Virtual Book Tour: Acting Techniques for Everyday Life
Nourishing Relationships: I am in a wonderful marriage, we don’t fight often, but when we do, I fall apart and I hate when that happens. Any tips?
Jane Marla Robbins: Actors often imagine personal images on the back wall of a theater. So, on the wall behind your husband, you might imagine some symbol of the love between you, some image of the good times you have shared. It could be the picture of Gustav Klimt’s famous lovers, if that makes you smile and trust in your love. Or it could be an image of you and your husband dancing when you just met and fell in love. Our bodies react to imaginary images, if we really see them, just as if their reality were actually there. Archetypal images are particularly powerful, and could help you to be grounded in the reality of your love instead of in a fear that your love will not survive the argument.
N R: My mother-in-law is sometimes so critical of me, I want to shrivel up and die. Are there any acting techniques I can use for being with her?
J M R: Let’s say your mother-in-law tells you you’re fat or stupid--or whatever insensitive label she manages to put on you. Try writing an Inner Monologue to say silently to yourself, as she’s criticizing you, or, worst case scenario, afterwards. It might include some of the following: “She isn’t really talking to me, she’s talking to herself. She hates herself. I’m okay. She’s mean. I should never expect love and support from her. If I want love and support, I have other people to whom I should go.”
You might write your Inner Monologue on a piece of paper and put it in your pocket. You can always just put your hand in your pocket, feel the piece of paper, and remember your truth. Writing down words on a piece of paper, words that remind us of our strength, or the insanity of our attacker, helps a lot of people.
N R: When I go out for dinner with my boyfriend and his friends, every time I begin to speak, my boyfriend interrupts--even though he’s complained that I don’t speak up enough when we’re with his friends.
J M R: Here’s the Acting Technique I suggest you use: Speak the Truth. Tom Hanks says the ability to tell the truth is essential for any good performance. A lot of people need to practice knowing what the truth is and how to speak it. And a lot of us need to learn when not to say it, if it will make a relationship worse. In this case, however, I would suggest that you Speak the Truth to your boyfriend, and tell him that it doesn’t help if he interrupts. After all, at least we know he wants you to speak up more! If you can’t speak this simple Truth to your boyfriend, maybe he’s not the right boyfriend. On the other hand, if you work up the courage to tell him, you may be surprised by his reaction. He might even stop interrupting. He might even apologize. (A good test.)
N R: My brother and his wife, who I luckily don’t see very often, are nevertheless quite nasty and mean to me when I do. Is there an Acting Technique you would recommend when I have to see them at our family functions?
J M R: The first time I consciously used an Acting Technique in my “real life” I was frankly amazed that it actually worked. I was having to spend time with a man who had just married into my family, and who apparently could not be in the same room with me without mocking me, belittling me, or somehow putting me down. The times I had to see him became unbearable.
Then one day I pretended he had leprosy. I just told myself, “He has leprosy.” I didn’t imagine boils on his face, or bones sticking out of his hands, I just said, “I’ll try it. I’ll pretend he has leprosy.” I was using a simple acting technique called the Magic As If. I merely acted As If he had leprosy. It worked.
For one thing, it helped me to avoid him. I was pretending he had some terrible disease I could actually catch, why would I have wanted to get near him? So for starters I never got close enough for him to start in. The odd thing about my adventure with leprosy is that the day after I tried it, the guy actually told his wife, “Jane seemed better yesterday, didn’t you think?” Did he feel compassion from me for his disease (his meanness)? Or was it that, because I avoided him, he was no longer threatened by my energy, and therefore didn’t feel the need to try and diminish it or me? The bottom line is it worked; the abuse was over.
Leprosy may not work for you. If it doesn’t, you could of course substitute another disease for the people who upset you and from whom you may want to keep your distance. You can still love them (always a good idea!)--just don’t get too close!
N R: I just started dating someone, but I can feel myself wanting to rush into a relationship and I’m afraid she’s going to bolt. Any advice?
J M R: Try an actor’s “Inner Monologue.” Here’s one you might keep in your pocket and /or repeat in your head: “I enjoy building this relationship slowly.” Or, “I deserve to really know this person before I jump in the sac or marry them.” Or you might keep the Perfect Prop in your pocket, maybe a pair of glasses, to remind you really to see the larger picture here, to remind yourself really to see the woman. Not easy after only two dates! Or you could bring along a doggy collar and leash in your pocket--to remind you to put on the brakes and slow down.
N R: I am newly married, I love my husband but I am not always comfortable with his family. I think they don’t like me, they’re not very nice to me.
J M R: Here’s what worked for one of my clients: when you’re with them, you might imagine seeing and smelling a bouquet of your favorite flower (or box of your favorite chocolates, or whatever makes you totally happy). Bottom line: you’ll be smiling. And no one will know why. More important, you will know why. This will give you an extra sense of power, so you won’t feel as uncomfortable or unhappy or like a victim with this “not very nice” family.
The bouquet (or its substitute) works not only because you will have tricked your body into believing your favorite flowers are in front of you, but also because you will have given a gift to yourself, a special gift, which, like any perfect present you might receive, can make you happy. Plus, you will have a secret. Secrets help us to feel powerful, because when we’re afraid, our body fears being robbed--of its self-confidence, joy and ultimately of its life. But when we have a secret, we know it cannot be stolen, because nobody knows that we have it in the first place.
The gift of the “bouquet” will also make you feel gifted and loved, just as you would feel if you were in fact given your favorite gift. And when you feel really loved, you cannot feel uncomfortable and afraid. Plus you will no longer be the passive victim, but consciously active, an actor in your own life.
N R: I’m suddenly nervous with someone I’ve just started dating and want to be cool. Any tips?
J M R: Here’s a technique to help you be not only “cool,’ but also Your Most Authentic, Relaxed and Best Self. It’s called Sense Memory. When, and only when you suddenly feel nervous, and not all you want to be (funny, charming, relaxed, smart, whatever), you would sensorily transform the person with whom you’re nervous into someone with whom you’re very comfortable. So you might smell your best friend’s perfume, or hear his or her laugh. Look at the person who may be making you nervous, and compare his or her hair to your Best Friend’s--Is it darker, longer? Or you could see your best friend’s eyes, with their mischievous glint, replacing the eyes of the person who makes you uncomfortable. Your whole body will relax AS IF the person with whom you feel fabulous is actually there.
N R: I have to see my ex, a difficult man. We have business to do and need to be together. Any advice?
J M R: Try Playing a Character. Meryl Streep always works for me. In extremis, sometimes playing a lion is needed. Your “Actor’s Adjustment” will be your secret. When you shake your head, only you will know it’s a lion’s mane, or that your nails are claws, should you need them.
N R: My boyfriend and I get into fights. They’re not that bad, but particularly when he gets angry, I get very upset. Is there an acting technique to help me with this?
J M R: Try finding the Perfect Prop, and even hold onto it in your pocket during an argument. It could be a piece of paper with your Inner Monologue, maybe with the words, “We will resolve this, we always do. We love each other.” You might also remind yourself that anger will not kill you. That said, it is always deeply upsetting for me to be with someone who is angry.
Other props might work--maybe a locket in your pocket from your most loving grandmother. Just touching it in the face of insanity could remind you of the people who love and support you, to remind you that the world is ultimately a safe and loving place. When we feel safe and loved, arguments are actually easy.
N R: I have a meeting with my boss. I like him, but I’m actually a little intimidated by him. I know our meetings would go better if I weren’t so intimidated. Is there an acting technique that might be helpful?
J M R: I’m suggesting you have an arsenal of Sensory Memories that make you feel strong and happy. Scientific experiments at Harvard show that using the right Sense Memory (which the medical establishment calls “guided sensory imagery”) can lower your blood pressure, as well as your pain and anxiety levels. In other words, if you use the right Sense Memory, you and your body actually get stronger. So, what makes you feel strong and courageous, instead of intimidated and afraid? An awesome waterfall? Then imagine one on the wall behind your interviewer. If you sensorially re-create one, your body will not know the difference between the real waterfall and the imaginary one. Our cells hold the reality of all our sensory memories, that’s how our bodies are wired.
The senses, as Pavlov proved, are a doorway to the unconscious. For example, if you were to imagine a lemon wedge in your hand, tried to smell it, feel it and taste the juice in your mouth, you would probably start salivating. If, on the other hand, you were simply to command yourself to salivate, which is an automatic, unconscious response, like discomfort or nervousness, it’s unlikely that you would.
So, don’t logically tell yourself not to be nervous for a meeting with someone that might make anybody nervous. But give yourself a pleasurable Sense Memory and see if you don’t start relaxing and even smiling. Use any or all of your senses. You might imagine you’re drinking champagne--but only if it makes you relaxed and open, not drunk and stupid. You’d imagine tasting it, smelling its sweetness, feeling the bubbles on your nose, feeling your body relax.
Or you could hear a piece of music that makes you feel strong. Samuel L. Jackson heard the theme from Star Wars in his head for his fight scene in Star Wars II. He says it galvanized him and made him feel powerful. Feeling “intimidated” is just feeling afraid; but when we feel strong, we’re so much less likely to be scared.
N R: There’s someone at work who just can’t help being mean to me. Is there an Acting Technique I could use to help me not want to cry?
J M R: One of my clients, whose brother is particularly hard for her to be with, sings the following lyrics to herself when she is with him, to the tune of “I Feel Pretty” from Westside Story: “I don’t like him, I don’t like him. He’s withholding and nasty and mean. I don’t like him, it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.” Scientific studies show that both words and music alter our brain’s chemistry--whether actually heard or imagined.
Thanks, Jane, for such insight and thorough responses. Now, readers, it's your turn to share your thoughts and ask Jane questions. Just click on 'comments' at the bottom of this post and follow the prompts. You can even sign in as 'anonymous' - it's as easy as that. And if you want to learn more about Jane and her work, spend some time on her website.