In another class I had Cindy* do an activity called Three Phone Calls.
In this exercise the actor is in their dwelling either doing something, getting prepared to go somewhere, or returning home from someplace else. The actor is to make or receive three phone calls, and have detailed conversations with each “caller,” exploring a different emotional issue with each one.
This particular actress had a conversation with an ex-lover, her employer, and her mother. In the final call, she was shy, hesitant, and reserved, and handled her “mother” with caution. She was submissive and wouldn't allow herself to get overly emotional.
Here's our conversation following the exercise:
Fran: How was this for you? Did you feel that the soul of your character was fully realized in your time on stage? Did you fully express yourself and who you were in that moment?
Cindy: It was very authentic, very real. That’s how I am with these people.
Fran: I noticed you were very different with you mother - quiet, cautious.
Cindy: Yes. My mother is emotionally dominant, and I’m always taking care of her needs. She gets upset if I’m not totally loving and kind to her.
Fran: So it was authentic.
Cindy: Very. It was my best performance, because that's exactly how we speak on the phone, and we actually had that same conversation last week, so it was real.
Fran: How did it feel?
Cindy: Like usual… tentative, then frustrating after I hung up. Did you notice that?
Fran: Yes, I did.
Fran: Did you feel complete? And I'll ask you again, did you express yourself fully?
Cindy: Well of course not, I held everything in, so as not to upset her. I hate the feeling, but it was real, if that’s what you’re asking me.
Fran: Cindy, that was a great presentation of your reality, what it is really like, and, yes, I saw the frustration and pain you felt in handling her. But here's my question: What would it be like to have the conversation that you would really like to have with her?
Cindy: She wouldn’t speak to me for a month if I told her how I really felt.
Fran: This is the beautiful thing about acting; here you get to have that, and express it fully. That's the part of you I want to see.
Cindy: What do you mean? It wouldn’t be real. It's not how we speak to each other.
Fran: This is acting. You get to live out the fantasies that are alive inside of you. You can express yourself here in ways maybe you can't in life.
Cindy: Damn, I could have said anything? I have 20 years of anger I could unload.
Fran: That’s where your actor lives. That’s what I want to see. It’s safe to do that here.
Cindy: Oh, that would be so freeing. Can I do it again?
Fran: You want to, don't you?
Cindy: Yes, I can feel all this energy and I'd love to get it out.
Fran: Sit with that feeling. See how it feels. Let it cook and burn inside you, so you never allow yourself to have it again when you're working.
Actors must express their truth and "empty their baskets" in the process.
From there you can decide what gets left out and what stays in. An actor should exercise this muscle fully in his or her work. Are you doing this regularly?
I've heard so many directors tell me, "It's easy to bring an actor’s performance down, but it's harder to get them to give more.” Or, “I always prefer those actors who give too much. At least I know how far they can go. But if I have to bring them up, I don’t know if they’ll ever get there."
Your job: to live truthfully.
Understand how to do so, then you can manage and modulate that truth, getting it to where the director wants it (and what feels right to you) for the best performance. You want to bring in all the choices, so that your character’s has the chance to be fully expressed in every moment of your performance.
(*names have been changed to protect the innocent actors)