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On Grief and Acting: Revelations From Hamlet in the April of My Discontent

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier).jpg

Actors are often called upon to portray grief, but what should the actor do when they are actually grieving and being called upon to act?  Anyone who has suffered through the death of a loved one knows that it is a devastating and disorienting experience.  It can be even more difficult for the actor who must be able to access their emotions in order to do their job.  So let's take a look at how the actor can try and work through, or at least survive, their grief.

Grieving is an entirely individual experience, no two people go through it in exactly the same way.  That being said, there is one statement that rings true for all people who grieve...'you will never be the same' or, said another way, 'you will never come out of it the way you went in'.  As much as we'd like to return to normal, we won't.  We may return to "a" normal, but it will be a new normal.  The world will never be quite the same as it was before death came knocking because you won't be the same.

Life has an energy to it, it vibrates at a certain frequency.  We are totally unaware of this in our everyday lives.  We wake up, have breakfast, go to work, talk to people, go through our day and don't think twice about any of it because we are in the flow of life.  When someone we love dies, that all changes.  We are knocked out of kilter with the universe.  The world seems a foreign and sometimes foreboding place.  We see people going through their day to day existence and want to shake them, to wake them up from their obliviousness.  Don't they know the world has ended?  Life goes on around us, yet it has stopped for us.  This life swirling around us only accentuates the lifelessness of our deceased loved one.  A good example of this is Hamlet.  Everyone thinks Hamlet is insane, he acts so bizarrely and is so out of the flow of the everyday existence of those around him.  Hamlet is not crazy.  He is grieving.  Grieving can look crazy to those not doing it, but it seems perfectly rational and normal to those in it's grips.  For instance, if you are grieving, you may be riding the subway and thinking about your dead loved one and crying for your loss, and then a moment later laughing when you recall a joyous or funny moment together with them when they were alive.  Your  erratic emotions and actions will most assuredly make your fellow train riders think your insane, but your not, you are grieving.  Grief dramatically alters your perspective on your surroundings and life and sets you adrift away from the current of normalcy.  Hamlet cannot shake his grief for his dead father, the king, and is angry at the ease with which others have shaken theirs, namely his mother.  He ponders suicide to end his life, "to be or not to be", but ends up contemplating the deeper meaning of death and the afterlife, "Ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come", a common topic that continually haunts the grieving.  When he sits poised ready to murder his praying uncle who has murdered Hamlet's father the king, Hamlet hesitates because he thinks of his uncle's eternal soul and that it would go to heaven due to his being killed during prayer.  Hamlet's insight into the afterlife overrides his thirst for noble vengeance.  This seems crazy to 'normal' people, but quite rational to those in the throes of grief.  Hamlet is in tune with death, the afterlife and grieving, but out of tune with the rationality and normalcy of the rest of the world.  So it is for those in grief.

The stages of grief that I have observed are this:  first, we think about and mourn the physical pain and suffering that our loved one has gone through in their death.  Our grief is a form of empathy, we imagine what our loved one was thinking and feeling when death came, and we hope they weren't afraid or that they didn't suffer. 

After that, the second stage of grief I've observed comes upon us.  This is where we mourn for ourselves, for what we have lost.  In short, during the first stage we are thinking about them and during the second stage we are thinking about us without them.  In this second stage we focus on the empty hole in our lives where the loved one used to reside.  We mourn the time we won't have with them, the conversations lost, the dreams never realized.  I have found that this stage can take many forms, such as regret over things not said or of things said, or it can take a form of denial, where the survivor fully expects the deceased to knock upon their door in the form of a visitation.  In this stage, the deceased still seems somehow alive, even if only in the thoughts, dreams, memories and feelings of the person who mourns.  In this stage some people can have an overwhelming need to talk about their feelings and experiences with others, whole other people may go inward and be incapable of talking about their pain.  There is no right or wrong way to go through this stage, only the way that is comfortable for the aggrieved.  This stage has no set time table, it can go on for weeks, months, years or in some circumstances, even a lifetime.

The third stage is the most frustrating, for it is where we mourn the loss of our mourning.  This sneaks up on us.  We realize we are no longer grieving and we yearn for the grief to return.  The grief had in some ways taken the place of the lost loved one.  We felt closer to them in our grief, but when the grief fades, we feel the loved one fading as well.  In many ways, this is the most painful of the stages of grief because it is where we must decide to actually let the loved one go and move back into the world.  It is the last goodbye.  It isn't a 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' and move on type of thing, but rather, it is an admission that life does indeed go on, as well as our submission to it.  It is also the most important stage of grief because it acknowledges life.  Death is a part of life.  We cannot deny it and we cannot ignore it.  Even though our culture certainly bends over backwards to do so.  We must acknowledge it and respect it.  

This brings me back to the actor.  Actors are often taught, or asked to use their personal history in order to tap into emotion.  People have all sorts of opinions on this approach to acting.  I say the same thing I always say, use what works for you.  But I have one caveat to that.  While the death of a loved one will bring forth tidal waves of emotions, from anger to sadness and everything in between, my advice to any actor getting back into the swing of things after grieving is this:  never, ever use the death of a loved one to fuel your performance.  Don't substitute your dead loved one for your scene partner in a death scene.  Don't substitute your dead loved one to invigorate a scene where you get to say all the things you wish you said to them.  Don't do it.  It is disrespectful to the dead, their memory and to your experience and you'll end up regretting it.  It cheapens them and the experience you went through.  The emotions are within you, you have them, you've experienced them, you are alive with them, you are a cauldron of emotion and you don't have to envision the dead or replay a bedside farewell to call up those emotions.  That memory should be sacred to you and you should treat it with the reverence it deserves.  Instead, use your imagination to call up those emotions.  If you must use this substitution technique then use your imagination and substitute someone who is still living.  I only say this because, as much as you may love acting and have dedicated your life to it, you will regret exploiting precious memories of a dead loved one for a scene in a movie, play or tv show.  It is cheap, and it will deaden those emotions and those memories that are so precious to you and you will never be able to get them back.

There are countless schools of thought and theories of acting.  As an acting coach, I don't try and impose my approach onto a client.  Instead, I adapt to the client's method in order to facilitate their best performance.  With that said, I would always try and avoid using such a deeply personal experience as grief to elicit an emotional reaction in a scene.  I know that there are many who would disagree with me, but I think the emotions can be called upon without the exploitation of the sacred experience of the actor, simply by using other techniques, such as the use of breath or the actor's imagination rather than their direct experience.

I have seen grief affect different actors in different ways.  I have seen actors walk away from acting because it just seems foolish to play pretend after going through a terrible loss.  I've seen actors find direction and focus and rededicate themselves to the craft after losing a loved one.  I've seen actors take years off from acting to try and regain their balance, and I've seen actors dive into working non-stop for years on end without a moment's break.  We all do what we can to get through it, or in some cases, to avoid it.  The truth is you can only delay grief for so long.  It always comes, and often times, the longer we delay it, the harder it hits us.

In our everyday lives we yearn for deeper meaning, to connect to something beyond ourselves and our mundane lives.  But when grief hits us, we ache for the mundane.  We wish for nothing more than to talk about nonsense, to watch junk tv, to zone out and disconnect from the powerful river of emotion and meaning surging through us.  We desperately want to think of something else, to run from the beast devouring us, but we can't.  The beast is hungry and relentless.  Those of us who have grieved know this.  Those of you who haven't will find out soon enough, for the beast never sleeps.  My only advice to those new to grief is this:  know that life goes on, even when we don't want it to.  Also know that you aren't crazy, but the world is.  And, finally, go and read Hamlet.  You will feel less alone.