I believe in the personal

While I was thinking what I wanted to write about in my first blog for our revamped (thank you James Donegan and Mike Levy!) website, I went hunting for a quote I love from Eudora Welty about the task of the artist. But before I found it, I came across another of hers that struck so deep a root in me that I changed my plans.

Here it is:

“I believe in it, and I trust it too and treasure it above everything, the personal, the personal, the personal. I put my faith in it not only as the source, the ground of meaning in art, in life, but as the meaning itself.”
— Eudora Welty

It’s only logical that I would find inspiration for actors in the words of a writer advising other writers, because I observe, like many others, that the actor now has a different role in the creative process. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the work of the actor expanded as playwriting changed and required greater inner life. Think Chekhov. With the advent of psychology, the audience became more aware of a character’s interior journey. With electricity in theaters, actors could now be more brightly lit than the audience, isolating them in light. While there still were pieces that required presentational performances, the demand for truthful work grew as audiences watched films and fell in love with the close-up, where the camera took them into the character’s personal space.

I am reminded of a class I recently taught, and of the repetitive nature of the notes I was giving. “Personalize, personalize, personalize.” It had turned into a “theme” class because the work felt very safe. The actors made choices that were “correct” for the material, and though truthful, seemed opaque to me. They lacked that extra something that brings things truly alive. As we worked through their scenes for each of them to find that hook that connects one deeply to the role, the characters seemed to jump off the stage. Those generous actors left a little of themselves up there.

Who could ask for more?


  1. In the words of too many: AMEN!
    First: the blog is a great idea, and I’m going to go ahead and be the first to use it as a place to voice my own feelings and where I am in my development.
    I remember a message from one of those major Stanislavsky books (Was it AN ACTOR PREPARES?) that went a little something like this: “You are far more interesting than any character you will play.” I’m guessing that my own admiration of the truly transformative roles that I have seen great actors play has instilled in me a greater respect for potential and imagination than for that actor’s ability to connect to some personal experience she may have had. This could partly be based on things said in interviews that make these actors seem to be building characters purely from an imaginative place, based mostly on research. Is the research only there to fill in the gaps of experience? Somehow I forget about what may already exist between the gaps – that the actor, no matter how transformed he seems in character, is still pulling from his own personal experience. I’m talking about the Day-Lewis, Streep, Rylance performances that seemed so transformed from the actor off-stage/screen that I was led to believe that absolutely none of the self remained to pull from. Was it an ENTIRELY imagined space that they existed in, pulling solely from experiences of a past entirely made up? Could such performances actually have their grounding in reality at all if they were not personalizing somewhere along the way? And if not, is personalizing Step 1? And is personalizing a completely unconscious process by some great actors, maybe a by-product of the “getting into the world” that their external work and research has brought about? Are these dangerous questions to be asking, as it could teeter on abuse of the work itself (not to mention of the very self) if it is treated as escapism rather than a deep revelation of the self? Is it the self that we are seeing in these amazing “transformed” roles? Or is it just an entirely different breed of acting? I sometimes fear a lack of versatility, or narrowness of range, in personalizing because I am only one person with only my experience. This would be where the magic “if” connects to the “remember when” or substitution – how much “if” and how much of my own experience combines to create the caliber of work that I strive for? Is my admiration for what I have labelled “transformation” actually based on a fear of revealing my own self as an actor – is the idea of transformation a lie that I have told myself so that I can justify escapism? Is what I have been calling transformation in actuality the deepest form of personalization? Am I alone in my concern and questioning?
    That’s where I am now. I’m excited to get back to class!

    • Thanks for sharing, Kieran.

      I’m replying as classmate/fellow actor, not as webmaster, and I have to say that it offers me a lot of comfort when I realize that we never see the work those folks do. I know from watching interviews that Meryl Streep is super involved in all stages of script development (once she’s attached) and does a ton of research and that Daniel Day-Lewis spent 24/7 in character as Lincoln.

      Kathleen Chalfant (w;t among others) did a Q&A for Cay’s students before you were in class, and she puts in more hours on a script before rehearsal starts than I’ve ever done during rehearsal.

      So maybe they spend so long with the material and investigate it so thoroughly that the parts of themselves that fit the role bubble up.

      Or maybe it’s magic.

    • Loved your observations and questions. I’m going to give my fullest response in a forthcoming blog or blogs. In the meantime, I leave you with a story told to me many years ago by one of my favorite actors, Ron Faber. He made a tour to Italy with Joe Chaiken and The Open Theater in the 60’s. After a performance, the American actors got into a discussion about the craft with some Italian actors, who were skeptical about “The Method.” More accurately, what they thought of as “The Method.” Ron said that as the discussion went on, as both nationalities got down to talking about how they actually worked, he realized how much personalization had become an unconscious part of the Americans’ process, even though the Open Theater’s intent was to develop a “post-method, post absurd acting technique.” (Wikipedia)

      They had absorbed the idea somehow—osmosis, being in the same country, who can say?

      I like to think it was because personalization works—it brings something alive, fully and specifically.

      More later.