Character Work

What Therapists Can Learn from Actors

Magazine Issue
March/April 2019
An illustration of two colorful figures

It’s opening night. As I take my first step onstage wearing combat boots, camos, and a heavy metal band T-shirt, I see friends in the audience smirking at me incredulously. They don’t believe I can pull this off, and, perhaps, neither do I. But rather than letting the chill of inadequacy and self-conscious embarrassment attack me internally, I unleash those feelings outwardly, with a fiery vengeance, through my first line: “Shoot ’em, kill ’em, life everlasting, yeah!”

I was 20 when I was cast as the gun-obsessed Quigley in Hyperactive, an edgy play about teen angst by Olga Humphrey. Quigley was described as a “masculine, hard-edged” adolescent, whose favorite magazine was Soldier of Fortune. I was an effeminate, soft-natured man, whose favorite magazine was Entertainment Weekly—in other words, nothing like Quigley. But I was also an actor, and an actor’s job is to find diverse characters within herself, even if they seem very different from her at first.

Other than having a teenager’s build, the only quality I seemed to share with Quigley was the determination to prove my worth. In my case, proving myself not only meant getting hired, which I did, but also finding some genuine version of this unlikely role within me. My greatest challenge was to make an empathic connection with Quigley’s bullish personality, his gratuitous language, and (most difficult of all) his obsessive, violent fantasies. All these qualities—or symptoms, if you will—made me extremely uncomfortable and seemed to alienate me from him, rather than to invite me into his emotional world.

As a young male actor-for-hire, I was expected to behave like a “dude,” no matter who I played—meaning that I was pressured to conform to gender stereotypes and affect “masculinity” for every role (including for the extremely rare characters who were gay, like me, adding a bit of insult to injury). Yes, there are certainly a range of authentic, arguably masculine selves within me, which I have the capacity to discover and explore when I’m allowed a rehearsal process. But my everyday outward presentation has always been more physically delicate and emotionally expressive than our culture encourages men to be. And that meant that, unlike my gender-conforming thespian peers, I had to make conscious efforts to use my body in unfamiliar ways for every job.

With Quigley, I knew this would be an even more intense challenge. Since my head could not make sense of this boy, I had no choice but to find him through my body. As I began reading his crude and aggressive lines aloud at our first rehearsal, I imagined I was one of the bullies from my own high school past. I widened my legs, puffed out my chest, and spoke with an affected tough-guy bellow, straining to produce the intimidating, nasty persona adopted by so many males from my youth.

The result was what the kids call a “fail”! My performance was cartoonish and over the top; I’d created a caricature, not a human being. “Um, that’s a bit much,” my director said, with a penetrating squint of disdain in her eyes. Humiliation flooded my body and shut down my spirit. My effortful impersonation seemed to expose my limitations as both an actor and a man. I wouldn’t need to try so hard if I was actually talented or masculine enough, I thought to myself, further shamed by my inner critic.

But in the same moment, a window opened for me into Quigley’s inner life. I felt his debilitating self-consciousness, vulnerability, fear, loneliness—and self-hatred. His core intention wasn’t to intimidate and destroy other people, I realized. Those behaviors were secondary to his primary objective: to protect himself, validate himself, survive.

With those visceral motivations living in my body and mind, I could commit to Quigley’s macho expressions while maintaining an underlying sense of vulnerable truth. I observed men and boys in my daily life who asserted their “manhood” through their physicality, and I moved and held myself like them in rehearsal: every menacing cock of the head and imperious stone-cold stare. And as I played with these crude embodiments of my dark character, I increasingly understood how he/I was motivated by a desperate need to be validated by other people. Having successfully joined Quigley in the shadows, I could now bring a genuine version of him (and me) into the light as I rehearsed with my scene partners.

Quigley and I both experienced a kind of metamorphosis throughout the rehearsal process. Not only did I expand the variety of keys I could play on my own instrument (my self), but in so doing, I helped Quigley, through my body, find more freedom in his experience of himself as well. A pivotal shift occurred in a scene in which his neighbor, Leoda—an eccentric, fellow outcast in their school—challenges him to a private dance competition. Of course, the idea of a brooding adolescent guy, who dresses in camo and combat boots, agreeing to such a campy episode of platonic play seemed preposterous to me at first. But when I looked into the eyes of my fellow actor as we rehearsed, I felt an ineffable flicker of inspiration that can only be borne from a live human exchange of attention: what I now call a relational event.

I felt Quigley’s hunger for contact, for the opportunity to play, experiment, and expand his capacity for expression in the company of another person. As my scene partner and I improvised dance moves—to the 1980s Devo song “Whip It”—I discovered a freedom in my body that I’d never before been brave enough to explore in my everyday life. (I even, somehow, ended up doing a full split for the first time.)The real revelation for me and for Quigley, however, was the discovery that strength, confidence, and even masculinity can be present in one’s body along with relationality, creativity, and joy.

By the time the production was on its feet, I was able to embody Quigley’s story without extraneous effort: from his brusque introduction to his cathartic end, in which his mother and Leoda hold him in their arms and thwart him from carrying out a violent attack on his classmates. Actors often try to force emotion and tears in high-stakes moments like this—not unlike therapists when we impose heavy-handed clinical interventions onto challenging clients we want to “fix.” As my actor friends say, we often try to “play the end of the scene” too hastily, rather than allow ourselves to be present in every step of the journey.

But I didn’t have to strain myself to find Quigley’s deep-rooted pain for this scene: it was already living in my body. All I had to do was surrender my feelings to my scene partners, with whom I’d cultivated a great deal of safety and trust throughout our creative collaboration. As we performed the climax of the play, Quigley’s taut energy thawed from my jaw, neck, and shoulders—where it had been deployed as a shield—and it dispersed throughout my body, accessing a range of other emotions. In fact, at one point I awakened to the insight that all along Quigley had been defending against, and overcompensating for, the absence of his father. It’s an abstract clinical exercise to analyze a data point like this about a person’s life, either in a script or a psychological evaluation. But when we make efforts to embody that person, we expand our capacities for empathy, mutual recognition, healing, and creative transformative action, both on and offstage, in and out of therapy.

Years later, emboldened by my transcendent experience playing Quigley, I cofounded a small theater company in New York City, with the mission of empowering people to discover and become their fullest, freest, most empathic selves. We chose unique characters and encouraged actors to expand their possibilities for self-expression. Then we engaged our audiences in postshow “talkbacks” to reflect on the characters’ stories and find connections within their own inner lives. What was the next step in my career? For me, it felt natural to attend social work school.

Our Clients, Our Scene Partners

Today, as a psychotherapist, I approach my work much as I did in my former vocation as an actor: with the faith that my instrument—my body, my self—can serve as an emotional tuning fork to locate the inner lives of each and every client, regardless of our exterior differences. And I try to use it to inspire my clients to maximize their own experiences of self. As it turns out, the rehearsal process for a play can resemble long-term psychotherapy: we often begin with expectations of where we’re headed and wind up somewhere unforeseen—transformed yet completely ourselves at the same time.

When I tell people that I use my acting training and experience more than any other resource as a therapist, they often take me to mean either that I’m “fake” with my clients, or that I deploy literal dramatic exercises in session. I’m not (or at least I try not to be) fake with my clients, and I rarely, if ever, use theatrical interventions in session, unless I believe they might be useful for a specific client in a specific moment. However, when I simply think about my clients the way actors think about their characters and scene partners, I enhance my capacity to dive into the deep end of their stories, beyond the words they speak—their “scripts”—even when I do nothing more than listen to them compassionately.

I may not end up doing anything radically different in session from what any other clinician might do instinctively. But by thinking of myself as a performing artist, as opposed to just a clinician, I find creative ways to join my clients in their emotional subjectivity, relate to them like a character who can help them grow, and allow myself to expand personally in the process. And yet, as any practitioner knows, this is not always easy. It certainly wasn’t with my client Hal.

Hal burst into my office each week like he was in a race against time; he wanted answers, and he wanted them fast. A straight, white, corporate millennial, he was used to instant gratification, and he expected no less from his therapy. He emphasized that he already understood himself “extremely well,” and that all he needed from me were “professional tips” to reduce stress in his highly successful life.

I was flattered; I’d been cast in the role of commercial guru, the kind who might dominate the American market with bestselling, confidence-inspiring catchphrases. Except I felt too slow, discursive, and insecure to play this part for Hal: more the man behind the curtain than the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. Each week, I expected him to look at me incredulously—much as I’d feared audiences would respond to me portraying a butch, gun-wielding teen—and see that my training and degrees were all a sham. I anticipated the day he’d tear back the curtain and expose me as the talentless hack I felt myself to be in his presence.

On the plus side, Hal showed up for our weekly “rehearsals” consistently. But each scene between us had a palpable yet indiscernible tension. First, he’d summarize his week, speedily and with the energetic poise of a cocky movie star—shoulders back, chest protruding forward, eyes sparkly with intense self-assurance. Then he’d present a dilemma—“I need to make more time for relaxation and balance,” for example. At this point, he’d look to me as if to indicate it was my turn to perform, and to prove I was a worthy scene partner.

I’d then try to seize the spotlight, so to speak, masking my self-conscious insecurity with a commanding delivery of a line like, “I recommend yoga, three times a week. Put it in your calendar.” I was desperately trying to personify the omnipotent coach I imagined he wanted me to be. And though my “acting choice” arguably answered Hal by his own method, it felt as though I was trying way too hard to impress him.

Eventually, I’d look back on these moments and realize how all of these unnerving sensations could help tune me in to Hal’s complex internal world. But in the meantime, I felt blocked, like a superficial actor who failed to connect with his character on a deep personal level.

All the Characters Within

Over time, it became abundantly clear that Hal couldn’t be bothered with my attempted interventions. He’d wince disapprovingly at my suggestions and say things like, “Yoga never works for me. I just end up obsessing about the more productive things I could be doing instead of contorting myself on a mat.” At the end of our sessions, he’d stride out of my office with a proud posture, leaving me behind to reel in a slouch of inadequacy. I couldn’t seem to reach him, no matter how hard I tried. I felt like the FBI agent Tom Hanks played in the movie Catch Me If You Can, endlessly chasing Leonardo DiCaprio’s slick and wily character, a master of escape.

This frustrating dynamic manifested in a number of ways between us, including our weekly schedule. Hal would frequently ask to alter our meeting times due to his ever-changing obligations, and I’d accommodate him more than I wanted. I did this because I was afraid to disappoint him. Not only did I sense he’d fire me if I didn’t manage to keep up with his demands, but more significantly, I had an inexplicable sense of dread that he’d erase me from his mind entirely if I let him down. Unwittingly, I was tuning in to Hal’s inner life. I could feel his deep ambivalence about trusting and depending on people vibrating within my own body. And as it turned out, my fears were not unfounded.

One day, after two years of working together, Hal raised the emotional stakes of our scene work. I was running behind (by about a minute), between notes and phone calls, and he had no intention of waiting; it was his time, and he’d enter my office if he wanted to. I was completely shaken off-center as he blasted through my door. Within the flicker of a second, my face flushed with a combination of shock and shame, but also disapproval and a smidge of anger.

As we made eye contact, Hal stopped in his tracks—and his reaction to me was startlingly evocative. While his body asserted its typical conviction, his eyes betrayed a doubt, fear, and deference that I’d never consciously sensed from him before. Since I was too caught off-guard to address this novel improvisation between us in the moment, Hal made a beeline for the couch and shared his latest dilemma as if nothing had happened.

The latest dilemma, it turned out, was that his long-term girlfriend, of whom he’d always spoken glowingly, had proposed to him. “It came out of nowhere!” he exclaimed wide-eyed. “I was totally thrown off my game. Shaken.” Hmm, like what just happened to me now? I thought to myself. “We’ve talked about getting engaged for a while,” he continued, “but I just thought when it happened, it’d be . . . different.”

“You mean you thought you would be the one who proposed?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “I mean, not because of gender roles and tradition and all that. It’s just . . . I would’ve made sure it was perfect.”

“What would you have done differently?” I asked.

His eyes squinted as he struggled for an answer. “I guess I just wish she . . . ” he paused for a while, “seemed more sure of herself?” As we talked, he realized that this proposal had surfaced an implicit contract in their relationship: that he was in charge of their major decisions as a couple. His girlfriend had gone out on a limb and broken that contract—and now Hal was struggling to understand why he didn’t feel safe following her lead.

Uncharacteristically, his body sank back into the couch as he stared blankly in silence for a while. Finally, he spoke again: “Maybe she’s not the right partner for me.” There it was, the confirmation of my underlying fear; if his long-term girlfriend was expendable, so was I.

“It’s normal to feel a range of emotions at a pivotal time like this,” I said in an effort to validate him. “I appreciate your confusion and doubt, and since your girlfriend seems willing to give you some time to reflect, I suggest we continue talking before you make any big decisions.” He seemed momentarily held by this, but as I watched him take a minute to shield himself with his typical smug poise before leaving the office, I understood deep inside that this sense of security was tenuous, for both of us.

Hal colonized my mind for the rest of that day, much like a challenging character might consume me as an actor. At home, I looked in the mirror and tried to emulate his self-possessed posture. As my shoulders dropped back and down, my chest expanded, and my eyes and mouth affected Hal’s cool-guy charm, I began to recall the unpleasant sensations I’d get when trying to play the part of his expert guru. The external posturing I would affect at those times didn’t feel grounded in confidence, but instead seemed to serve as a shield to my internal self-doubt and fear of rejection.

Suddenly, I understood that the same was true for him. The look on his face when he’d barged into my office earlier that day, and the months and months of tension between us, began to make more sense. I realized that what he really wanted was not for me to catch up to him or project the same overcompensating confidence that he did, but to get ahead of him. He longed for me to become someone who could set boundaries with him, disagree with him, and ultimately, care for him—without getting caught up in the same debilitating self-criticism that plagued him. But how could I successfully embody these qualities in the therapy room with Hal?

I thought about the end of Catch Me If You Can, when Tom Hanks learns to approach Leonardo DiCaprio no longer as an elusive fugitive, but as a boy abandoned by his father. I thought also of Hal’s father, who’d died suddenly of a heart attack when Hal was a child. Gazing in the mirror and focusing on the sensations within, I rediscovered what I had with Quigley: biographical details about clients and characters alike resonate within us much more richly when we embody them, rather than simply study or analyze them. I then shifted roles and explored ways that I could present myself to Hal that might make him feel safely held.

I drew inspiration from men, in my life and onscreen, who were both palpably strong and nurturing, including Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Barack Obama. I considered their physical groundedness, the clarity of their thoughts, as evidenced by the easy poise of their heads, but also, most significantly, their emotional openness, illustrated by the lack of tension and flow of energy in their chest region. As I played with where I felt these qualities in my own body, I didn’t try to impersonate the men superficially, but to connect with the experiences in my life—like caring for my younger brothers when I was growing up and being a camp counsellor—that brought out the warmth and confidence Hal needed from me now.

When Hal next raced into my office, I was prepared to get ahead of him with focus, calm, and an embodied sense of security. As we revisited the previous session, I validated his anxieties about depending on his girlfriend (or any intimate “scene partner” in his life) and invited him to talk about the pressure he puts on himself to “be ahead” of other people, including me.

Throughout this session, there was more ease, vulnerability, and play between us than ever before. But it wasn’t what I said, so much as how I’d learned to be in the room with him, that made the difference. I was even able to recommend self-care activities like yoga, which he’d rejected in the past, in a way that he now responded to with complete openness—in theater terms, same script, better performance.

As Hal exited that day, he turned around in the doorway, took a moment, and then said through the shimmer of a tear, “Thank you.” I simply smiled in return, maintaining the combination of groundedness, strength, warmth, and vulnerability that we’d discovered together in our session.

While I waited for my next client, alone in my office, I reflected on the connection Hal and I had found, and I recalled an interview with Meryl Streep, in which she explained that in her view, her success as a performer was only as good as it was “the last time.” Thinking of our sessions ahead, I knew we could expect more tension, insecurity, fear, and doubt to manifest between us. But at the same time, I knew my acting training could help me perform on this different kind of stage, where we’d continue to explore the complex dramas of life together.



Mark O'Connell

Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R, MFA, is a psychotherapist and professional actor in New York City. He’s the author of the new book The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians, and writes for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, as well as clinical journals.