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The Importance of Being Substituted

Hello Strasberg actors,

Here we are at the beginning of another month of this crazy Anno Domini 2020. While we are slowly coming out of lockdown and hoping for a new normality, in the last month the US have been burning and people have been in the streets protesting to end police brutality and racism. About bloody time.

Surely, though, these destabilising times can make us feel unsettled and scared. Artists are sensitive souls after all, we let the events of the world affect us more than what we would like. There is so much we cannot control and we need to learn how to live with it, perhaps what is going on is exactly what the world needs, perhaps is a global conspiracy, there is no way of knowing. What we can do however, is focus on the work, focus on becoming the best artists we can be, because we have the duty of telling the stories of the characters that we encounter at the best of our abilities.

Let’s make this summer 2020 about our craft. One of the most important aspects of the work as an actor, and especially as a Strasberg actor, is the Substitution: the capability of putting someone or something of importance or specific relevance to you in the Fourth Wall (the invisible wall between actor and audience/camera); to substitute whatever or whomever you are talking to/about in a scene with something or someone who is meaningful for us. Surely, though, we need to choose these Substitutions well, as the choice we make has to make sense with the script and the story.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say the scene you are working on is a love scene and the person you are talking to is your lover. However, you happen to not feel any romantic love for your scene partner -- maybe you even dislike the person in question. So what do you do? Of course, you are not going to fake it. This is the perfect time to Substitute the person who is physically in front of you with someone who you actually love or loved in the past. Someone who makes or made your palms sweat and your heart jump.

Not just that, but remember being specific: what if your Substitution (the person you're thinking of) carries with them, say, a melancholic feeling because you really still miss them? That wouldn't work for some characters or scenes: that's when feedback is pivotal, and you need to shift and find the best possible Sub for your case; or you can go Adler and use lots of imagination and just slightly shift things enough. But we do recommend trying keeping it 'real' at the beginning of your Strasberg training... You will be able to tell the difference when you work with your real memories (and especially your audience will be able to tell: again, feedback is pivotal).

Substitutions are especially helpful when you don't give a bleep about a specific issue or item or a situation is too abstract for you to portray: you just feel it doesn't belong to you, so how are you going to act like that is so important when it's not? Of course, you can use imagination in some cases, but again, that's only going to work up to a certain extent.

What if you're interpreting Butch in Pulp Fiction, how are you going to care so much about a single watch? Well, for Butch that is REALLY important (and here's why, if you're curious), but you just don't have something like that. So what do you do?

Here it comes: you Sub the watch with something that IS very important to you. You will still talk about the watch as per the scene, but you will be picturing your childhood's stuffed animal, or even somebody you love dearly and couldn't bear losing. Oh, it's not easy, of course: you do need to raise the stakes, and of course there is a technique for that (and it does take time, and that's why it's a training that must be approached with commitment -- hopefully we will be able to resume our courses soon, so that you can get on with it... Hang in there! But in the meantime: keep reading).

Another important point to make about Substitutions is the homework. It is important that when you get to the film set you have done all the Emotion and Sense Memory homework, so that you would have built a solid base that will support you in the scene(s). This way you won’t be thinking about picturing your Substitution and speaking the lines at the same time, but the work will be there, trust that it will be, so that you can be relaxed and in the moment: it is fundamental that when you act, you are being in the Here and Now, listening to your scene partner(s) and knowing where you come from (Previous Circumstances). The more homework and prep you will have done, the clearer you are on your character's background, your Subs, what are their Unfulfilled Need and Public Persona (and, ideally, your own), how they really feel (whether they know it or not), and obviously the more you will have memorised your lines and stage directions, the less you'll have to focus on all this and simply enjoy the scene and live through the moment. You will simply be your character, and things will magically fall into place. We've seen it happen. With us and with others.

One last thing to always remember: acting isn’t therapy. You probably heard it in class over and over again. You need to be able to leave whatever is going on in your life outside the set/stage, but also, you need to be able to let go of whatever feelings the Substitution might have caused you on set/stage. You cannot bring that stuff at home with you! Once the magic words are spoken “that’s a wrap!”, you will shake everything off.

Indeed acting can be therapeutic, of course (which is brilliant and we love it), but it is just not a way to get over your traumas. There are shrinks for that. Acting is a craft and an art and we need to approach it with the respect it deserves.

Now get on your homework, get to class and create amazing characters, we cannot wait to see them.

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