Emotional Engagement

In days long gone now, I was a member of a Youth Theatre group, operating in association with a community theatre company. It was this group that really helped me get over my bad-tasting, childhood experiences of theatre. Working with like minded people and learning basic theatrical techniques was the first step. There was one time in particular that I often recall, where I feel I was tested more than at any other time in anything I have done.

We had an improvised scene. I was given the role of a young man coming out of court after having been acquitted in the death of a young child, killed in a motor vehicle accident. I had my “attorney” and a “friend” with me as I was confronted by the rest of the group playing family and friends of the deceased. There was no direction at all apart from “what would you do?”

What would you do? A hypothetical question which is incredibly easy to imagine, when you are not in the situation. Actually trying to portray a scene rather that hypothesise is altogether different. How would you feel? How would you react? How would you handle an angry mob? Truth is, you can’t imagine. You can plan, yet you can’t expect to anticipate what might happen and as such, how you would deal with it. With only a few minutes to prepare for this only-for-us scene, it quickly dawned on me that I could only do one thing; feel the role.

In life, we all have intentions about what we should do and how we should react, or interact. When confronted by a situation, we often need to adjust, compromise, and make it up along the way. You can’t script something like this. By that I mean having words written for you only gives you a fraction of what is required. There is so much more that actor needs to find and draw on, and when you don’t have something similar, you find something close enough and appropriate it.

I have seen some dark places in my life, something I may go in to one day, where emotion and isolation dominated me. Feelings like that can swamp your rational mind making it hard to think straight, leaving your emotions in charge. I have long learnt that leaving either your emotions or your rational singularly in charge is actually a dangerous arrangement. Having a reasonable balance of both I believe is far more harmonious, reduces stress, and keeps you focused. Drama, however, comes from conflict, and one of the base sources of conflict is the classic emotions vs rational, self-conflict scenario. I felt this young man would not be thinking clearly. He would be upset yet trying to hide it. He was glad he was acquitted and fearful of the mob he was to meet. I imagined his heart being a place of great pain, torn between thoughts and feelings.

The scene began with me and my support crew “emerging” from the court house to be faced by a mob consisting of people taking the role seriously, others uncertain how they should be, and others that in hindsight, were looking forward to a bit of agro. I only wanted to get past them and away. I abhor conflict at the best of times, and as an actor, I regularly have to confront it in various forms. Very quickly it became obvious who were the stronger characters as two in particular came out very strong and keen to pass on their “feelings-of-loss” on to my character and me. My initial attempts to get away from the crowd were thwarted as I was quickly surrounded, accusations and demands being thrown around. I offered meek apologies and requests to let me through. Their goal was to let me know how they felt and not let go so easily.

Truth is, I didn’t need to know how they felt. I could imagine, but that is what people can be like. Their pain is immediate and expressive. I felt for them as both the actor and the character, yet I began to feel that they were demanding to much, too aggressively. I recall trying to hide my face, look away, what ever. Nothing worked. I realised at some point I had been separated from my support crew. I was on my own.

It was frightening, like a loud white noise right near your ears. Aggression is bad enough when you watch it on TV. To be in the middle of a mob, even a pretend mob, was something else. As I write this, I recall a time previous when I was the centre of a mob, when I as at primary school and had effectively been placed in to a fight with another boy. I was regularly picked on as a child, for various reasons, and this was just another one of those times. I was scared on this day, yet this school-yard mob were nothing on the group of actors around me trying to make me crack.

And I did. With no place to run, no options left, flight was no longer on the table. I had to fight. It wasn’t even a conscious thought, and I can look back on it now as if I were someone else. I changed physically. My shoulders squared, I stood taller, I turned to face the strongest of the mob, and I let rip. I barely recall what it was I said now. I know it was something along the lines of they would never truly know what it would be like to live with the knowledge of what I had done. To see it in my mind on permanent repeat, no matter if I was asleep or awake. That I was more sorry than I could ever express and that their words would never hurt me more that I hurt already.

It was a momentary stunned silence, and suddenly I was able to pass between them all to the other side unhindered. They almost parted for me. A few were able to recover a little and start with the accusations and insults again, but there was less passion in it now. Less motivation. I left them behind as the workshop coordinator called an end to the scene. I was shaking, filled with conflicting emotions, and utterly exhausted. It took me sometime to come back to some measure of calm.

I’m not sure exactly what was learnt from this, a lot of things really. It is a memory I am particularly proud of however. I had tapped in to something raw, natural, and powerful. I have not always been able to reach that connection since then, yet just the knowledge that I did that once, and so completely, only shows me I can.

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