Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Counter Acting

The arts contain numerous paradoxes. That's particularly true for the art of acting. Those who master it know to play on the opposite of what is called for, thereby enhancing it, as if real acting is counter acting.

It's a well known trick in the trade that to play drunk, you shouldn't just slur and stumble. Instead, you play it as somebody trying very hard not to do that – but failing. Those who are drunk pretend to be sober and think they can get away with it. So, playing drunk is to be miserable at playing sober.

The same is true for several of the most heartfelt emotions, like love, jealousy, fear, disappointment, despair, and so on. Someone falling in love initially tries to hide it. In jealousy we try all we can to overcome it, to be indifferent. With fear we fight not to be overcome by it. Actually, there are few feelings that we just go ahead and express willingly. Especially not the strongest ones.

In all these cases, the actor has to excel in counter acting, pretending the opposite, pretending not to have the feeling at hand. That makes it believable and intense.

Also playwrights must be aware of this paradox. And they are. In dialogue, what is being said is between the lines, not on them. What's spoken is often the very opposite of what the character feels or would like to express. Otherwise the drama loses its tension, well, its drama.

It says fundamental things about what it is to be human and how we really relate in our lives. It's kind of sad, but there it is. Our species seems to be one of awkward confusion. Life could be easy, at least most of it, but those big brains of ours make everything a mess, which takes a lifetime – at least – to sort out.

The catharsis, which is the true goal of every drama, is to realize that and thereby learn to live with it. Although we're rarely able of cutting through the fog in our own relations, on stage or on the screen we get to see others fail just as miserably. In doing so, they make the fog transparent. We understand.

It doesn't solve much, but it makes us grow.


  1. So in summary acting is about of lying. Just the opposite of our art the aikido, which is about truth and honesty, thanks for the nice post Stefan.

    1. Or acting can be described as ura, as opposed to omote...

  2. I love this blog post! Especially the idea of acting as being ura. However, there are times when omote is present...Aikido and acting are remarkably the same...
    I disagree that acting is about 'lying'. I understand acting as being the character's 'truth'. Lying suggests pretending. As an actor you must 'be'. In life we suppress strong emotions. We learn to do so at a very early age in order to be socially appropriate. Drama "holds a mirror up to nature". I am not lying when I try to suppress the level of drunkeness/anger/love, I am protecting myself from embarrassment/shame/rejection. What is beautiful about the skilled actor, is the ability to release just enough of the truth to allow the audience to feel the tug-of-war within.
    I worked as a professional actress for 10 years. The year I stopped I started practicing Aikido. The connection between the two never fails to captivate me:)

  3. Dear Jude,

    Many thanks for your enlightening comment. I agree with you, and I think of Aristotle's conception of mimesis, which is also the way we humans learn from our predecessors. It's how knowledge is passed on. Not a bad thing.

    I can see how you naturally find aikido to substitute acting, just as well as the opposite would work. I trained actor students in aikido, a number of years back, and I found them particularly talented with the mimesis necessary. That can take you very far, indeed.

  4. Thank you. I am currently teaching voice and accents to acting students. I am particularly interested in introducing Aikido principles to my teaching practice. I'll let you know to what success:)

    1. I look forward to it. My experience is that there's a lot to be gained from applying aikido principles to the arts. No surprise, since that's what aikido is, too: an art.

  5. Hi Jude,
    I don't know you, but from reading what you wrote I tend to believe, that you are still more an actress than an aikidoka. Maybe I'm wrong, never been an actress, just the opposite.
    Wish you a nice sunday