Every actor, over time and with experience, finds his/her own "process" for connecting to a character and story. It's not an easy feat to accomplish, but certainly an attainable one if the actor is willing to put in the time and effort required, both physical and emotional.
There's a huge difference with approaching acting as a child and then approaching it as an adult. As children we don't have the inhibitions adults have and so we're able to connect to our imagination and live in our fantasies carefree. But as we face the realities that come with growing older we get to a point where we leave our child behind in order to conform to the idea of how our older self should be and we become guarded. I call that my "loss of spirit" point.
Loss of Spirit
I remember it as experiencing a deep sense of loss and confusion. A loss of innocence and fear of not knowing who I was or who I was to become. I found myself following the path others wanted me to follow, conforming to everyone's expectations and forgetting who I was at the core.
I returned to acting once I realized I was dead inside. During my first year at law school, I joined the thespian student association and did an Ayn Rand play that reawakened my inner child (I credit acting for this, not Ayn Rand for I am not a fan). However, I stowed the experience in the back of my mind - after all, I was in law school to become a power house lawyer not an actor. Needless to say the hollow feeling returned and no matter what I tried doing in law school and afterward I just wasn't happy until I gave acting a real go.
Although my inner child wanted to play again and felt an enormous bliss doing so, I realized that acting as an adult required a higher commitment than I was prepared to give. The commitment of opening myself up and allowing myself to relive experiences and feel emotions that I had learned to suppress for so long. That's when I went in search of my so-called "process."
You Must Know Yourself Before You Can Inhabit Another...
...Part Of Yourself. I started my formal acting training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and, thereafter, continued with various teachers, most notable ones being Terry Schreiber and Harold Guskin. I've studied all the techniques I could possibly study - Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Larry Moss, Atlantic Theater, The Barrow Group just to name a few. I've taken what works for me and have discarded what doesn't from every single type of training. Nonetheless, at the core of every training lied the inescapable fact that I had to know myself in order to know how I'd act/react in the given circumstances as the character.
What was further tricky was that although I brought myself to the character, the character was not always me - at least not on the surface and so I needed to delve into what is called "character development." Again, you must know yourself in order to know when you have your work cut out for you with a particular character. However, once the character development was in place I came to realize that the character was always me just buried deeper within.
In the words of Orson Welles:
Getting to know yourself is not easy and can be scary. It does require bravery in order to go to places and/or revisit events you may not want to go to or you may have forgotten even existed (that's how powerful the mind is - it protects you by blocking certain things out). I must clarify, however, that I'm not referring to "affective memory" here. Although, I am trained in method acting and do make use of the technique as needed I do not believe in using affective memory as a means to relive your life traumas on stage. In this sense I somewhat agree with David Mamet: "Nothing in the world is less interesting than an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions." I would rectify this statement by adding "self" in front of involved.
The type of knowledge to be gained from the work required to know yourself is not meant to be traumatic, but rather healing or therapeutic. Therefore, I do believe it's something best done in private and/or in a safe environment. I must stress the importance of a safe environment because being overcome by emotions brought about from past events in an unsafe environment can be damaging and so I'm very grateful to teachers like Pamela Scott and Terry Schreiber who allowed me to go through those events safely in class.
As I previously brought up David Mamet, I wanted to further clarify that I am not in full agreement with his views on acting. As per David Mamet: "The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience. That's the beginning and the end of it" (from his book "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For the Actor"). Moreover, he tells actors that they should forget about emotional preparation because "[t]he audience will teach you how to act." True, the audience will indeed teach you how to act, but...
We Are Vessels Holding Emotions For The Audience To Experience
As actors we must feel and in order to feel we must first unblock ourselves by coming to terms with certain things in our past and/or present - it's an ever evolving process.
"I don't think you learn how to act. You learn how to use your emotions and feelings." -Marion Cotillard
We absolutely need to do emotional preparation prior to going on stage if we are to become vessels for our audience. Not wanting to discredit Mamet, who's practical approach to acting has served me well in audition scenarios and who I think is a brilliant writer, I will admit that I would hate to be Mamet's protypical actor that serves solely to fulfill the objectives written in the play or script devoid of feelings and emotions. Those feelings and emotions are what provide that intangible experience that serves to inspire and move audiences. And I know that before I can give or communicate that experience to the audience I need to experience it myself.
I've been very fortunate to work on characters that have not only moved me, but have moved my audience. I know that I'm doing my job when I feel every pore in my body electrified - my entire body shakes and vibrates - it's as if thousands of ants were crawling all over my body - it is that electricity full of feelings and emotions that I transmit to my audience. That is the culmination of my process.
There is no right or wrong way of approaching this. As actors we need to continue exploring within ourselves who we are at our very core and make use of whatever techniques and tools best aid us.
Patsy Rodenburg - Why I Do Theater: