about getting what we want from the other character in the scene.

Test it Out

This is true of your own life too. In order for you to start being able to accurately diagnose what might be going on in another person’s inner experience, or that of a character, you must start with yourself. This is why all contemplative practices begin with your experience. In the end what we are doing is refining, in a way, our empathy for ourselves so that we may best later apply it to others. By deeply getting to know our own goals, dreams fears, objectives, tactics and intentions we are able to more accurately see how others are most likely operating with a similar set of mechanics (even if their resulting conclusions or perspectives are not the same) We start to see there is an inherent logic to behaviour, complex as it is, and off that we have a firm but fertile ground from which to plant ourselves and our characters.

When we do this with our own lives what we discover is that once we become truly aware of what has been driving us, we are suddenly given the opportunity to go from passenger to driver of at least some of our experience. Or perhaps the awareness itself seems to put the car back on track without us having to take the wheel at all. It is deeply empowering. I remember for example after long reflections and therapy over a number of months, years ago, when I suddenly realised what had been driving me for so many years of my life and my 'unconscious overall objective' was this 'To prove I'm worthy of being loved'. It coloured everything I did and dangerously distorted how I related to acting. That being said, once I was able to articulate and conceptualise this idea, I was suddenly struck with the realisation that I didn't want that to be my driving force anymore, so I went about a finding ways to change my goal consciously.

Largely this can entail changing the conditions around you as it is these (our environment) that most affect our behaviours. (Don't believe me? Let me simplify. Think about what your behaviours, moods and actions would be now, compared to being thrust into a middle eastern war zone. So committed to pacifism are you that you would not kill the person trying to rape or murder your loved one next to you had you the power?) By bringing conscious awareness to our unconscious we can enact change around the things that most affect our unconscious choices. It's a paradoxical process, but it's effective nonetheless. And what's more, by knowing this, as actors we are not only empowered into taking control and authorship of our own lives and relationship to our art, but to the writers, stories and characters who we seek to serve.

Sum up

Let me be clear though, this is not an entirely ground up creative process (though nothing truly is). We are simply observing the mechanics of reality.  Based off that we make interpretive assumptions about how a person might behave and then from that we work on how we can best embody that behaviour. Eventually once we have determined the appropriate course of action, we then rehearse this in a manner that the behaviour can once more become unconscious and habitual, while still maintaining the awareness of what we are doing.

This in a nutshell is the process of making the implicit explicit (and back again). Or as one of my old teachers used to say - “Make the difficult simple, the simple habitual and the habitual beautiful.” *