4 Ways to Bring Your Personal Experiences to Acting

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Are you a student of those around you? As a fan of personality types and understanding human behavior, I make it a habit to read all that I can on the subject with the goal of relating my findings relevant and immediately applicable ways for those in the performing arts. Having taken a Myers-Briggs assessment a year or so ago, I can’t help but be more aware of certain things that may fuel the creative process, especially for actors. Knowing a bit about birth order tends to help, too! That said, the Disney-Pixar film “Inside Out” is a marvelous source of inspiration for actors who wish to create an emotional response in their character ranging from joy, sadness, anger, fear, or disgust.

Here are four simple ways to enhance your creative process through personal experience.

1. Understanding personality. To do justice to any character, we need to grasp what makes them tick. We need to know their history, the people and things that matter to them, and why they behave the way they do. If you’re short on ideas, one of the best places to start is to check out the 16 personality types identified by Myers-Briggs. Studying the differences between introverts and extroverts, sensing and intuition, feeling and thinking, judging and perceiving will give you a good roadmap for how your character processes the happenings in their life and also how they respond to them. These types are great for character development. Maybe you see yourself in one of the 16 personality types.

2. Identifying core memories. Knowing your characters well is crucial to portraying them with authenticity. If you’re a method actor, no doubt you’ve infused your own experiences into the mix to make your portrayals more believable. In order to do that though, you’ve got to have a selection of what we’ll refer to as “core memories” to choose from.

For our purposes, a core memory is:

  • Foundational
  • Irreplaceable
  • Stored in your long-term memory
  • Representative of significant moments in time

As an actor, transferring the feelings you experienced from a core memory to your character can result in a most brilliant (let alone singular) performance. Only you can dig deep to find those memories within yourself. Drawing upon memories that you already have to feed your character is a common strategy for actors. Reliving a turning point, a mountaintop experience, or an emotionally charged moment can prove useful to an actor when properly filtered through a role. Watching the film encouraged me to think about core memories and what mine are.

3. Applying memories to performance. Have you been making a list? I’ll share one of mine. My grandmother’s funeral represents a defining moment in my life and her burial made it real. Memories of those feelings have served as my motivation for songs or scenes requiring a display of grief. The specific memory is when I was permitted to sprinkle her casket with holy water before they lowered her into the frozen earth. I didn’t want her to be cold or alone. Inconsolable, tears rolled down my cheeks as my 12-year-old self made my way around to sprinkle her coffin. While enormously painful at the time, this memory has taken on new meaning for me and I can look back through the lens of blessed assurance. My grandmother, though six feet under and removed from sight, is planted like a seed in the ground, awaiting resurrection to new life. Being able to see the good in that then dark but now bittersweet moment has provided enough distance emotionally to use this memory in a controlled performance.

4. Creating a catalogue of emotion. That was one of my sad core memories, and thankfully, I have happier ones to draw upon as well. One of the best parts about life is that the longer you live, the more memories you can create and come to appreciate in a different light. Creating a catalogue of your emotions in the context of memory will provide you with another tool you can use as motivation. These “emotions on call” can help you jump into character faster and fuel unmistakably original performances.

Think of at least one strong memory that you associate with each of the following emotions:

  • Joy
  • Fear
  • Grief
  • Anger

You might even want to jot down memories that have a hybrid feel to them and see how that goes.

Note: If the memory you’re pulling is derived from a negative or painful experience, make sure there is enough distance between said memory and your emotions to maintain control of how that emotion comes across. If you get lost in the emotion too much, it will hinder and not help your performance.

Wow! That can be exhausting. Remember though that anything great or worth doing isn’t easy. The next time you get sides or a script to audition from, think back to your own experiences and see if any of them are helpful to you. Your memories are built-in resources that you can tap into. Don’t be afraid to explore them. When appropriately used, personal memories infused into a character gives unmatched depth and meaning to your performance.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Stephanie Ciccarelli
Stephanie Ciccarelli is the co-founder and chief brand officer of Voices.com, the industry-leading website that connects businesses with professional voice talent. 
See full bio and articles here!