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How Substitution Hurts The Actor

If you had a wound on your arm that was scabbing over, would you pick at it and open it up? If you have ever done that, then you know you risk infection and a much longer healing process.

So if you wouldn’t do that to your body, why would you ever rip open an emotional wound?

Some actors pick at those emotional scabs for their craft. They use personal experiences (aka: substitution) so they can achieve an emotion. But the internal results are the same as picking at a physical scab; more pain and less healing.

So, the first way substitution hurts the actor:

Substitution is unhealthy.

Drawing on painful real life experiences rips open an emotional wound that deserves to be left alone. We have physical scar tissue for a reason. We have emotional scar tissue for that same reason: we have worked hard to heal, to move on, to recover. It is simply unhealthy to rip open the healed (or healing) tissue to make ourselves feel something.

Stella Adler famously said, “Drawing on the emotions I experienced—for example, when my mother died—to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it…Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your own character. I don’t want you to be stuck with your own life. It’s too little.”


Substitution doesn’t work.

Not the way you really want it to, anyway. What’s the job of the actor? To fully live moment-to-moment in the imagined circumstances of the character. Remember, behavior is unconscious, organic and happens as a result of an experience.

So does substitution really help you do your job?

Let’s see:

You’re playing the role of Chloe whose father just died in a car accident 10 minutes ago and you have to tell your brother Patrick. Do you draw on your own father who died slowly from cancer 10 years ago? Do you do this to dig up an emotion?

You might very well succeed and produce some very real tears. But there are two problems:

  • Your pain isn’t the same as the character’s pain. Those tears have nothing to do with Chloe and Patrick. Your real pain (healed over the past 10 years) and Chloe’s imagined pain (shockingly in the “now”) are two very different experiences, so it doesn’t fit…and just “doesn’t feel right” to the audience.

  • You can’t be present if you’re pulling from the past. You will be so focused on your past you won’t be present as Chloe talks to Patrick in this very specific moment. Rather than true emotion bubbling up as Chloe tries to tell Patrick that their father has suddenly died, you will seem disconnected. Again, the audience won’t be able to verbalize why, but the tears will feel indulgent.

Substitution forces you to take a machete to that healthy scar tissue and/or scab, tear it open, pour salt in it and encourage it to fester with infection. And after all that, it doesn’t even work.

So if not substitution, what do you use?

Your imagination is more powerful, more effective and much healthier.

Instead of using your own father, fully imagine loving father-like moments with the actor playing your father and then imagine getting the news that he has passed. Then be present as you try to tell your brother this difficult news. If you are open, vulnerable and courageous, you will have truthful reactions and emotions to these imagined circumstances.

When you use your imagination, your emotional life stays steady, balanced and healthy. The wounds stay healed. The scar tissue stays intact. The actor successfully does her job.

And guess what? When you’re finished with the role, it’s much easier to let go. After all, it was all made up, right? Breathe easy.


For more information about how mental/emotional health is as important as physical health, watch this TED Talk. (If you have trouble playing the video, switch browsers.)

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