Emotions and Performance Groups, Part 2

Posted on 28 September 2014

I often joke that as the director of theatrical and/or film productions, I’m the eye of the storm. I have to remain calm, so when cast and crew are facing difficulties, I can be there for them in order to move the production forward.

I remember one situation where a costumer decided she didn’t like two of the women for whom she was constructing belly dancing outfits. She deliberately sabotaged the costumes. We didn’t find out until the day of a film shoot. The women were in tears, and we had quite a bit of expensive leased equipment waiting to be used. Within an hour I had to calm the young ladies, fix the costumes, and restart filming.

Every production is going to experience moments such as this. They are more fraught with danger when dealing with a volunteer cast and crew, since losing even one person can cause the show to collapse. To manage these dramas I regularly remind myself of a few things.

I am responsible for my feelings. No one makes me feel anything: whether it’s anger, sadness, fear, or infatuation. Certain people may stimulate these emotions, but they are not in fact the source. The words that cause me to laugh when a person says them, may draw anger when the same person says them again at another time. I then need to ask myself, why am I feeling this? The feeling isn’t wrong. It’s simply communicating something about a situation or issue that needs addressing. The person who stimulates those feelings may or may not be a problem; they may just represent difficulties I am facing or simply have problems of their own.

The instant I make someone else responsible for my feelings, I lose my agency. This may seem like a get out of jail free card, “It’s not my fault—this person made me yell.” However, I would then lose not only control over my emotions, but any understanding of them as well. This is not an option for anyone in the storytelling business.

The best storytelling comes from people who have rich inner lives, and a capacity for empathy. How else can anyone come to understand and portray their characters? People respond to stories where the author clearly shows compassion, insight, and wisdom. This comes when storytellers are able to sit with their emotions: to allow rage, passion, pain, joy, and more to flow through them without judgement. Because the instant you judge these things, your characters become flat. The emotions aren’t bad, it’s what you do with them that determines whether the outcome is life-affirming or not.

I would say we actually need the stimulation of emotions. They help us to safely interact with our environment and bond with other human beings. This is why storytelling is such a compelling art form, it helps us to practise what we will do with our feelings. I would also say we need to distinguish between a cheap emotional hit, and nurturing the sorts of emotions that will sustain us as human beings: like the difference between cotton candy and apples. I would never censor films or games about war, but it does disturb me when people are endlessly practicing war for the thrill of it. I much prefer to immerse myself in stories that have to do with people collectively finding positive solutions to their problems, as in a good episode of Dr Who.

When cast or crew are having a difficult time negotiating with their emotions, a few things can be done. First, you can just listen. We all frequently need to confess our emotions and our situations to a friend, family member, or counsellor. Do not try to analyze, rationalise, or provide answers. Give the person the freedom and dignity to find their own answers. Your sympathetic presence is enough.

At most share your own experiences, and let the person draw their individual conclusions as to whether it is of any help to them. Sometimes you might have resources that could help alleviate their circumstances, only proffer what you are completely willing to offer unconditionally. If the situation requires more, consider suggesting professional help. You will not have all the answers, nor should you. Though it feels good at first to be needed or to have someone address your needs, be very careful about such relations—they lack freedom.

Scientists have found some emotional states cause our brains to light up in ways similar to addiction. So, if you are used to being in a state of fear for instance, it will be difficult to settle those feelings in order to gain a sense of peace. But it is possible with practise, perseverance, and a little help. Actors need to learn the self control to switch on and off emotions at will. This may require neutral time, where peace can be found between being a character and being themselves. Directors should at least discuss “cool downs” with their performers to ensure their mental well being.

We are all so fragile. And we are all so strong. Among the greatest gifts we can give one another are freedom, kindness, and respect. Actors are not merely cattle whose emotions are up for cheap sale. Crew are not drudge workers whose needs are to be ignored. Any true artist will recognise the beauty and value of each person who comes within their sphere of experience. As theatre workers we are a team, as artists we are a team, as human beings seeking fulfilling and meaningful lives we are a team, as creatures of this planet we are a team. See one another with the eyes of friendship.

Peace and kindness,


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