If you talk about acting , especially with people who are not actors themselves, it seems obvious that transformation is in the absolute core of the art of acting. „Being somebody else“ for a short period of time seems like the description of all descriptions of what an actor does. But if you look closer, like with anything, things get more complicated and it becomes confusing. This confusion, like all confusions in a learning process is great. It might be worrying you in the moment you get confused, but you should be worried much more if you don’t get confused on your way. The only way not to get confused in the unknown landscape of acting education is to close your eyes and blindly pretend you are still on your way to high school. I will point out some important landmarks in this unknown landscape. This might confuse you even more. But perhaps it will enable you to draw a simple and useful map for further use. So, let’s go.
The idea of „being somebody else“ silently assumes that it is clear who you are when you are you.
But is that clear? Who are you? How do you know? Let me pose one simple question: Is your personality inside of you or outside of you? If you believe it is only inside of you, consider this stereotypical thus useful case: A very ugly but very rich man with a sports car collection suddenly looses all his fortune including all his sportscars. Here we go: Will he still attract the same women? Well, you might say, this is the unfairness and superficiality of life, but his character might still be the same. Then think about this: how would the ugly poor man react emotionally if somebody suddenly gave him a sportscar as a present? What would he think of the person who gave it to him? And how much less would a sportscar present mean to him while he was rich? What would he then think of the person who gave the present? Think about it, take it as an exploration of imagining people. Of course he is still the same person, I think we all agree on that. But his emotional reaction to a sports car present depends on the situation and not on his personality. What stays the same? The „sportscar aspect“ of his personality. Not every human being has a affection for sports cars nor do all rich men.
I understand, you might say, but in real life people don’t always change their behaviour if the situation changes. Well observed, you are right. The fact that the sports car present made the poor man deeply embarrassed and happy at the same time shows it all. He could also have taken the opportunity of suddenly being freed from all this material stuff and moved to an Ashram happily meditating all day for the rest of his life. In fact, we all have difficulties to adapt ourselves to new situations, some more, some less. If adaptation does not work at all, you are in big trouble.
In the case above this could mean that the poor man still enters the most expensive restaurants and eats there without being able to pay the bill, and this again and again. You can imagine what people would say about him and in what trouble he would get. There is a famous quote mostly attributed to Albert Einstein (who probably didn’t say it): “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Characters failing to adapt to changed situations occur quite often in dramatic literature. One famous example is Ranevskaja in Anton Chekhovs Cherry Orchard, who in fact does exactly what I made up for our stereotypical case: She keeps on spending money although she has been living on credit for a long time. So in the end she looses everything. And still we are the most flexible animal on earth, we should not forget that.
This may also be a topic to ask yourself. Honestly, how flexible are you? How difficult is it for you to react differently to a changed situation? And how difficult is it for you to imagine yourself reacting differently? If somebody took you from your actual peaceful life, where I guess you are a decent person, and put you into the society of Nazi Germany, would you stay the same? Maybe you would, but statistics teach us, that not everyone could be in the resistance. So this might be a too idealized picture of yourself, due to the lack of experience that a changed situation could turn you into the biggest asshole.
Conclusion for the actor: Be as careful with your judgements and conclusions about yourself as you are about others. You don’t know how you will behave in situations you never had. As no situation is identical to another this means in fact that you don’t know how you will behave in any future or imagined or dramatical situation. You can evaluate probabilities from former experiences, but that’s all, and your collection of experiences is much smaller than all possible experiences and even much smaller than all experiences fixed in dramatic literature. Your future behaviour might not correspond to the idealized picture you draw of your self. That means: You do not know yourself. So, a useful premise might be to assume you can behave in any way just depending on the situation. Don’t forget that behaviour includes thought and emotional response. So don’t waste your time to much with thinking about character. Instead, take a deep look at the situation. In fact, it makes no sense to think about character without thinking about situation. And maybe you notice that you yourself stick to much to the picture of the character you „play“ in real life. Here, as well, you should consider the situation in all its depth. This might reveal different opportunities of behaviour.
But how can you do on stage what you’ve never done before in real life?
This questions makes me laugh. My experience as an acting teacher taught me, that many acting students find it far more difficult to shake hands in a nonhabitual way then to kill the other on stage cold-bloodedly with a head shot. Which of course does not mean, that the second, if they do it, is of any artistic value. Others seem to think that transformation of the actor happens similar to metamorphosis: Ordinary caterpillar, cocon, wait, wait, wait, oh, it’s a beautiful butterfly. This view is mostly mixed up with a magic view, as if a fairy would have transformed you. This is all wrong. It doesn’t happen to you. You have to do it. But do what? One simple secret is: Whatever you have to do on stage, you have to do it. Kodo Sawaki, Zen-buddhist and author of the book „Zen is the biggest lie of all times“ points it out in a completely different context: „You think it is clueless to imitate Buddha. Well, then go on, imitate a thief, and you will immediately become a thief as well. The great thing about this normal-citizen body is, that we can imitate Buddha with it.“ This is of course not the last key to acting, but it is an entrance. Perhaps in the beginning you as a thief may not appear as whole-heartedly greedy as necessary for the character. But as soon as you have the necklace in your hands something real has happened which feeds a glimpse of reality into the next imitation of action. And there you go.