Balm in Gilead: The Psychology of Character and its Effects on the Performer
Actors are often praised and lauded for their ability to seamlessly transform into characters that are very different from themselves. It is why method acting is so appealing to many of us actors and why the Oscar awards are usually given to those who disappear behind their character. But does divulging deeply into a character have psychological effects on actors? If so, what are those effects? In applying to graduate school, I wanted to attend a program that could help me learn a process of transformation and full character embodiment. I was able to fully explore this process in my performance of Fick in Balm in Gilead. In preparation to play a heroine addict, I watched numerous documentaries, explored physical movement transformation through Anterior Head Carriage (a condition where the head is improperly aligned with the neck and shoulders), and I read psychological studies on the thought processes of addicts. By the final performance, I was totally immersed in a character so unlike myself that I began to think, move, and engage with the world around me, as Fick would, outside of performances and rehearsals. I found my confidence deteriorating and it became difficult to sleep and think clearly. A Royal Society Open Science study states that “changes in embodiment can lead to neural changes in networks associated with perspective taking and role change”. Essentially an actor’s brain changes fundamentally with different roles. And with Fick’s negative thought patterns, I began to become depressed. And all of these symptoms I experienced of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and life stress are indicative of what the Journal of Alzheimers Disease calls RNT. It is habit of negative thinking over a prolonged period of time that can have harmful effects on the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories. I was completely overcome both mentally and physically. What I have found is that, much like the placebo effect, an actor’s imagination of character and embodiment does cause some neurological effects on the actor. It took me a long time to readjust myself and find my center again even months after the performances were over. I believe that is why some actors, i.e. Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman, process this decentering through drug use and oftentimes overdose. What I hope for is a more indepth teaching of closing processes for actors and more therapy integrated into acting curriculums so that the cost of transformation is not one that demands sacrifice of our well-being that affects the performer beyond the performance.