Actor Self vs. Character Self: An Empirical Exploration (2012)

E. T. Hetzler

About this exposition

This work combines the results of an online survey about the experience of acting with interviews of many of the respondents to explore how actors describe the relationship between the character they portray in performance and their non-character selves. It also explores the role of emotion in this relationship.
typeresearch exposition
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 2 (last entry by Esa Kirkkopelto - 10/11/2012 at 12:21)
David Roesner 05/11/2012 at 16:16

I should start by saying that have thoroughly enjoyed reading Eric Hetzler’s submission and watching the rich material he provides. I find this research highly interesting, and it is conducted with a great amount of insight and integrity.

Hetzler tackles an age-old question in a new original way. Most often we find ‘acting’ to be described and interrogated in one of three ways: (1) in general theories on the cultural phenomenon of acting exploring what it means to act – these can be philosophically interesting, but often quite removed from day to day acting reality; (2) in instruction manuals on ‘how to act’, which seek to provide a tool-kit, often for one approach singled out as the ‘right’ one, (3) through biographies and anecdotes, usually with an air of reverence and celebration of the star actor. Hetzler, however, uses empirical evidence – both through a quantitative study of questionnaires as well as a qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews – to dig deeper and to provide much more accurate insights on what actually happens during acting and how actors reflect on the relationship between themselves and their characters.

The way this is conducted is thorough and it produces interesting results and access to a wide range of views and practices  - a quarry for actors and theatre scholars alike.

Hetzler’s submission does leave me with two open questions, however:
Does his research not challenge or at least stretch the idea of JAR as an online journal committed to practice as research? The research is – in a good way – traditional, both in its methods and form of dissemination and while Hetzler’s findings are highly relevant for practice and practitioners, I would perhaps not call it ‘artistic research’. It is research about practice, not through practice. Or do we need to redefine practice to include field research, interviewing, empirical research?

My second question is where Hetzler’s research stands in relation to the more current (and perhaps more European) discourse on acting which documents an overwhelming trend towards the dissolution or redefinition of the actor’s task in the contexts of devising, postdramatic theatre, presentation vs. representational acting, acting as task performance, etc. This goes back at least to Brecht’s notion of acting as “showing that you are showing” (Street Scene) and has recently led to a number of publications interrogating conventions of acting [Rey, Anton, Kurzenberger, Hajo & Müller, Stephan, Wirkungsmaschine Schauspieler – Vom Menschendarsteller zum multifunktionalen Spielemacher (Berlin/Köln, 2011); Roselt, Jens & Weiler, Christel (eds.), Schauspielen heute (Bielefeld, 2011); Zarrilli, Phillip, Acting (Re)considered (London & New York, 2002), Philip Auslander, From Acting to Performance (London, 1997) to name but a few)].

I do think Hetzler’s research is important and relevant since – quantitatively speaking – a lot of acting (particularly in the UK and US) probably still finds itself within the naturalist/realist paradigm, which means that the reality of most actors is creating fictional characters on stage based on dramatic writing. There are, however, strong and hugely influential trends in theatre and its scholarship / theorization, which question this very paradigm and debate whether for example Iffland’s notion of acting as Menschendarstellung (representations of man) is still current.

Hetzler gets a lot out of his premise and his methods of enquiry and has managed to synthesize what must be a larger piece of work into a succinct, accessible and well-presented online exposition, which will complement JAR’s range of topics and forms of submission.

Esa Kirkkopelto 10/11/2012 at 12:21

I am pleased that the author engages so straightforwardly his subject, i.e. classical questions related to the actor’s practice considered from the point of view of the actors themselves. These questions, as the author points out, have not lost their actuality or relevance.

The actor’s distance or separatedness in relation to the “character” is supposed already at the beginning (even in the title) and this presupposition  - a real hypothesis - conditions also all the questions presented. This methodological choice clearly undermines the results.

A relation between methodology and outcomes remains unclear. What the “majority” proves here in general? – What do actors usually think about their own work? – The theoretical truth concerning the basis of actor’s technique? – The judgement concerning what their work should be or how it should be discussed? These are all different things. The conclusions remain open partly because the motives are not clearly stated.

Is an actor a beholder of a specific knowledge concerning his or her art?
The research produces a huge amount of information but the conclusions drawn remain a bit modest since the initial focus remains unarticulated.

I would have expected a more “qualitative” analysis of the answers the respondents have formulated by themselves. These answers are in my mind the richest and most potential part of the material. Now, very little attention is paid to the way the interviewed put their words, articulate their experiences. Instead, the focus resides in the contents of the questions (this MAY be due to the method chosen but I cannot say this for sure). The interviewed people are now discussing their issues by using the vocabulary and terminology suggested by the author. Even though the interviewed are asked to “describe” their work, they are not encouraged to change the terminology, the discourse dominating their practice (and you do not need to be Foucauldian to ask this!). As a result, the discourse risks to remain captured by the dialectics whose guidelines are already set in Diderot, if not in Plato (cf. “puppet” paradigm) instead of trying to find a way out of it.

In my mind the greatest potential resides in the anomalies and inconsequence of actors’ talk: in the artistic logic, which cannot (and in my mind should not) be reduced to “everyday” discourse (which here seems to be synonymous for “empirical”). The state where an actor finds him or herself as separated from his or her character is certainly not an everyday state of mind! However, the actors are not asked to describe this state / or they are compelled to speak about it as if they were “themselves” beside their character. The artist’s point of view is missed on the discursive level. This clearly undermines the status of the research as “practice-based” or “artistic” research.

Despite my criticism I bear a deep sympathy towards Mr. Hetzler’s research as well as his personal commitment. There is no doubt about the importance and sincerity of his endeavour.

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