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Spiritually Columned, Performance Inclined

Part of the glory and difficulty of being a theatre performer is that it is an occupation completely based in human spirit. Theatre is the exploration of the human soul for its good and bad. That exploration, when not done in clarity, can either lead to a poor performance, or a poor performer. The difference being that you can be an excellent performer that leaves their best for the stage and their worst self for life, or a performer that does not have the strength and mindfulness to connect to their character in the moment. It is for this reason that an actor must approach every role with a fortifying sense of centrality I call “the column.”

Your column is, in other words, your soul. It is where your personal spirit/sentiments/experiences are strongly held to be a universal soap-box for every human being/character that wishes to speak through you.

To be the best actor one can be, he or she must have a spiritual center that is known as “the column.” This spiritual “column” is the unmoving part of you each character, no matter what, is built from. This may sound like madness, but it is the opposite: it is mindfulness. Human beings are connected in life through their shared emotional experiences. Though the degrees of an emotion may vary, their core is the same. For example, your character’s rage comes from his anger over losing his family, while your rage comes from the knowledge of said sentiment. Through the recalling of the physical, emotional, and spiritual experience of rage, an empathetic bridge is built between you and your character based on having known the same rage through a different circumstance. In this sense, emotions are like spirits that you embody singularly or multiply to create a soul. The “column” is the place you go and return to what is your founding essence: where the character stands on you to speak and leaves you when it is time for him or her to go.

Mindfulness is the art of witnessing the soul. Often, actors feel they have to dissect a character to explore him or embody her. Yet, the healthiest performer approaches even the darkest roles in light. It is about discovering a character through one’s inner peace and sense of forgiveness, to which understanding, not justification, is built. The idea of picturing your personal self as an inner column of which a character stands upon is so that a person has the right amount of distance to actually become the role and not have it become him or her. Your column is, in other words, your soul. It is where your personal spirit/ sentiments/experiences are strongly held to be a universal soap-box for every human being/character that wishes to speak through you. Although one can learn a lot about him or herself through a character, never see yourself or your character as teachers. Both you and your character are students taking a journey together to discover humanity in one story’s particular setting. Thus, your character development is not about attachment, but the freshness of discovery that comes with witnessing life.

ancient pillars
Details of pillars in the Airatesvara Temple in Dharasuram, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India. The temple, constructed by Rajaraja II (r 1146-63) is a superb example of twelfth century Chola architecture and it's art depicts Shiva in the rare incarnation as Kankalamurti, the mendicant. Photo by Stuart Freedman.

To help you build your “column” here are four exercises that can give you the emotional and mental stability to provide a rightful performance for any role.

1) The Color Journal Highlight lines with a color according to their emotion. The point of this exercise is to begin molding the lines of your character as an emotional stem to his or her spirit. The colors and the emotions they represent are interchangeable, but can be used as the following:

Purple: empowerment

Pink: vulnerability—soft/sad

Red: passion—lust/ anger

Yellow: bliss—ignorant/ happy

Green: greed

Blue: thoughtful—in regret/ epiphany

2) The Dance In order to learn the physicality of your character, pick songs either from the setting of the play/musical, or of your own liking, that you believe matches the tone of a scene. Now envision yourself dancing with your character and witnessing their motivations according to the dance steps. The point is to emphasize that you are your character’s partner, of which he or she will dance with you to tell their story. You are not your character, although you are performing as a singular pair. Thus, as you add more choreography or improvise more moves with the dance, you begin to see your character’s approach to physical steps according to the music’s emotional beats.

3) The Chant Many times as actors, we are not in the right headspace to enter into a role or a particular scene. Whether it be for a rehearsal or stage performance, this brief exercise is good to see where you are in your spiritual/mental present and release it. By sitting upright and closing your eyes, begin to inhale and exhale with ten second intervals in between each breathe. As you continue, allow yourself to make a noise with each exhale. As you listen to those noises, you will find that either through the aggressiveness or passiveness of them, you are seeing your emotional state by hearing it. Once you have caught the form of your chant, whether it be a harsh or peaceful one, release it. Even if it is peaceful, the idea is that when you release peace, it will return to you two-fold, but when you release aggression, it is gone.

4) The Little Things Create a mini-handbook of likes, dislikes, and thoughts that would cross your character about the routine of life. It could be how they like their coffee, or whether they would detest a sunny day. These small little details will build a familiarity with your character that can allow the easiness you need when approaching a role. Moreover, it will be fascinating to marvel at the “little things” that you mark down as the nuances of a human spirit. It is there that you will discover both your personal method to acting and life.

Ultimately, an actor should see a role as a spiritual journey. In this “trip,” your own sense of self is to be protected and magnified through one’s partnership with the character. You stand upon your “column,” which means you determine how your character stands, not vice versa.