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Acting Truthfully With Strong Emotion - Part 2: Outside In

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about how emotion is both psychological and physiological, and how we as actors can tap into emotion using a psychological ("inside out") or physiological ("outside in") approach. In that post, I gave six psychologically-based tips. In this post, I will move onto tips that are more physically-based.

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1. Awaken your spine.

As an actor, your body and your voice are your instrument. Having a body that is open, ready, and emotionally responsive starts with an activated spine. Do stretches. Yoga is particularly great for this purpose. Roll down the spine slowly, releasing any tension and bringing energy and awareness to each vertebrae until you hang in a forward fold from your tailbone. Release all tension from the neck, arms, and shoulders. Then reverse it. Press into the feet and use energy from your foundation to stack up the spine slowly, ending with the vertebrae in your neck. Roll up and down multiple times. Walk about, maintaining that spinal awareness.

Watch the below video for a good spinal exercise:

2. Relax the belly.

The deepest emotions well up from the belly. To allow yourself the widest emotional range, it's important to have a relaxed belly. It takes some training to release any tension you might hold there. Many people are in the habit of sucking in their bellies; they might have some personal hangups that they hold there. It takes some time to work through this and let down your defenses. Before a rehearsal or just when you have some time during your day, rub your hands over your abdomen in a soothing, circular motion. (Move your hands clockwise. This is the natural direction of movement through your digestive tract.) Sigh deeply into your belly as though wonderfully relieved. Don't be afraid to exaggerate it. Voice the sigh. You can elongate the sigh, "Ahhhh." Do it multiple times and feel how it naturally releases the tension there.

3. Connect with your breath. Breathe deeply into your belly.

The breath is an important physiological component to emotion. When we get excited or we're scared, our breathing becomes more rapid. When crying, the breath can be a deep full-body tremor. Again, relaxation and release of tension is key to allow your body to be responsive and to let your breath naturally do it's thing!

To really open up the body and allow for a deeper breath, it takes some practice. Do side stretches to open up the ribcage. To deepen the breath, close your eyes and imagine you're breathing down into your belly, thighs, and butt.

Watch the below video for a good side body stretching sequence:

Incorporate the breath into your acting. Recognize that with an incoming breath there is an intention to speak. Try the easy breathing exercise in this post when running through a scene. It shows you exactly how to start incorporating breathing with acting.

For highly charged scenes, just remember to keep dropping the breath deep into the belly. The breath is your fuel and the belly is your emotional furnace!

4. Get in the energetic state of the character.

Sometimes you need to get into a specific emotional state fast. Logistical constraints make it so you don't have time to sit and mull things over in your mind. To work yourself up quickly, do something to get yourself in the energetic state of the character. What do I mean by that? Here's an example: Slings and Arrows is a Canadian TV show that aired back in the early 2000s about people who work at a regional Shakespeare theatre. In one of the episodes in the second season, there is a scene where the actors playing Romeo and Juliet are rehearsing. Their director makes them run around the premises of the theatre until they are sufficiently energized and then makes them run the scene. Flushed pink and breathless from all the running, they suddenly act with more authenticity. They really seem in love with each other. The running generated the energetic state of being in love.

How else can you do this? The emphasis is on physical sensation. If you need to be angry, stomp around or punch a pillow. Throw something heavy on the ground. (Stay within the bounds of safety. You don't need to be breaking any plates or flinging cutlery.) Do push-ups. Get your voice involved. Sometimes just the act of yelling or growling can get you there. You can generate the energy this way beforehand, but when it comes time to actually play the scene, keep your attention focused on the objectives and circumstances you are playing, so the energy is properly channeled. If you don't do this, the emotion will be vague and generic.

5. Find physical or vocal triggers for yourself.

Through the sensitive exploration you do in rehearsals, you may find a physical or vocal gesture that triggers the flow of emotional feeling for you that you can use in the playing of a scene. It could be a small thing; but doing it for whatever reason just gets you in the moment. Maybe you're playing Lady Macbeth, and the physical gesture of wiping blood off your hands allows you to play the "Out damn spot" scene with intensity.

The physical gesture could be anything - covering your face with your hands, tearing at your dress, slamming your fists on a desk, smoothing your hair, fidgeting with a pen, tapping your fingers nervously, touching your child's cheek. You probably won't be able to completely articulate why it triggers emotion for you; it just does.

As for vocal gestures or triggers, it could be pitching your voice higher or lower, articulating your consonants as though you're spitting out your words, speaking slowly or quickly, cracking your voice. Again, something about doing that gesture with your voice allows you to tap into the emotion.

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