“Don’t Measure Talent By Tears.”
Dear Maureen -
I am in total agreement with your contention that "if a woman is good at crying on the spot, one might equate this to good acting," and that "women are shortchanged when it comes to feature film roles because of the stereotype that they're not strong enough...the last thing we need to do is take the vast majority of women's roles we get and end up weeping during an audition."
A student of mine once served as a reader during auditions for a feature, and I asked her what she'd observed during the process. "The men all yelled," she replied, "and the women all cried."
While being emotionally available is definitely important in our craft, there's alot of confusion as to what forms that should take. For example, there exists a certain school of thought which equates hysteria with art. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hysteria is when your feelings overwhelm your ability to function within the context of the scene, depriving you, your partner and the audience of your character's truthful reactions and interactions in the imaginary circumstances. It becomes all about your heaving, sobbing hysteria, not the character's and it takes the audience out of the play and into your personal narrative, often concerning, if not alarming them about your welfare rather than the character's. This is why I urge actors to only use the personal connection if it's genuinely parallel (as opposed to substituting the death of your turtle for the death of your parent) and if it doesn't hurt too much. Otherwise, make it up. The imaginary often moves us far more than the real.
Now, there's also the opposite danger - that of overreacting the other way. Being turned off by examples of the indulgence of hysteria, many actors decide to avoid the emotional altogether, and, like the Devil, they can, "cite scripture for their purpose." As you say, quite rightly: "I'm thinking of 'Terms of Endearment' - Shirley doesn't weep, but you still know she's a tortured, emotional, conflicted and sad soul." But the way to that kind of work goes through the emotional connection, not around it. You cannot cover it, like Shirley, until you're connected to it. So I guess I'm proposing the third possibility: neither indulgence in hysteria nor avoidance of emotion altogether, but rather making the choices that get you connected to the material and then choosing not to be overwhelmed. This will be quite possible when you don't loose sight of DOING THINGS TO GET WHAT YOU WANT.
If all you're striving for is to feel something, then there will be no outward flow of your energy; it'll back up inside and overwhelm you. The "e" of emotion is from the Latin word "ex" which means, among other things, "out from." Emotion must be propelled along by the need to accomplish your intention. Deprived of a task, all you'll do is blubber. The extent to which you allow your feelings to show is your artistic, actor's choice. The entire range, from hidden to overt is available to you, as long as your choice is based on the logic of the character and the situation. If, for example, you want to melt someone's heart, you won't hold back your tears, as you try to achieve your goal, but if you'd rather die than give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing how much he upsets you, then you'll struggle not to show it.
But however you choose, remember that if you're not connected, we won't be, but if all you want to do is cry, we're not going to really care very much about you. We've all seen those performances where an actress didn't want to die, so she blubbered and heaved through scene after scene. After a while all of us in the audience had but one thought: "So die, already."
Bottom line, Maureen: you're right. It's insane to measure talent by the amount of water that comes out of someone's eyes.