Emotions are choices.
I know the title sounds odd. We have heard most of our lives that you can’t help how you feel. As Actors, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our entire industry is built upon our ability to manipulate how we feel to fit a given situation. Huge names like Strasburg, Hagen, Adler, Yakim, Spolin, Meisner and countless others have gifted us with tools to make emotions happen. They all are based on the same concept. Actors make choices. Emotions are choices.
Every performance by every actor since the beginning of time is a series of choices strung together. Every step you take, every move you make (yes, The Police are stuck in my head too) are all choices. Why didn’t you cross left instead of right? Why didn’t you lead with you right shoulder instead of your hips? You made choices. You may not be aware of these choices, but you made them. Emotions are no different.
Taking Control of Your Emotional Life
Mental health professionals will tell you that, with training, you can take control of your emotional life, so you are more in control of your life. That is, literally, what we do for a living. We take a character and build it into a living breathing person. Well, that person has an emotional life that needs to be created. You can’t create things without choices being made.
Now, I know you are thinking, because my students always say this: that babies are made every day, and the mother doesn’t make any choices. I really love this comment because I usually have a mother or two that knows better. Mothers make choices constantly that affect the development of the child they are carrying. Let’s take another example.
You walk into a restaurant and a person behind you starts calling you names for your choice to wear a mask or not to wear a mask. For the purpose of this thought experiment, the wearing of a mask is not important. What is important is that we, as people, will most likely meet that situation with an emotional response. Most people would meet this with anger because they feel attacked. Anger doesn’t help, in fact, anger only heightens an already tense situation. If you could choose your emotion, what would be the best choice for everyone involved?
Finding Ways That Emotions Are Choices in Real Life
I have had to put this skill into practice in my personal life. Recent events, political and pandemic-related, have wrought havoc on some relationships in my family. I felt the need to wade into the mess and try to find a conversation in a shouting match. My attempt was met with anger and, while understandable, that was not going to work for me.
I had to keep my initial reaction, anger, in check while I coaxed these warring factions into a dialogue. It lasted for about four minutes before the cease fire broke. I wanted to bring both sides back to the table to build on our previous success. I didn’t. Seconds later, the guilt of letting these people damage their familial bonds set in. There was nothing I could do. They have already shown that they aren’t interested in being civil or making progress. They just want to yell and be right. The guilt I was feeling served no one. It had to go. I had to make that choice. For me, it was the right one. I am much happier now.
In performance, especially live performances, choosing your emotions is a valuable skill because things change. There is a story about a performance of Hamlet where Hamlet just didn’t show up. I’d say that is a significant change. How does Horatio play most of the show without his primary scene partner? If you are of the mind that emotions are reactions, then he cannot play the scenes because there is no one to react to. Poor Horatio must conjure a Hamlet to play off of and then choose how he is going to play off the Hamlet in his head. All of that creating is the actor making emotional choices.
Paying Attention to Your Emotions
This skill, in the world of mental health, is called Emotional Intelligence. Everyone has it to varying degrees. This can be practiced and improved.
The first step to building your Emotional Intelligence is to pay attention to your emotions. Spend some time just thinking about how you are feeling in the moment. While you are doing this exercise, it is crucial that you are honest. You don’t have to tell anyone what you were feeling, you just have to realize that you are feeling it. Practice this until you can say with confidence, “I am feeling (insert emotion)”. This is the first step in truly understanding that emotions are choices. The next step is to ask yourself why you are feeling that particular emotion.
Understanding the “Magic Why”
I call this step “Magic Why”. It is magical the things you learn by honestly answering the question “Why”. This process is terrifyingly personal. It takes a lot of courage to get to the heart of why you feel certain things.
Be gentle with yourself. As you work through this process things can get very messy, and not in the Soccer kind. All jokes aside, this process is hard, but getting to know you is worth it. For me, it is essential for actors. You wouldn’t hire a trumpet player who didn’t know all the parts of the horn. You wouldn’t go to a Surgeon who only knew half the tools. What about a carpenter who doesn’t know what screws are? The only tools actors have are their bodies and emotions. This process teaches you how you use yours.
When you learn how you use your emotions, it becomes easier to create characters that use emotions to their fullest extent. Now, you can choose to believe me or not. Keep in mind, that simple act of choosing to believe or not proves my point.