Laurence Olivier on the Indispensability of Personas

In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (Penguin, 1982), Laurence Olivier writes of an unforgettable mentor, and reveals a great deal about acting:

[Miss Fogerty] gave me one unforgettable, very special word of advice, which has been imprinted forever in my memory. I can’t think of when, if ever, I had heard or known such a penetrating foray into the hazardous area of an actor’s psychological weakness. During my recitation I had noticed her shading her eyes top and bottom in order to peer at me with greater intensity. She now leant towards me and said, “You have weakness…here,” and placed the tip of her little finger on my forehead against the base of my remarkably low hairline, and slid it down to rest in the deep hollow of my brow line and the top of my nose. There was obviously some shyness behind my gaze. This was a thing I comprehended so completely  that it shadowed my first few years as an actor. I am not imputing to Elsie Fogerty the responsibility for a psychological block–it was simply not like that, I knew it was true, there was a weakness there. It lasted until I discovered the protective shelter of nose putty and enjoyed a pleasurable sense of relief and relaxation when some character part called for a sculptural addition to my face, affording me the shelter of an alien character and enabling me to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation. [pp. 37-38]

You wouldn’t consider actors to be shy folks. But many of them are. One way to overcome that shyness, of course, as many acting coaches tell their wards, is to simply get ‘into character.’ After all, once you are busy being someone else, you are too busy to be shy or embarrassed, emotional and psychological states that belong to your older self; you are now someone else, you inhabit another persona, and this one certainly is too busy doing whatever it is that your character requires. You have a new persona.

But sometimes actors, the shy ones like Olivier, or even those that are not, have to be reminded they inhabit another persona. The easiest way to do this is the oldest: the mask (from which the word ‘persona’ is derived); it enables the easy slipping into, the taking on, of another personality, another self. The disguise it afforded was all the cover required to transcend one’s awkwardness in an old skin; it was a putting on that enabled a shedding off. But as Olivier points out, you don’t even need anything as elaborate as a mask; even simple nose putty will do. The essentials are then in place; a physical barrier is placed between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’; and now, comforted by this separation, this distancing, the previously discomfited can get on with the business of being someone else.

Representing ourselves is always a tough business; we are not quite sure what to bring forth, what to suppress, what will meet with approval, what with dismay. The mask, the persona can provide some much-needed cover and calm for this state of psychic confusion and bewilderment.

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