Updated: Jun 26
By Faith Hibbs-Clark, CMFA Founder
As a casting director and body language expert, I've always been fascinated by the power of emotions and how they can shape your performances in auditions and on screen. One skill that many actors struggle with is the ability to cry on cue in a believable way.
I once had an actor audition for a day player role that was named in the script as "CRYING MAN,"
but when he came into the audition, he couldn't muster a tear to save his life. After the audition, he defensively told me that he just doesn't cry and gave a list of reasons from his childhood that it just wasn't easy for him. After listening to him go on and on for over 10 minutes, I finally stopped him. I told him I completely understood the psychology of what he was telling me but that the role is literally called "CRYING MAN" in the script and, as such, required him to shed a tear. "Ohhhhh," he said as if he had had an epiphany moment: he then left and came back with tears running down his face. "What did you do?" I gasped, "I rubbed Vicks Vapor Rub under my eyes." He did his audition, and although his face was stained with tears, his performance lacked the genuine emotion that was necessary to carry the scene. Needless to say, he didn't book the job. This actor had activated "reflex" tears which are the type of tears that come from irritants in our eyes like when we cut unions, or in this case, rub Vicks Vapor rub under the eyes.
In this blog post, I'll compare acting methods and show you how CMFA's Acting Science" differs.
The Stanislavski System
The Stanislavski System was developed by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski. It is an acting method that encourages actors to draw upon their own experiences and emotions to bring authenticity and depth to a scene. One of the key components of the Stanislavski System is Emotional Memory (also known as Affective Memory), which involves actors recalling personal memories and experiences that evoke similar emotions to those of their character.
The Stanislavski System, though widely popular, has its limitations. Relying on personal memories to evoke emotions can be problematic for several reasons:
Scattered memory storage: Our brain stores memories in multiple areas, making it difficult to fully relive a memory to a believable extent. Accessing all these areas simultaneously is like trying to access blockchain technology – designed to be secure and inaccessible for human survival.
Desensitization to trauma: Over time, our brain desensitizes to traumatic experiences as a coping mechanism. This means that even if you could access a particular memory, its emotional impact might diminish over time, leading to inconsistent performances.
Emotional exhaustion: Continuously accessing and reliving your personal traumatic experiences can take a toll on your mental health, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Limited emotional range: Relying solely on your own experiences may limit your emotional range, as you may not have experienced all the emotions required for various roles. This could hinder your ability to portray characters authentically.
Lack of universality: Since each person's life experiences are unique, using personal memories may not always resonate with the audience or convey the intended emotion effectively.
However, dragging up old memories from your past not only doesn't work, it can be quite traumatizing.
In preparation for a scene where his character had been awake for several days, Dustin Hoffman, a Method actor, reportedly stayed up all night to appear genuinely exhausted. When Lawrence Olivier noticed Hoffman's disheveled state, he asked him why he looked so tired. Hoffman explained that he had stayed up all night to get into character. That's when Olivier responded with the now-famous line, "My dear boy, that's why they call it acting."
Dustin Hoffman was trained in Method Acting, which is an acting technique derived from the teachings of Lee Strasberg, who was heavily influenced by Stanislavski's work. Method Acting emphasizes using personal experiences and emotions to create authentic performances, similar to the Emotional Memory aspect of the Stanislavski System. However, Method Acting takes this idea further by encouraging actors to fully immerse themselves in their characters' lives and experiences, both on and off stage or set.
While Method Acting, as practiced by Dustin Hoffman and others, has produced some remarkable performances, there are potential drawbacks and limitations from a scientific perspective:
Psychological well-being: Fully immersing oneself in a character, particularly one with traumatic experiences or mental health issues, can blur the lines between the actor's own emotions and the character's emotions. This may lead to negative psychological effects on the actor, such as increased stress, anxiety, or even depression.
Emotional exhaustion: Continuously immersing yourself in a real-life experience for the sake of a role can be mentally and emotionally draining for actors. Over time, this may lead to burnout, reducing the effectiveness of the Method Acting approach.
Neurological implications: Method Acting immersion aspect can evoke intense emotions, which can result in changes to your brain function and structure. For example, immersing yourself in a traumatic situation can strengthen neural connections associated with your own painful memories, potentially exacerbating the emotional impact of those experiences on you.
It is important to note that these potential drawbacks do not negate the successes and powerful performances achieved through Method Acting. However, they highlight the need for you to be aware of the potential risks and consider employing various acting techniques to maintain a healthy balance in your craft.
The Meisner Method
Sanford Meisner, the creator of the Meisner Technique, emphasized honest and genuine emotions in acting. He believed that an actor should not force crying on cue but rather focus on truly experiencing the emotions the character is going through. According to Meisner, if an actor is genuinely connected to their character's feelings, the tears will come naturally when needed.
The Meisner Technique is based on a series of exercises called repetition exercises, which aim to help actors develop an emotional connection with their scene partners and respond truthfully in the moment. However, I would argue that this method may not always work from a scientific perspective for the following reasons:
Lack of repeatability: Since the Meisner Technique relies heavily on actors being "in the moment," it might be challenging to consistently reproduce the same emotional response, especially in long-running performances or when shooting multiple takes in film and television.
Individual differences: Every actor has different emotional experiences and ways of processing emotions. The Meisner Technique might not be equally effective for all actors, as some individuals may struggle to connect with their emotions or their scene partner's emotions as easily as others. From a scientific perspective, these individual differences can be attributed to variations in brain structure and function, as well as hormonal and neurotransmitter levels. For instance, the amygdala, a key brain region involved in processing emotions, can vary in size and connectivity among individuals, influencing how easily they connect with their own and others' emotions. Similarly, the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which play crucial roles in regulating mood and emotional responses, can also differ between individuals.
Emotional authenticity vs. character portrayal: While the Meisner Technique encourages actors to experience genuine emotions, this approach might not always align with the specific emotional responses required by a particular character. However, portraying a character's emotions might demand a different set of neural activations and cognitive processes.
It's important to note that the Meisner Technique has been successful for many actors, and its effectiveness can vary depending on the individual actor and the specific circumstances.
The Acting Science Method
In this science-based method, I harness the power of body language and other behavioral science concepts to focus on what is communicated in your audition.
For instance, you may need to engage your mirror neuron system, a network of brain cells that helps you understand and empathize with others' emotions and actions in order to cry on cue. This employs what I call "body language coding," which will trigger mirror neurons in your brain to make you feel the emotion for real. This can then flood your limbic system with natural reactions consistent with the body language trigger. Body language coding utilizes different aspects of nonverbal communication, such as hand gestures, body posture, or proxemics (the study of personal space), to trigger mirror neurons in the brain allowing your brain to believe the emotions are real.
In my Acting Science Method, Crying on cue is as simple as knowing what body language will trigger this natural reaction.
This is one of the many fascinating aspects of crying on cue that you will learn in this month's special topics class. You will not only be able to learn about it, you will be able to try it for yourself under my guidance.
All of the acting methods discussed in this article have produced amazing performances. Still, it is important that you explore various techniques and approaches to find what works best for you in delivering authentic and versatile performances that can help you cry on cue when needed.