If Shakespeare were to have his way, the world would be a stage, “and all the men and women merely players.” ¹
Some years ago, I spent a brief month attending acting lessons. My piano teacher had noticed a certain restraint in my performances, like my body was aching to cast out the vivid spectrum of emotions but a minuscule thought had bound me to a cautious soul: it’s not real.
If there’s one thing I try to avoid, it’s constructing a façade. It took me ages, though, to realize that good acting is not humbug; it’s empathy and understanding all wrapped into a gesture or a pair of pleading eyes. In fact, acting is possibly the most vicarious and perhaps the most visceral art (next to dance), because you are taking a character and embodying their very livelihood and spirit—a debonair bachelor, a timid artist, an unctuous salesman, a mercurial guardian, a century-old wizard—all the idiosyncrasies and mannerisms of each.
During the first session, the instructor asked me to imitate a dog. I got on all fours and began to pant with the clear sensation that I was embarrassing myself (nonhuman acting is much less composed; you have to toss all notions of being civilized and “embrace the wild, primordial hunter inside”). He then told me to switch, quite abruptly, to a crying child. Somehow, this was easy. I curled up in a fetal position on the floor and began sobbing. The tears, real or not real, were there.
The one emotion I couldn’t grasp was happiness. “Be ridiculously, insanely, over-the-top happy,” he said, smiling. And I tried. I gave a wide, forced smile. He was clearly exasperated. “That’s not happiness!”
It took four lessons to figure out what I’d being doing wrong. The last day arrived and he said, once again, “Be happy.” I smiled. Then it clicked. I began laughing, at first forcefully, but it gradually merged with some suffocated, suppressed emotion deep down and soon I was laughing into a pillow, crying, shaking with this bright light at the core of my stomach. Minutes passed and the act subsided, but after one glance at my instructor, I knew. That hadn’t been an act. Happiness is as real as you want it to be.
We’re all just “thespians,” in a crude sense. We all have moments when emotions grind against each other, conflicted, sending sparks and heat into the frigid air. We slip and forget our lines and break out of character. We have preexisting notions of stereotypes and of ourselves, and we forget that personalities change, too. Most of all, it’s difficult to swallow that acting is the best medium we have between who we want to be and who we are, if not the only medium to fulfill the space between “could be” and “is.”
¹ As You Like It, act ii scene vii, line 146