In sports and in dance, we talk a lot about muscle memory and how the body remembers and grows more capable. Every time you do something physical, it gets a little bit easier. We grow and improve through constant stretching and repetition.
In many physical disciplines, the body can be thought of as a performer’s instrument. They need to practice with it and really get to know the limits of its physicality. Many young performers I work with see a separation between the physical and mental sides of performance. They believe that dance and vocal music are physical disciplines with a smaller mental side and assume that acting is largely mental with a much smaller physical side.
I would argue that the physical and mental sides of performing need to be much more closely connected in every aspect of performance, and this is an idea that I would like to touch on further in future posts. For today, I want to focus a bit on being familiar with your own body, especially your face, and using your “acting instrument” to its fullest.
For so many of us, our face is the primary way we show emotion. In this way, we are all performers. We use our faces to both show and hide emotions depending on the situation, and we are used to reading emotions from other people’s faces So many of us, though, are unaware of what our own faces actually look like when we make a face. We know how to read things in the looks we see around us, but because we don’t spend nearly as much time studying the looks we give other people, the expressions we use when we are performing may not be as clear and readable as we think they are.
Many people can tell the difference between “smug” and “overjoyed” on another person, though both reveal themselves through a smile. On our own faces, I think we are less capable of expressing more subtle emotions consciously as performers because we do not spend the time physically practicing and examining our own faces to capture the emotions we want to show when we are performing. Because we see our own face so little, we don’t know what signals others are picking up when they look at us.
One of the things I urge young and new performers to do is spend time every day looking at themselves in the mirror. I want them to feel the physicality of what different types of smiles feel like as they see them to ensure they look how they think they do. “How do my ‘Christmas morning’ smile and my ‘happy that my enemy had something bad happen to her’ smile look and feel different from one another? Once we train ourselves to feel the difference, we can use repetition to help ourselves physically support the mental part of acting. An actor who can physically show you the difference between 5 different kinds of smiles without having to mentally feel the emotions involved will have a much easier time.
1. Stretch every feature on your face as wide as you can, the pinch every feature as tight as you can. Go back and forth between the two. I like to alternate between a “Lion” face and a “Lemon” face to help stretch out all my facial features and help them be as elastic as possible.
2. Write down 10 – 20 more complex emotions in preparation. Look at yourself in the mirror showing each one both still and while talking. Are you seeing what you think you are giving off? Repeat this process daily to help cement the look and feel of these emotions to help train your face to form these looks on command.