Emotion and Performance: Informing musical performance through acting techniques

Preparing a performance of classical music is often very technique-focused, simply because our instruments are so difficult to operate and the task of coordinating a crowd of musicians into a functional ensemble is so overwhelming. We, as musicians, don’t have as much formal language for discussing the emotional aspects of performance. Since they are internal, thoughts and emotions are often neglected in favour of more objective concerns (i.e., rhythmic precision, bowing technique, note articulation, etc.).

This is paradoxical: an audience doesn’t hear technique, it hears music.

To work around this paradox, I recently got in touch with Jacob James, an actor I met years ago during an early career detour into theatre. One of the highlights of my prodigious career as an actor was a non-speaking role as a costumed violinist, wandering the stage and making meaningful eye contact with the characters. That summer, a five minute chat with Jacob during a rehearsal break forever shifted my paradigm of acting.

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New York-based actor Jacob James

From a musician’s perspective, an actor’s technical challenges are comparably intuitive, but the emotional work is at the forefront of the performance. I asked Jacob to discuss acting techniques for using emotion in performance, hoping to get some insight into my own art form.

“When I was a young actor in community theatre, I relied almost exclusively on emotion; in fact, I thought that acting was emoting.” One time, while working himself up into a frenzy backstage to play a distraught Romeo, a director asked him, “‘What if you won the lottery? What if you met the love of your life? What if you could not make yourself sad?’ You can’t rely on emotion. Emotion doesn’t come first. What he talked about is ‘emotion as a result of action.’”

This line of thinking is intriguing because to play a phrase with musicality, it is tempting to look inward for a feeling and then impose that on the notes, but looking inside while onstage is a risky maneuver. Focusing solely on internal emotions runs the risk of bringing up the wrong ones – specifically, anxiety.

On the topic of nerves, Jacob described performing his first role at the Stratford Festival, a production of My Fair Lady, and witnessing his mentor suffer an onstage panic attack. “First and foremost, it effected [my mentor’s] ability to be present and listen. He couldn’t listen because he was in his head having a freak out. […] He’s singing this bit as Henry Higgins, and he’s looking right at me as one of the footmen, and I could see in his big, blue eyes the terror in his face. […] Like anything in life, whether you’re in an orchestra or acting in a play, when you get that anxiety, it pulls you out of the moment and out of the present.”

Instead of focusing on emotion, Jacob suggested something more concrete. He described “playing an action.”

“It’s not enough to just say a line. You have to use the line as a conduit to do something to somebody else in terms of an active verb. By default, the action or verb is saying the line. I have to use something else, like demand or plead, and then it becomes authentic. The emotion becomes a residual effect of the action. The action has to come before the emotion. If you try to do emotion into action, the reverse, you’re not actually telling a story, you’re just standing there in an emotional state; you’re just somebody emoting.”

Jacob also recommended reframing the performer’s relationship with the audience. Dealing with nerves during a performance of The Tempest, Jacob received some advice from William Hutt (whom he described as the “Gandalf of the Stratford Festival”).

“I would sit at the entrance to the onstage balcony of the festival theatre and I would listen to the Prospero/Miranda [famous Island] scene, and while sitting there in my Ariel costume with the feathers on my fingers and the Sonic the Hedgehog wig and sparkle makeup, and I started thinking ‘wow, all of these people have come from everywhere to see William Hutt do his big, final show and I’m this young punk that’s going to go out there and be alone onstage with him and do shared verse, and I’m not worthy.’ And the effect was when I would come [on stage] I would be very self-conscious; I would imagine what I was looking and sounding like to the audience as I was speaking – as opposed to just listening and doing things to my scene partner.”

Jacob asked his idol for advice. “[Hutt] asked me, ‘Who is the audience? Are they a bunch of people who are waiting for you to come out onstage so they can judge whether you’re a good or a bad actor? Are they people who don’t trust you? Or is it your long lost friend who you haven’t seen in 20 years, or is it your grandpa that you talk about so lovingly, or is it your best friend or is it your lover? They are waiting to find out what the relationship is; you’re in control of that, it’s not the other way around.’ In a nutshell, am I walking into an audience of people who don’t trust me or do trust me? And you make that shift in your head, to go ‘no, this is a group of people who love me and trust me and want me to succeed.’ All of a sudden, everything went off my shoulders and I was able to be present in the scene.”


ABOVE: As an active violist, Civic Fellow Roz Green performs on stages big and small . | © Todd Rosenberg Photography

As an orchestral musician, giving a convincing performance is made more challenging by having to meet the demands of the occasional difficult conductor. Jacob’s description of a friend, paralyzed by a bad director, was familiar:

“It all started with the director talking about the way he held his shoulders. ‘You’re holding your shoulders back too much, you’re sticking your chest out.’ So he made him do it hunched in in this weird way. It was all these external ideas about what’s wrong with him and so suddenly he’s completely not in his body, he’s doubting every impulse that he’s having. I think that’s one of the most horrible things a director can do to an artist, to doubt their own impulses. As artists, if we’re not able to follow through with our impulses, we can’t create. You don’t put [impulses] on like a costume, you have to let it come through you or else it can’t be truth, it can’t be real. And in this situation the guy was so far gone that the performance came off as inauthentic. It wasn’t truthful, it wasn’t real, he wasn’t listening, he wasn’t doing all of these basic things because the director had caused such self-awareness and anxiety and doubt in this actor.”

I have noticed that great conductors understand this psychology; they try to foster a sense of trust in the orchestra, encouraging the orchestra to react as a chamber group instead of trying to mechanically control the performance for precision. Conversely, some conductors ask for unintuitive techniques or phrasings to use the feeling of hesitation within the players as a musical effect in itself.

“If you believe it and the audience believes it, it’s theatre. If you don’t believe it, but the audience believes it, it’s theatre. If you believe it and the audience doesn’t believe it, it’s not theatre.” Musicians aren’t always in the mindset of storytelling. We are constructing something abstract with emotions tangled between the harmonies and our brains, and it is often easiest just to focus our efforts on achieving the notes or demonstrating our musicianship. I think all musicians can benefit from studying another art from and comparing how the priorities of other artists differ; and how they are the same. I think most musicians can relate to Jacob’s priority. “You want to make people lean forward in their seats and forget that they’re sitting in a theatre.”

By Civic Fellow and viola Roslyn Green


TOP: “Mask of Venice Carnival” by Paolo Gaetano | Updated for stock art on December, 2012.