What 8 Year Old Girls Can Teach Us About Acting
Posted on: April 23, 2012 in category: Steve's Blog
I caught an interesting interview on NPR recently that Patt Morrison conducted with Dr. Josh May and journalist and author, Peggy Orenstein. The topic was a recent study on puberty. The study suggests that, for reasons that are still unclear, girls are reaching puberty earlier than ever. Like, sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old. While everyone on the panel agreed that early onset puberty brought with it a number of negative health risks, Peggy Orenstein offered insight into the psychological effects of early puberty that relate to our work as actors
The thing about puberty is that many of the physical manifestations of puberty (budding breasts, etc.) occur before menstruation and the internal feelings of sexual desire. The young girl's outward appearance changes before her brain becomes sexual and she desires sexual behavior. But in a society that takes every opportunity to sexualize young women and girls (I'm looking at you American Apparel), these young girls learn that their bodies elicit a response from the people around them. The bat of an eye, the movement of the hips, etc. Advertising and TV and movies reinforce this notion and they see it in the reactions from the men and boys they encounter. Even though they don't feel internal sexual, desire they know that their bodies are having an effect on the audience around them. Orenstein suggests that these girls learn at a very early age to equate sexuality with performance. The focus is on how they are affecting the audience with sexual movement and behavior even though, in Orenstein's words, "they aren't developmentally able to connect that to authentic, erotic feeling." It's a performance without a truthful connection. In a nutshell, they're focused on asking, "what does the audience want of me?" and then trying to give the audience what it wants, before asking, "What do I want?" And they don't know what they want because their internal biology hasn't caught up with their outward appearance and the way in which they are sexualized by clothing companies, cosmetic companies, Disney, etc, etc.
The tragedy is that, left unchecked, young girls who equate sexuality with performance turn into women who equate sexuality with performance and an entire lifetime can pass by without those women asking the question, "what do I really want?" They never discover or express their unique sexual voice because the focus of sexual behavior is always on the audience and the performance these women believe the audience demands.
Actors do something similar. We can be so focused on getting the industry to pay attention to us and validate us that we ignore our own voice. When we open the email from the agent and read the sides we'll first ask ourselves, "what do they want?" or "what can I do to make them pick me?" rather than, "where do these moments live in me?" and "How do I feel about the world of this play?" Instead of bringing our unique artistry to the world of the play, we ignore our own voice and put the focus on trying to please someone else. The result is that often times we offer a performance that's not connected to our truth. We put on. We act. We want what they can give us so badly (and the validation and money that comes with it) that we do everything we can to focus on the audience and control their response. In the process, we quiet our own voice and we shirk our duty to add our unique voice to the narrative.
Now, of course it's not all about you. You don't get to impose your point of view on a script and change the tone or, indeed, the story itself. You have to hit their notes and honor the vision of the writer and the director. But why not do that with your own unique voice? If the director says, "be sad", then be your sad and do the work of having it come from a place of connected truth. We actors are often so far in the other direction- desperate to do whatever it takes to make them love us- that we give up our power, our creative voice, and offer a version of what we think sad might look like to them.
At a certain level in the business, being a pleaser won't cut it. If you want them to put millions of dollars of their pilot or feature film money on your shoulders, you need to show up with artistry. And artistry comes with a strong creative voice, the ability to take creative risks, and bringing your unique point of view to the world of the play. And that takes guts. But as the great Brené Brown says, "authenticity is a choice and a practice." It's up to you. Unlike that 8 year old kid who isn't developmentally able to connect to her authentic feeling, you are perfectly capable of being truthful. So do it!
Hyper-focus on the audience breeds a performance that is not connected to your authentic feelings. Start by discovering what, if anything, moves you about the scene. What bold, truthful choices would you make if the audience weren't watching? Discover where it lives in you, then ask yourself how your voice might blend with what you think they want to hear.