The Actor's Placebo Effect

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The world of science has come up with some pretty remarkable findings in the last couple of years. A few experiments caught my eye that dealt with the power of placebos.

We all know what placebos are. They are sugar pills that have absolutely no active ingredients – sort of like when a producer promises you a share of the net profits.

The first study dealt with asthma inhalers. The placebo group had useless inhalers. Despite the absence of any kind of medicine, the fake-inhaler group experienced a seven percent real relief of symptoms. More importantly for this discussion, the fake group had the same level of perceived benefit as the patients with the real inhalers.

The second experiment takes it a step further. They took a group of patients with IBS, which could be any actor during pilot season. They gave half of them placebos for their condition and told them straight out, “These are just sugar pills. Take them anyway.” The bottles even said PLACEBO on them. It didn’t matter. The placebo group reported more positive relief from symptoms than the group taking real medicine by a ratio of almost two to one (59 percent versus 35 percent).

The doctors who ran the study were perplexed. They couldn’t even chalk this up to the power of positive thinking. The only theory that seemed to make sense was that the ritual of taking medicine carried its own invisible power.

I believe somewhere between the results of these two studies are keys for success for the actor.

In acting, any character in any play or film is nothing more than a placebo. It doesn’t really exist, except on paper. To make an audience accept the placebo as real, we need to see our endeavor as real. In acting, what you see is what you get. If you can visualize the specifics of your character, if you imagine the world you are living in, if you can “see” what you want in the scene – it will happen, and we will see it as an audience.

On the business side, if you can imagine a successful audition, you will be far more confident walking into the room. You will believe in the life of your character more than any judgment of your character by a producer or casting director.

The second placebo experiment teaches that there is real value in honoring the ritual we use to work on a part. It carries an invisible power that extends beyond us. How do you do that? With time.

Simply put, an actor’s ritual equals the time you spend thinking about your part. It is the respect you give to the discoveries that arise. The invisible aura this creates is the source of confidence and relaxation. It creates focus and enhances imagination.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there was third study we have to take to heart as well. It involved the “nocebo effect.” They took a group of patients and told them that half of them were getting real medicine, and half of them were getting sugar pills. They were further told that for some, the medicine might have unpleasant side effects: nausea, headaches, and diarrhea.***

You guessed it. Some of the patients improved, some showed no improvement, and some got sick. In truth, none of them were getting medicine. All of them were getting sugar pills.

The scientists seem to be trying to prove what Shakespeare knew four hundred years ago. As Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As actors the most important part of our training may not be acting exercises or scene work but the creation of an optimistic spirit.

How does someone do that? First, you have to have a good memory. Not for your lines but for remembering why you wanted to become an actor in the first place. Optimism never comes from ambition. It comes from remembering dreams in their infancy.

As for maintaining our belief in the possible? We already believe we are actors. That’s the hardest part.

Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared in more than 200 movies and television shows. He is the author of “The Dangerous Animals Club,” published by Simon and Schuster. He teaches improvisation and comedy for Kalmenson & Kalmenson.