The other night my wife Vivianne and I saw a London production of Skylight - starring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan - and at one stage Carey Mulligan starts crying. Unlike making a movie, where the camera can switch off allowing an actor to be able to add water to his or her eyes (or any other tear-producing tricks) before switching on the camera again to record the necessary "tears" (fake or otherwise), in the theatre of course the tears have somehow seem spontaneous rather than "rigged". This led me to ask a talented young actor friend, Ben Lambert, who has appeared in various films and stage plays, how actors manage to cry on demand. His reply fascinated me.
"Not all actors can do it" he said. "And those who can probably get there in different ways. There are techniques that actors can use to cry on cue. Broadly speaking these might involve emotional recall of something traumatic or sad from their own lives or they might employ a more "method acting" approach and be so involved with the character's experience that they feel totally connected to that moment every night.
"An actress I worked with recently says she simply puts her mind and body into the shape and feeling of sadness. So she reminds herself of the physical reality of being sad I suppose and that's enough for her to trigger her body response. And so tears will come.
"Certainly this bodily response can be a way in... like Pavlov's dog you come to the point in the scene that requires tears, and because you've done your homework when that moment happens, it's like the bell ringing and tears will come. That is if you have felt the pain/sorrow/anguish of that moment in rehearsal, and you know what it is your character wants in this moment."
But has Lambert had to cry on cue himself? Indeed he has - in Macbeth, as well as in Alan Bennett's History Boys and Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love.
"It's different every night" he says. "And blubbing isn't nearly as important as we sometimes think it is. Sometimes tears are like my emotional barometer, and I feel like I'm really connecting with the story and the character if I'm crying. But the problem is it can become indulgent and rather selfish as the journey becomes insular and not about the other actor or the audience.
"I don't think actual tears are always so important" he says. "There can be the risk that the effect it has on the audience results in an admiration of the actors craft rather than the story. Tears on stage shouldn't impress upon us the actor's skill, but instead tell us something more about the story and the characters being played in that story.
"Nevertheless less I find if I'm saying what I mean and meaning what I say in a scene - then if the moment demands it, tears will of there of their own accord, because the need to express those ideas, thoughts and feelings to another person or persons will make them necessary if they are necessary. But probably for all actors it's important not to get too hung up on trying to cry or slavishly listening to stage directions which ask for tears.
"Sometimes what can effect an audience more than tears is an actor who goes to the brink but doesn't quite go over into tears. The audience who witnesses this will sometimes be more moved, because they can hear and see the wounded heart before them but haven't seen it collapse. And the delicacy of this tipping point means rather than watching an actor cathartically release emotion, the audience themselves face the problem. They struggle with him, and have an empathetic response to his situation that's completely their own. And perhaps they, sitting in the dark, will cry for him. Perhaps as the character the actor played could not or would not cry, the audience express their own tears - almost like gods looking down on humans struggling and suffering.
"We as an audience respond as we do in life to those who struggle on, even as their hearts are breaking, or their load is weighing them down. There are thousands of examples at the end of stories where characters do not cry - Casablanca, Brief Encounter, Remains of the Day - but we, the audience, probably do..."
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