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Acting and Emotion

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

Hang around the theatre long enough and you’ll hear the stories: actors going to the ragged edge of their psyches for a role. Daniel Day Lewis sensing the presence of his dead father on stage while playing Hamlet and being too traumatised to return to the stage… ever. Adrien Brody selling all his possessions and starving himself in order to play a Holocaust survivor in The Pianist. Or Kate Winslet taking months to recover from her role in The Reader and describing the experience as being like an escape from a serious car accident.

Our culture lionises these actors for the lengths they are prepared to go in pursuit of truth. There is a mystique around these performances. We know these actors are “really working” as they suffer for their art and our enjoyment.

But does it have to be this hard? Are there ways for actors to create gripping and truthful performances without sacrificing their physical and mental health? A recent report tells us that Australian arts workers experience symptoms of anxiety ten-times higher than the general population, and depression symptoms five-times higher. Much of this is to do with the insecurity of the industry, rather than the work itself. But it’s vital to help actors stay mentally healthy when they are in work. To choose an approach to acting training that avoids the feeling of being in a traffic accident!

This is the mission of the Perdekamp Emotional Method or PEM, an acting technique developed by German writer and director Stephan Perdekamp. I’ve just returned from a four day PEM training in Sydney, hosted by 16th Street Actors Studio.

The training was led by Sarah Victoria, Master Instructor in PEM and an exceptional teacher. Sarah explained that the technique was developed by Stephan Perdekamp in Gemany in response to the repressed national psyche after World War Two. At this time it was dangerous for Germans to express too much emotion. Passions were considered suspect and there was a consequent shrivelling of the emotional life in the theatre. When emotions did burst out, actors were often uncontrollable. Sarah tells us that this led to a German law that actors were not fully responsible for their actions for a number of hours after a performance!

Stephan Perdekamp, creator of PEM

A new technique was needed which would allow for safe, powerful access to emotions. Developed over ten years, the PEM technique was founded on detailed scientific research and precise experimentation with actors. The latest independent research supports PEM’s philosophy that emotion manifests in the body the same way the world over. It turns out, when we go below cultural conditioning, we are all the same kind of animal. We have the same energetic systems. Our deep emotional centres are shared everywhere on earth.

Of course there are national differences between the way that cultures shape us. Sarah’s experience is that Russian actors ask an enormous number of questions, but once they understand the technique, their emotional connection is very strong. Australian actors usually have quick emotional access when doing the exercises. And for some reason Australians have a particularly powerful access to grief.

Sarah Victoria, Head of the PEM – International Office, PEM Master Instructor, Developer of PEM Body Work

Thankfully, the workshop was a huge amount of fun. The small muggy studio theatre at the University of New South Wales was quickly filled with sweaty actors, fully engaged physically, vocally and emotionally in the work. Sarah proved to be a gifted teacher, communicating with passion and specificity. Skills scaffolded one on top of the other and after four days we were creating complex, layered characters with deep emotional lives vibrating below the spoken language.

I found the exercises incredibly powerful and effective. The crucial aspect of this method is that the emotions generated rely only on the body. There is no need for psychological gymnastics. Actors do not need to draw on their personal experience or memories to create emotion. Regardless of what emotion is explored, it leaves the body moments after each scene.

PEM is now being used therapeutically in prisons; as an emotional education for autistic children and to help executives communicate in the corporate world. But the success of this method and approaches like it should come as no surprise. Well-designed theatre programs have great power to develop resilience and emotional intelligence. It might not make headlines in the same way as “I saw the ghost of my dead father!”, but the fact is that in the right hands, theatre is a profound force for physical and mental wellbeing!

At Barking Gecko we are committed to creating mentally healthy rehearsals for our mainstage work. Similarly, our Gecko Ensembles are all about creating an environment where young people can express themselves and thrive. Act Belong Commit sponsor our Gecko Ensembles in recognition of this powerful positive relationship between theatre participation and mental health.

The PEM technique fits beautifully with our existing philosophy, allowing for safe and powerful emotional access without asking actors to trawl their personal lives for trauma. Thanks to Sarah Victoria for a wonderful workshop!

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