This Acting Coach Believes in Facing Your Own Trauma to Free Yourself as a Performer

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Eric Morris

The following is an excerpt from longtime acting instructor Eric Morris’ latest book, “A Second Chance at Life.” Morris has been teaching his noted—and at-times controversial—Eric Morris Acting System in Los Angeles, New York, and around the world for 53 years and counts Jack Nicholson as a mentee, among many others. In the excerpt below, he details a process in which he believes actors can reexamine and recalibrate emotional triggers to free themselves of trauma while performing on stage and screen.

I have been teaching acting for 60 in Los Angeles, New York, and 15 other American cities, as well as in several other countries. I have developed my own system based on the system created in Russia by Constantine Stanislavsky and modified by Lee Strasberg. I studied acting at Northwestern University, graduated in 1954, and then pursued an acting career, before starting to teach at the end of 1960. It has been my journey on this path to work with actors in order to get them to achieve what I refer to as “experiential acting,” which simply means that the actor must experience in reality what the character he is approaching is experiencing in the play or film, and that he must use the events of his life and his own feelings to create that parallel experience.

In order to be free to act from a real and organic place, the actor must first eliminate all of the obstacles, inhibitions, fears, and blocks that he has, so that he can impulsively express his uninhibited emotions. Because most people have been damaged growing up in our society, eliminating that damage is a journey onto itself. I believe that there is no separation between living and acting and that actors who are blocked by the damage are only able to impose the emotions that then do not come from a real place. That issue is what impelled me to create a system of work that addressed the actor’s problems instrumentally. I have spent over half a century creating and working with techniques and exercises that have helped actors to liberate themselves from blocks and obstacles that not only kept them from being able to be affected by external stimuli but also made them unable to express their impulses emotionally.

These techniques also work for people who are not actors. They have helped thousands of them deal with and defeat the obstacles to happiness. The thrust of this book is to help all people repair the damage that they have been victims of, so that they can have a healthier, happier, and successful life.

The Approaches and Techniques for Repairing the Damage
My journey to find the ways and the approach techniques for repairing life’s damage started quite by accident over 25 years ago at a weekend intensive at my house in Lake Arrowhead, California. At that time I was teaching a year-long intensive workshop that met one weekend each month. We did instrumental exercises to liberate the actor’s instrument and eliminate the many blocks that develop over a lifetime. Over a long period of teaching I had developed numerous exercises and techniques for freeing a person from fear, insecurities, and emotional blocks. During one of those sessions I asked one of the participants I will call Jason to do an imaginary monologue talking to his father. The reason I asked him to do that exercise was that I knew he had impacting issues with his father that had never been resolved. He placed his imaginary father in a chair and began talking to him:

“You know, Dad, that I have suffered my entire life with enormous insecurities about my abilities to work with my hands and be able to do simple tasks, such as assembling a small table. I feel totally inept with anything mechanical, a screwdriver or a pair of plyers. It has been embarrassing for me in circumstances where I was asked to fix something or even make a simple adjustment to a door lock. I remember where it all started, and that experience still haunts me. Do you recall when I was in the Boy Scouts and I was assigned the activity to build something and bring it in to the troop? I was in our garage working with your tools attempting to build a small birdhouse when you came in and freaked out! You looked at what I had built and you actually screamed at me. You said that it was the most awful and ugly thing that you had ever seen. It was awkwardly assembled and looked like it had been nailed together by someone with 10 thumbs. You told me that I had no talent and never to touch your tools again. ‘Look, Son,’ you said, ‘You had better find something better to do with your hands than build something, because it is obvious that you have no talent in that area.’ I was 13 years old at the time, and I have avoided creating or fixing anything. That experience not only undermined my trust in mechanical areas but also contributed to my feeling awkward about my athletic abilities. I was always picked last when they were selecting members for a team at school.”

When he finished the imaginary monologue, we all sat quietly, having been affected by the story. I sat there for some time trying to digest everything that he had shared with us, and then I said, “Jason, why don’t we try something: Tell us that same story about what happened in the garage, only this time change all of the elements: make what he said and how he related to you very positive and nurturing, and totally change the outcome of the experience.”

He was hesitant and seemed confused by what I was asking him to do. I told him to go back to that experience and change it from a damaging event to a positive one. He started slowly and with some reluctance, but he began the story: “I was in the garage working on this birdhouse. I had seen one in Popular Mechanics about a year before that had caught my eye, and since I had to construct something for my troop, I decided to build a birdhouse. I was 90 percent finished with it, except for the paint, and I wasn’t sure what color would attract birds. I thought red, maybe light blue, and just as I was searching all the cans of paint on the shelves, my dad walked in and stood there looking at the birdhouse. It was a long moment for me, since I had never done anything like that before. He smiled a very big smile and walked over to the table where the birdhouse sat. ‘Did you do this, Jason?’ he asked. I hesitantly nodded. My heart was racing. He was silent for what seemed like an hour but was just a moment or two. Finally he spoke: ‘That’s great! I had no idea you had this kind of ability. It looks like something you found in a store that was professionally made. Wow, Jason, I am impressed!’ I was so affected by his response my eyes welled up with tears, and he saw that. He came over and hugged me and offered to help me choose a color.”

Jason finished the modified tale, and I could see that he felt different. I told him that he had to repeat that story many times, and ultimately it would replace the original damaging experience.

That was the first time I even suggested that repair technique, and it was over 25 years ago. Since then I have developed and refined it into a very usable approach to eliminating chronic and unconscious issues that haunt our lives and can insidiously prevent us from happiness and success.

All of the techniques that address repairing the damage one has experienced in one’s life must be repeated many times. The exact number of times varies with each person and is dependent on how deeply rooted the damage is in his or her unconscious. The best way to gauge the impact of a technique is to ask yourself how you feel about the original experience or event. Because each of the approaches is different, the repetition of the technique will vary. If, for example, you are using an imaging approach to address the damage, the images you create will often change and the content will be embellished. There are a number of imaging techniques, the nature of each of which demands an adjustment to the images that one creates. (This will be made much clearer when I get to the description of imaging as a tool for repairing the damage.) In the case of telling the story or sharing the actual event when the damage occurred, the story remains pretty much the same each time you tell it.

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