To many, crying on cue is considered the gold standard of emotional accessibility. The idea is that crying at a moment’s notice is required if you truly have command over your instrument and want to give a director the emotion she needs in a timely manner.
But before we get to how to do it, let’s talk about why holding it up as a gold standard is ridiculous.
A casting director we know well often says that she hates when actors cry in auditions. If an actor thinks crying equals talent or good acting work, crying can become the goal.
How did the audition go?
I was in tears! It was amazing! or I couldn’t cry when I was supposed to. It sucked.
When crying is the goal, your audition becomes about showing the casting director that you can emote—Look what I can do!—so the scene ends up being all about your crying rather than how you were affected by your scene partner, the specifics of the scene, what you want in the scene, etc.. It’s all about you and your ego. Crying for the sake of crying isn’t acting.
Ok, let’s get to how to do it.
Many actors struggle to access sadness. For those of you who can’t “cry on cue,” sadness is a destination that you want to get to, but often come up short. And without access to sadness, you’re missing a really important tool from your toolbox. You’re unable to reflect a significant part of the human experience that comes up in a lot of your scene work.
You want to get there but you can’t, then you judge yourself for not being able to get there. That stage direction in the middle of the scene that reads, “She weeps uncontrollably” evokes fear and shame. You’ll have to fake it. It won’t be pretty.
So what to do?
First, know that sadness is not a destination. It is a beautiful feeling that lives in you. It’s already there (and you don’t have to live a life of pain and anguish to have sadness). You’re a sensitive person and if you allow yourself to be affected by the world around you, your sadness will emerge. Bringing sadness to your work is about allowing yourself to be sad. It’s not about “getting” sad. It’s about allowing.
Here’s how it goes: Something happens that triggers your sadness. But rather than allow that sadness to blossom, you run from it. You may have learned to equate sadness with weakness, you may be afraid of your sadness (What if I never stop crying?), etc. And all of that makes you push it down, smile it off, drink it away, and more. You’re in the practice of not being present with your feeling. You’ve created patterns of behavior that suppress sadness. You get sad, then you quickly move away from the sadness. Now it’s a habit.
But for sadness to be part of your work you have to disrupt that habit. You have to be present with your sadness. And in order to do that, you have to deal with the behavior you engage in that keeps you separate from it.
Again, presence is the answer. When you shut down, you have to acknowledge that you’re shutting down. You have to hold space with that block—the tension, the lump in your throat, the urge to hide, etc. You have to have compassion for it.
Same thing with your sadness itself. You have to hold space with it, as if it’s a child that needs attention. If the child is upset you can’t ignore it or try to forcefully silence it. You have to be present with it, look at it deeply, find out what it needs, or just be there with it so it knows you’re there. You can’t run away from it.
Judging yourself for not getting sad enough is a way that you run from your sadness. It keeps you from being present. You can perform sad scenes all you want, but if you don’t practice presence with both your sadness and the block that prevents it from blossoming, the sadness won’t emerge.
It takes patience and practice but you can learn to allow your sadness. Next time you get stuck in a scene, think about the block. Know that it’s there for a reason. It doesn’t feel safe. Think about your sadness. It wants to be heard but doesn’t have a voice. Stay there with it. Step-by-step, that compassion will lead to acceptance. And when it feels safer it will emerge.
The kind of transformational growth that we strive for at our studio—the kind of growth required to be a successful actor—doesn’t come quickly and it’s not achieved easily. It requires you to expand your notion of what is possible. But once you do, success has a way of finding you. For your work and your life, you have to allow yourself to feel. It’s your job as an actor and your birthright as a sensitive human being.