We closed a satisfying four-week run of Proof with a matinee performance last Sunday. After striking the set and restoring the theater to black emptiness (a state of infinite possibility), we gathered at the BBQ joint around the corner for another demolition project, this one internal. A variation of the old Tootsie Pop question: how many beers does it take to get to the center of an actor after the play is done? I'm sure it depends on the actor-- after all, some don't drink anything stronger than cranberry juice-- but even a smart owl might have a hard time saying how we slip in and out of character while remaining perfectly, distinctly ourselves. A very smart owl might say we don't. We can't play at another self without allowing the self that's playing to blur and be altered. An actor's working philosophy and methods may encourage her to close the distance with her character or maintain a critical detachment, but there's no safe distance: she can't avoid getting touched, bruised, stained by the experience she shares with her fictional counterpart. Her work partly consists in deliberate failures of integrity.
There are many stories of "method"-oriented actors getting lost in the emotional and psychological wilds of the fictions they inhabit. I caught a cautionary glimpse of one famous disintegration back in 1989, when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis play Hamlet at the National Theatre in London. It was an extraordinary, incandescent performance, also-- quite palpably-- a risky one. Day-Lewis appeared to have only a fingernail's hold on common reality, and the ground was eroding fast. A little more than a week after the show I saw, during one of Hamlet's encounters with the Ghost, Day-Lewis experienced what he later described in an interview with Simon Hattenstone as "a very vivid, almost hallucinatory moment in which I was engaged in a dialogue with my father" (who had been dead for years). Day-Lewis left the stage and never returned, but this did not finally register with him as a professional failure. On the contrary, he counts it an unusual success: "To me, it was like a natural conclusion to the job I was doing. If I hadn't arrived at that centre of confusion, I would have probably felt a sense of disappointment." He's nonetheless clear on the cost: "I don't think I had a breakdown, but I daresay I wasn't that far from it. I broke myself down."
That open courtship of confusion marks out the reckless (though in many cases highly disciplined) end of the broad spectrum of acting methodologies. At the other? Brechtian alienation? Mametian ventriloquism? It could be any approach that discourages emotional identification between actor and character as a dangerous or distracting indulgence. Unfortunately for those who would like to keep their selves whole and clean, even the "merely" muscular habitation of an alien persona may resonate inward.
Consider a recent bit of research out of Italy, as reported in New Scientist. In a study of patients with "locked-in" syndrome, unable to move anything but their eyes, Luigi Trojano discovered that they had great difficulty (relative to a control group) interpreting the emotional content of facial expressions. Trojano speculates that we depend for our understanding of others' emotions on our ability to mimic them physically... which supports the further speculation that muscular imitation conjures emotion. A scientifically tenuous proposition at present, but it accords with the experience of actors and others whose masks shape and reshape their faces.