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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Removing Emotional Toxicity from the Actor and Creator

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Vital strategies for "Letting Go" in preparation of performance

Toxicity is not about techniques. It's not about actor training. It IS about the emotional straitjacket that impairs the creative process and cooperative spirit. I will be presenting over the course of the year some on-line workshops for actors and anyone wishing to increase their creative capacity. Later in the year live practical workshops in releasing the emotional toxicity within the individual will offer participants an inclusive experience of exercises and discussion on this vital topic. In this article I intend to outline the paradigm through which such activity will take place.

Releasing from a Theatre of Cruelty

Artaud's contradictory Theatre of Cruelty involves more than the development of techniques and approaches to theatre practice, development and presentation. While there are probably unlimited approaches abounding in the area, the underlying necessity is a shift in one's thinking about the social / cultural constructions of reality. It might be a long shot to suggest that releasing toxicity has anything to do with a Theatre of Cruelty. However, there is a strange logic to this suggestion.

The human being's contradictory self protective and aggressive natures are manifest in the behaviours which locks out threats to the system (be it self, family, group, culture or society) while locking in personal opportunities and creativity. The greater the need to lock out threats, then the greater is the likelihood of violence and war! The greater the need to lock in personal opportunities and creativity, the greater is the likelihood of neurosis and related diseases!

I am not a psychologist. I am a theatre director and teacher. Over four decades I have made discoveries that benefit students of Drama. From experience with actors and theatre practitioners in both a professional and community setting, I have made discoveries that I have found insightful and helpful. I trust you might find them helpful as well. By relating the concepts of LOCK OUT and LOCK IN to emotional toxicity, strategies can be put in place to assist the actor or the creative participant to release oneself from the binds of cultural and personal straitjacketing.

What is the LOCK-OUT / LOCK-IN Continuum?

LOCK-OUT for the actor results in aggressive even tantrum behaviour in rehearsals and an inability to open up for suggestion to re-evaluate possibilities for a role or a way of approaching a work. It results in overly protective behaviours placing a shield around the performance and approach to rehearsal and preparation while working with others. The conceit and vanity of the actor over-rides any sense of development or play. Semantics are used with acidic effect to deflect criticism and ensure such an actor is the centre of the stage universe rather than a contributor to a collective picture. Most of us have worked with such people ... perhaps we are all guilty of it at some time!

Some LOCK-OUT actors survive by displaying exquisite technical skills or audience pulling power. Others are very good at auditioning and providing a completed package at the point of first contact. Unfortunately, this is too often the sum total of what is going to be offered. Their range is so restricted by personality factors that LOCK-OUT mechanisms ensure they have to justify and defend very fixed positions at every phase or turn of a rehearsal, workshop or development phase. Their view of what is required cannot be challenged without a fight. No vulnerability will ever be deliberately revealed. And the vulnerabilities of work colleagues will be seen as weakness to be exploited in rounds of inter-personal games playing. When given research tasks or additional reading, the LOCK-OUT actor smugly assumes it is not necessary and so either doesn't read the text or only reads enough so as to illustrate their proficiency.

LOCK-IN results in similar behaviours but for different reasons and with different nuances. The LOCK-IN actor always has a problem; a problem involving a precarious emotional state that needs to be injected into the rehearsal and performance space. The lock-in actor often takes the persona of a perfectionist. But this only results in constant break down while attempting tasks and a refusal to commit to the moment. The headiness of the LOCK-IN actor is often more frustrating than the smugness of the LOCK-OUT actor; though both are very jarring in a development process. Phrases like "I'm confused" or "I just don't get it" or half completed sentences like "Look, I ..." or the dreaded "Ah, but wait a minute" with a shake of the head followed by silences are some observable features of the lock-in actor.

One always has a sense that the real issue is not within the focus of the work at hand but in some unstated inner personal turmoil of the actor. Unlike the LOCK-OUT actor, the LOCK-IN actor is in constant need of personal attention and support. The rehearsal or workshop process becomes a therapy excuse where the focus is not on the work at hand but on the personal connection with an incomprehensible universe. Is this us at some stages in our approach to theatre?

At some stage in an acting life, most of us have probably veered towards one of these ends of the LOCK-OUT/ LOCK-IN continuum. As a director, I prefer to avoid engaging actors with either of these characteristics. However, in truth most of us display such recognisable characteristics in certain circumstances. Directors also display the same tendencies. As do writers, designers, administrators, technicians etc.!

LOCK-IN and LOCK-OUT are emotional toxicities that call for awareness of their inhibiting characteristics. And both are indicative of an inability to let go and be open to uncertain, ephemeral and creative risk taking venturing.

Letting Go and the Floating Balloon

Through the LOCK-OUT / LOCK-IN model we can formulate a Control and Letting-go Acceptance ratio within individuals and groups. Whether the problem is one of LOCK-OUT or LOCK-IN, the underpinning issue is one's need for control. One's need to control outcomes may lead to committed practice of key skills or actions. However it can also lead to misplaced tightening up and locking of the moment; killing the very essence of theatre. It can actually lead to the embedding of emotional toxicity into one's body and psyche.

Much of our world is a theatre of cruelty exemplified through:

  • pollutants in the atmosphere,

  • crippling diseases,

  • struggles for acceptance and survival,

  • power elites that profit from wars while devastating the planets' resources,

  • racist laws and traditions,

  • child abuse,

  • the powerful wielding controls over the powerless,

  • criminal undermining of law and human rights

  • torture

  • natural disasters ... etc etc ...

The struggle to exist and thrive within this expanded real world theatre leads to the shielding of one's vulnerability and to the internalising of the toxic world that surrounds us. While we might call this "socialisation" we might also see it at "neurosis"!

At heart there is a need to control the flow of information that each one of us gives out. The need to control and feelings of being out of control are very real, though often deceptive, factors in the everyday discourse.

On balancing a balloon

One exercise I have found to really practice and help check the toxicity associated with LOCK-OUT and LOCK-IN involves the use of balloons. Working with a balloon ensures an ephemeral appreciation and experience that cannot be as easily gained with other devices. A ball can be controlled. A stick can be controlled. A balloon, balancing on the skin requires much more give and take and an adaption to variability and uncertain behaviour. The balloon doesn't necessarily follow one's directions.

Balloons hold a key to illustrating a Control / Acceptance Ratio in ephemeral presentation; theatre being an ephemeral art! Acting is an ephemeral art. It exists only at the moment of its construction. It is a paradoxical art requiring preparation yet an ability to respond at the moment of stimulus. This simple utility can be used as a gauge of an actor's temperament for handling of the ephemeral necessity of theatre; those aspects that cannot be rehearsed, fixed and controlled.

But why should an actor waste time balancing balloons to explore beyond the confines of the body when most of our thinking is about control. Control of our bowls, control of our voice, control of our reading, control of our movement, control of our delivery of lines, control of our presentation of self, control over our role, control of our image. And more!

And the audiences are also about control. They are being educated to control the artists and what the artists deliver on stage. Through controls on funding and even over reality TV and shows like Australian Idol, there is the encouragement to make the artist like the gladiator striking down mercilessly all opponents until there emerges just one who soars for a few moments before being discarded and forgotten. Is this democratising art?

All this can be confusing and cluttering. So the actor needs time to forget for a while about the end product and the need to make a living and vie for the next job. So in moments of personal time or as part of acting workshops or simply in the morning before the day begins, spend creative time on on preparing the psyche, the emotions and the mind-frame.

Key balloon exercises

Take a balloon or two balloons.

  • Blow them up

  • Humm into one balloon and feel the vibrations

  • Keep humming until the vibrations are strong

  • Then balance the balloon on your finger tips

  • Keep contact with the balloon (push too hard and it bounces away; apply not enough pressure and it falls over)

  • Then try it with two

  • Then try it with eyes closed

  • Keep building with it

  • Feel the maddening desire to be done with them

  • But persevere

  • When you discover that thin line between control and letting go, that is the point at which to begin releasing one's own fears of being a performer

  • Then allow for the mesmeric state of flow to absorb you and take you into the silent meditative world of just being

  • Just try it

  • Then see if the above makes any sense for you.

Openness to creativity means learning more about ourselves and our working relationships. If we are actors, it requires more than superimposing some other world view or paradigm over a series of stage actions construed by a writer or director. Acceptance of our own violence, weakness, beauty and vulnerability are crucial for a work that subverts the theatrical in order to infect audiences with a virus of awareness and potential for change. But it starts with our own experience and awareness of the ephemeral nature of the act of creation.

Personal awareness of the Control and Letting-go ratio within ourselves results in an amazing freeing up of performers to journey where-ever the work leads. With such freedom comes an energy that is beautiful, frightening and infectious for the psyche of the individual; allowing the actor to lose the fear of words and personal exposure.

This cannot be achieved without a positive ratio of control and letting-go. Nor can it be achieved with the jarring of processes caused by the LOCK-OUT and LOCK-IN phenomenon.

In conclusion

I suggest taking two balloons, balance them on the back of outstretched hands, close the eyes and be still or walk ... but don't drop the balloons. Then contemplate an existence without the constraints of one's own body that is made brittle by unharvested emotions; then "dance inside out as in the frenzy of dance halls and this wrong side out will be his real place." (Antonin Artaud: To Have Done With The Judgement Of God).

DO THE LETTING GO WORKSHOP on Sat 24 Oct 2020 at 10.00am. Click HERE for more information and booking. Venue will be in Canberra but TBA!

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