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An Actor Prepares - A Soul Unfolds by Sally Sommer

… the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature…

The actor’s work is to create a character, a personality, and to bring it alive for an audience. The process of accomplishing that work reminds me of the process of spiritual unfolding and of coming to know one’s true self.

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I once had a small role in a regional theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  As I walked under the stage one evening to take my place as part of the “crowd,” the actress who played Portia came toward me with an anguished look on her face. 

Touching her arm I asked, “Are you all right, Carol?” 

“He wouldn’t tell me,” she whispered, then the agonized look cleared and she laughed.  “I’m okay. Portia’s not doing so well, though.”  She laughed again.

Carol, the actress, had just finished a scene in which Portia, aware of her husband Brutus’s insomnia and preoccupation as well as his clandestine meetings with Roman leaders, begs him to share his troubles with her.  Even though she shows him a self-inflicted wound in her thigh to prove her ability to keep a secret, she leaves the scene unsatisfied.  When I met Carol under the stage, I met Portia as well.  Carol had put on Portia like a gown and mask, and although the actress had been very much present throughout the scene, Portia was the one who was evident to the audience members.  I suspect that they forgot they were watching Carol Wilson, an actress they had seen in roles of all sorts and sizes before, and identified with Portia.  Carol, too, when I saw her under the stage, was still identified with Portia: thinking and feeling as Portia would feel and think.  When I spoke to her, Portia faded and Carol laughed at her own involvement in the scene.

This “involvement” with an acquired personality is common, it seems to me, among most human beings.  We begin very early in our lives to create a personality that we present to the world, sometimes consciously, but often we become so identified with it that, unlike Carol, we lose sight of the self that exists beneath that creation.  The actor’s process of developing a character can be a wonderful spiritual tool for an actor and, I believe, give all of us some insights into the development of our own personality and how we can come to know our true selves.

Long before opening night, Carol began her work by studying Portia in the script, paying close attention to what the character said and did, how she related to the other characters, and what the other characters said about her.  There was much to discover about Portia’s life, not only in the present time of the play, but about her past as well.  There were questions to be asked: was she poor or rich as a child, was she educated, what was it like to be the wife of a pillar of Roman society?  The actress had to take a long objective look at the character, and come to understand Portia’s personality well, even creating logical reasons to justify the behavior of that personality if Shakespeare had not provided them. Carol found that Portia was a beautiful, intelligent and educated woman of noble birth, with a strong and courageous nature; she was also capable of anger, worry and, ultimately, despair and suicide.

Carol’s next step was to discover what she herself had in common with Portia and, to do that, she had to take an honest and deep look at herself.  Carol easily acknowledged her own strength, courage and intelligence, but she couldn’t stop there.  She went beyond the best parts of herself, beyond the image of herself as she would like to be known, to the darker places of her own capacity for anger, fear and even despair.  She saw herself in Portia and Portia in herself, accepting them both as human beings.

This frank and objective method of self-study can be useful to all of us in the work of our spiritual unfolding.  When we are able to face who we really are and the “role” we play for the world and sometimes even for ourselves, when we look deep in the shadows and own the less-than-ideal aspects of ourselves, we begin the work of spiritual unfolding.

In her study of herself and Portia, Carol discovered how much they had in common.  Despite the differences of lifestyle, both women had suffered physical pain and depression, felt deep love for others and worried over the problems of daily life.  The more roles an actor plays, the more character traits he seeks within himself, the more clearly he sees how much he shares with all of humanity.  As we see ourselves with an objective eye, we also see our links with other human beings.  If someone else seems proud or angry or kind, and we have recognized that feeling within ourselves, the barriers that separate us begin to dissolve.  We begin to recognize our joy and suffering, our idiosyncrasies and neuroses, our needs and desires in others and we know how linked we are to other souls.

Once Carol knew Portia almost as well as herself, she could “get into character,” taking on the inner thoughts and feelings as well as the outer words, gestures and actions that were appropriate for Portia.  It seems almost magical when an actor accomplishes this transformation.

I remember watching an actor who waited in the wings to go on stage as the evil genius, Moriarty, in Sherlock Holmes.  The actor, Herb, was a friend of mine and I knew him to be easygoing, kind and funny.  There he stood in the wings, wearing a dapper black coat, gloves and top hat in place of his usual jeans and plaid shirt.  He turned his head in my direction and I saw a cold glitter in his usually friendly blue eyes.  His mouth curved upward in a cruel smile and I would not have been at all surprised to see the forked tongue of a serpent flit between his lips.  I shuddered as I watched him glide onto the stage, and it was a relief to see his warm smile and sparkling eyes after the show when he’d once again put on his worn jeans and left Moriarty in the dressing room.

The transformation may seem magical, but it takes time and effort for an actor to create and “become” a character; how easy it is for us to “change character” in our daily lives.  We may speak, think and even dress differently with different people and in different situations.  We may be one person with our parents, another with our children, still another with our employer, as we bring forward the aspects of our personality that seem to work most harmoniously or, perhaps, get us what we want. 

The difference between us and Carol, the actress, is that Carol always knows she’s wearing a character.  Even though she identifies with a role, part of her must remain an observer, constantly adjusting to the needs of the play, of the other actors and to unforeseen events.  If the crew misses a cue and a phone doesn’t ring on stage when it’s supposed to, the actress must find a way to work around the problem while remaining in character.  We, too, need to develop that observer part of ourselves to cope with a tired child, an irate boss or a sick parent.  If we respond from whatever aspect of our personality we’re displaying at the moment, we may say or do something we regret.  We can learn from actors to remain conscious and aware in every moment of the varied roles we play in our lives.

Carol spent a great deal of time doing inner work, making choices about the character’s responses, etc., but she knew better than to rely only on her own observation.  The play’s director acted as an outside observer, guiding her toward her goal.  The director kept Carol on course, advising and supporting her in her work.  In a similar way, spiritual direction can be of value to us on our spiritual path.  Though we can observe a great deal about ourselves, an objective outsider who has our spiritual welfare at heart can help us to see ourselves honestly and to make appropriate choices as we pursue our spiritual goal.

So Carol came to know Portia well and herself even better than before; now it was time to make her role live before an audience.  She placed her focus on each moment of each scene and on what was required of her in the role of Portia, and after the performance she described the feelings of many actors.

“The audience and I bridged the gap that lay between us to share an experience, an emotion, a moment of human life.”

Many times actor and audience have a sense of participation, an opening to each other, a coming together that acknowledges that we are all the same.  As Shakespeare said in As You Like It,

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts...

When we live our lives with objectivity and conscious awareness we can, like actors, come to know and accept ourselves and others and, through that knowledge and acceptance, unfold spiritually with love and compassion.