Actor Self vs. Character Self: An Empirical Exploration

by Dr. Eric Hetzler



My supervising professor for my MFA once called me a very “academic” actor. I think he said this because I always wanted to know “why”. I was always very interested in how acting works and how actors do what they do. I have been acting in one form or another since I was five years old when my kindergarten teachers put me on the stage. I started working professionally at twelve years old when I was hired by the Guthrie Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Even then, I was very interested in the process of acting. I used to watch the adults ask questions of the director and develop their roles during rehearsals. As I aged and started training at university, I did as I was taught, scoring scripts, thinking about objectives, looking for subtext, and other tasks that relate to American, Stanislavski-based training. However, I observed that when I was performing, I never thought about those things. This was not surprising as I knew I should focus on the performance. But I also never thought about those things in rehearsal. There was only one time when I scored a scene because I was having a difficult time in rehearsal. On the advice of my advisor, I scored the scene and it did help me to better understand what the character was doing. But that was one time more than twenty years ago, and it might have been the close analysis of the script rather than the scoring that actually helped to solve the dilemma.


When I finished my formal education and began working as an adult professional, I began to observe my fellow performers again. In rehearsal, I never saw them do any of the things that I had been taught in university that actors should do. They did not appear to score their scripts, or write character biographies, or anything else. During a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I remember the actors complaining because the director kept assigning homework to be presented at the next rehearsal. It was clear that this was the way the director worked, but not the way the actors worked. The actors appeared to learn their lines, learn the blocking, and then perform. All of the machinations of actor training seemed invisible at best. Perhaps they were doing these things as part of their own “homework”, though I certainly was not. I learned my lines and that was all. I once spent over a year touring with the same actor in a children’s play called The Adventures of the Blue Flame. When we rehearsed we just learned the blocking and if the director said “bigger” we were bigger. And we knew what that meant. We never once discussed how we did what we did. That is to say, we never sat down and talked about how we were creating the characters of the Blue Flame and Mayor Babble. There was no investigation into the psychology of these characters or descriptions of their life histories in an attempt to discover why these character behaved the way they did.


This trend has continued throughout my acting career. Process is just never addressed by American actors when working on the stage or screen. The actors I have worked with never discussed it in the green room during a run, during a break in rehearsals, or out at the pub after. We discussed everything else, but never acting. In fact, the only time I remember anyone coming close to doing so was during rehearsals for that same production of A Streetcar Named Desire. One night, early in the rehearsal process, several of us were at the nearby pub. The actor playing Stanley said he was so intimidated by the role that he actually got “Uta” off the shelf. By Uta, we all knew he meant Uta Hagen, the acting teacher and author of Respect for Acting. This was highly revelatory to me. Not that he re-read Uta Hagen, but that he was scared. This is not something actors like to admit. We did not proceed to discuss how re-reading this book might help him, or discuss her theories or techniques in any way. No more was said of it. That was the only reference I have ever heard to process in more than twenty years of work in mainstream professional theatre.


This has only made me more curious. For me, acting has always been about learning the lines and blocking and finding the “character” within me. I have been hired to play Tubby Wadlow in Hobson’s Choice, therefore I will learn a Lancashire dialect, load up on old-age make-up, stand hunched over because he makes shoes in the basement, and be very gruff and crude because he is a working man in 19th century England. I do no scoring of my script; I do not think about my objective, I simply do it. I wonder then, if I am alone in this. Is my experience of creating the role unique? Furthermore, I have always been curious about what I am experiencing when I perform.


I have never had any fear of being in front of an audience. But that lack of fear never meant that I would be able to “act”. That must be something else. But what? When I perform I try to always be present in that moment. I am listening to my scene partners and responding to them with the correct lines and they respond accordingly. For me, it has always been very much like when I play tennis. I know how to hit a ball when it is hit at me. I merely react in a way that gets the ball back. For me, acting is similar. I have almost no awareness of the existence of the script.  I know it is underpinning everything, but, once I have learned the lines, it goes away. Kate Eifrig, an American actor, and Emma Pallant, an actor from the UK, two members of this study, described acting as being similar to building and operating a train: the tracks are laid so that the actor knows where to go (rehearsal), once the train starts (the performance) it must follow those tracks on a moment to moment basis but the actor is not necessarily in control of it. Eifrig mentions “sign-posts along the way” which, for her, are reminders of what she needs to be doing such that if something goes wrong (in one case, a contact lens mishap) her body can keep going along the tracks while her mind deals with the problem. Pallant takes the idea a bit further by talking about how if something goes wrong one is “not in control of how out of control you are…but as long as you know what you are saying and where you are supposed to go you can kind of do anything”. But until they were asked about how they perceive the experience of performing and what happens when something goes wrong, both say that they never really thought about it. And they certainly never discussed it amongst their fellow actors. I decided to look for answers to this question of experience in my pursuit of a PhD at the University of Exeter. This is where my research began.


There are many questions about acting and performing that might be answered if they were asked. As Richard Hornby notes in The End of Acting:


In all of the vast acting literature – the text books, the memoirs, the anecdotes, the biographies and autobiographies, the interviews, the historical studies, the theoretical speculations, the manifestos – it is rare to find any mention of what acting feels like. (Hornby 1992: 65)


The word “feels” can be problematic because it is rather vague. For my purposes here, I am using it as a way of encompassing the full experience of performance – how actors describe what is happening to them. In order to find out what it “feels” like to act, the performance itself must be examined. in pursuing this, other, more specific, questions appear: What role does the reproduction of emotion play in performance? What is the actors’ relationship to the character/role they are performing?  What is the actors’ relationship to the audience? What are actors aware of when they perform? Then there is the great paradox of Diderot which asks whether the actor should “feel” the emotion or “portray” the emotion of the character. Some of these questions have existed since the eighteenth century and have never really been satisfactorily answered.  My hope was that by talking to actors and asking them directly, we could begin to get some kind of consensus that provides some answers.


This is not to completely discount the material that is already extant. Certainly there are the various books where actors are interviewed (On Acting by Luckhurst and Veltman, In the Company of Actors by Zucker, Actors on Acting by Cole and Chinoy, for example) but they often lack the context for the questions the actors respond to. Many do try to get to the heart of acting by asking about training, warming-up before performances, and how the interviewee feels about acting and their position as an actor. Where they can be problematic is that they rarely ask the same questions of each actor or the reader is never given the question, which means the researcher has to search for some kind of connection between actors. For instance, in In the Company of Actors, Carole Zucker makes mention of “Method” acting in many of the interviews. The problem is that we don’t know what the question was. Instead we get a section headed “The Method: behaviourism vs. classical style” in the interview of Jane Lapotaire (Zucker 1999: 89) and a section titled “A Method man?” in her discussions with Nigel Hawthorne (Zucker 1999: 74f.).  Since we don’t know the specific question or questions asked, it is hard to contextualize their responses, which makes it very difficult to draw any comparisons between actors about how they would describe their experiences. I therefore wanted to find a way to get actual comparable data which meant devising a strategy where the actors always responded to the same questions, contextualised in the same way.


As I began my research into solving this problem, I encountered the book Acting Emotions by Dr. Elly Konijn, a Dutch psychologist. In her book, she examined how actors describe their relation to the emotions of their character. She had formulated a hypothesis that actors do not feel the emotions of their character. Rather, actors experience what she has termed the “task emotion” which is the emotion the actor feels about the task of performing. This emotion informs the performance. I was intrigued by this idea because it was the first encounter I had with someone willing to speak directly to actors about their work in a more scientific manner. Rather than interview the actors as one might do for a magazine, Konijn sent them a questionnaire that asked the respondents to choose words and phrases that best fit the emotional experiences they felt while performing. This was a very effective approach to the hypothesis as it provided a level of empirical data. At the same time, I had some reservations. The questions seemed, in some cases, to be a bit naïve about how actors work. It also presumed that by asking about specific moments on stage the actors would have clear memories of what they felt and did. But it did provide specific data that could be compared across responses.


I then found a slightly older survey of actors that was done as part of a PhD dissertation by Shelly Russell-Parks. A Phenomenological Analysis of the Actor's Perceptions During the Creative Act was submitted to Florida State University in 1989. Her intent was to “apply phenomenological method towards a more concrete description of the creative act” (Russell-Parks 1989: 6). Russell-Parks conducted a survey of 136 actors – both professionals and students that she had access to at Florida State University, Northern Michigan University, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. She also held a series of follow-up interviews with these actors to allow them to expand upon the answers in the questionnaire. The questionnaire was quite simple, comprised of 18 questions [1], however, despite its brevity, it delved deeply into questions about the actors’ relationship to the character, the actors’ awareness on stage, and the actors’ experience of transcendence or altered mental states. Unlike Konijn, Russell-Parks used the questionnaire as a way of gathering subjective descriptions of performing in order to explore acting through the lens of phenomenology. So while the survey was not meant to address a particular hypothesis, it did offer quantifiable data. For instance, in question #12 she asks:


In performance, when you play a character (familial or romantic), touching the actor playing the other character arouses the same sensations as touching a person you love in day to day life.




The answers are quite clear, 95 responded “False” and 32 responded “True”, which is a sizeable difference demonstrating very little statistical divergence within her sample. Question #13 asks:


In performance:

Water tastes like water

Water tastes like what it is supposed to be


Again, the responses are clear: 107 say that water tastes like water while 24 think it tastes like what is supposed to be. Other questions are met with somewhat more ambiguous responses. Question #4 asks:


In performance, spoken words:

May come naturally, but I usually am aware of their source (script)

Seem like spontaneous responses and I am seldom aware of the source (script)


Here the answers are split much closer with 57 saying they are aware of the script and 69 saying they are seldom aware. This demonstrates more diversity of opinion within her sample. Taken together, the 18 questions of this survey provide a snap-shot into how a small sample of actors from a fairly limited population views the phenomenon of acting. It also provides data that can be used in research beyond the phenomenological.


The two surveys of Russell-Parks and Konijn demonstrate that questionnaires given to actors can provide quantifiable data. The Konijn study raises important issues about how actors use emotions on stage: are they using task emotions or is something else going on? The Russell-Parks survey shows that there is both consensus and divergence within the acting population regarding various aspects of performing, but the sample population was quite limited in that it came from only two universities and one professional company. It seemed to me that a more comprehensive survey might provide data that could be quite useful in determining how actors describe the experience of acting.  The Survey of the Actor’s Experience, which was the outcome of this research, was designed to do just that. The results have provided a very large database of searchable information that is both quantitative and qualitative.


From 2004 to 2007, as part of my PhD research, I distributed the questionnaire to actors in the US and UK via the internet. It consisted of 95 questions plus comment boxes covering demographics, training, auditioning, rehearsals, performance and post-performance experiences. What follows is a small sample of the results of this investigation which formed part of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. In this work, I will be examining how the actors in this study describe the relation of their actor self to their character self. Before proceeding, and because I am, by training and profession, an actor, there is a term that is often taken for granted, but should be specifically defined in order to alleviate any confusion. When discussing actors in this work, I am referring to those individuals that work primarily on the stage in either a paid or unpaid capacity. They generally audition for roles in performances derived from pre-written scripts created by playwrights, though they might also work in companies that devise their performances from work done in the studio. When they audition, they are given a “part” or “role” that is a particular “character” in the performance. Therefore, when I use the term “character”, I am referring to the role that the actor performs in a production that is generally accepted to be someone or something with an identity separate from the actor. That is to say, the actor plays or performs a human character named “Stanley” or a lion named “Aslan” or whatever the script calls for. It is generally accepted by the actors and the audience that these characters will behave in particular ways as determined by the script/score of the performance. This will, in turn, generally require the actor to behave in accordance with the character – that is, the actor will have to find a way to convince the audience that s/he is the entity in the script. This might entail appearing to reproduce emotions that the actor might not actually be feeling at the moment the character is. In other words, the actor acts character. [2]


It should be noted that the survey allowed for some variability in the above definition. Certainly there are personal definitions that reflect different paradigms. I attempted to allow for this variability by offering the respondents multiple choices and open-ended questions. This made it possible for the responses to be more personally reflective for the respondent. That said, it should be noted that this study focuses on the dominant discourse in Western acting around the public and professional understandings/misunderstandings and interpretations of the ideas of Stanislavski-based performance. I am in no way discounting the current discussions surrounding the ideas of the post-dramatic and changing views of the actor’s task. However, since the bulk of professional work still sits with the Realist/Naturalist paradigm, it was my decision to focus on that type of work. My questionnaire did include the opportunity for performers that work in devised or more improvisatory frameworks to identify themselves within the demographic section. Unfortunately, of the more than 400 respondents, only 23 identified themselves in this way meaning that the population is too small to draw any significant conclusions. However, given the success of the overall study, there is certainly the possibility of creating a more specific survey that directly examines those performers that base themselves in devised work or even those that work in what could be called the post-dramatic. As will be noted later, the actors in this study have trained and worked in many different performance media, therefore, such a survey might be less successful owing to the smaller numbers of performers that work exclusively in these ways.


A Word About Methodology


In The Survey Research Handbook, Pamela Alreck and Robert Settle state, “Rather than information to be applied to practical problems, theoretical research seeks information to answer research questions…it’s used to enhance the literature and state of current thought within the discipline or area of the sponsor” (Alreck and Settle 1995: 5). This is precisely the goal of the Survey of the Actor’s Experience. It is an effort to allow individual actors to define themselves within the overall population of actors. Rather than trying to frame the sample in advance, this survey has allowed the frame to be determined by the respondents. Therefore there was never any hypothesis being tested by the questions being asked, and while this might seem odd at first, it has kept the data from being inhibited by many of the biases that can occur when a surveyor is seeking the answer to a particular question. As noted above, the goal was to create a database of responses to questions about acting and performing that could then be mined for information by me or other researchers. This next section offers one way in which the responses to questions can be examined.


The Survey and Its Results

[1] See Russell-Parks 1989:  appendix A, p. 185 for the full questionnaire and interview transcripts.

[2] I have purposely avoided the entanglement that Konijn created for herself in stating that there are three kinds of actors: Involvement, Self-Expressive and Detached (see Chapter 3, Acting Styles), and that actors would define themselves as such. This is an assumption that misses the fact that actors need to be able to move in and out of many genres as the work requires. Therefore they will be capable of performing in Shakespeare, Miller or Brecht depending on the situation. The actors in this study take note of no differences from genre to genre in terms of the actual moment to moment experience of performing. It should also be noted that, on average, the respondents have studied and trained in four different acting techniques (Hetzler 2007: 93) making the idea of exclusivity of acting style problematic.