Is Crying on Cue a Skill or a Lie? Turning on the Tears, on Command
by N J Howell
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As an actor, you must have access to a wide range of emotions to be convincing, including the ability to be moved to genuine tears, or cry on cue, if your character would be so moved. I always tell my students in live classes that, if they are having trouble with a particular emotion, they need to look also at how they express, or have trouble expressing that same emotion in their lives. It is often the case that the type of expression challenge a person faces in the acting class is the same area of challenge they face in their every-day lives. One of the great gifts of acting may be that the process of it, in a safe class with a teacher you trust, often leads to better expression of difficult emotions in your non-acting life. Acting can teach you a lot about yourself.
Questions about Acting: Hey! So, I'm kind of curious of as how to always stay serious when I'm on stage. I have always played very depressing roles, and over the summer I had the main role in the play The Glass Menagerie. I was able to keep a straight face and play a very believable character but for the most part, when I try to think of something sad to form tears, I end up losing focus in what Im doing on stage. Please help!!
Answers about Acting: One of the greatest challenges many actors face is that of being required by the role to cry in a scene. This is called "crying on cue" and it can be difficult on stage but it's even more difficult, I think, in film. Setting the stage for a scene can take hours but you are supposed to cry when the director says action. I can understand why actors, soap opera stars in particular, resort to those glycerin drops that make the eyes water and create those perfect tears running down the middle of the eye. It's hard to cry on cue for a lot of folks, really hard for some.
I remember a class with Stephen Tobolowsky where he talked about being directed to cry on cue. He had the courage to tell the director that he did not feel his character would cry at that moment in the scene. Now, that took some self-confidence - you are there, with camera ready to roll, the whole crew waiting, knowing how much every minute of filming is costing, and you are given a direction you cannot, in integrity, follow.
Speaking up in that situation might not be easy for many; it would not have been easy for me - in fact, it wasn't easy when I had to do something similar on set but that's another story. I'd go further to say what Stephen implied which is if you can't cry, it's better not to attempt to fulfill a direction to cry on cue than it is to somehow force tears. Anything forced in my own performances feels creatively out of integrity, as if I lose truthful characterization. If I'm ever in that position again, I hope I have the courage of Stephen Tobolowsky and can just let the director deal with the truth of that moment for me as the actor. What makes acting real is, well, a sense of realness. In other words, if you are trying to think of something sad or form tears, that isn't real.
So what if you want to cry, and feel that the scene calls for it, but you still can't get tears to flow? What is probably happening, maybe even at an unconcious level, is that you are worried about being able to cry on cue. I certainly can't do it myself. It's contrary to reality, really. Even though the scene may be demanding it, or the director, it's helpful if you can release the whole idea of crying on cue and shift focus to what is here that would bring true tears for me in this moment, as this character? What I have done before is focus on my character's words and the other people on stage or in front of the camera with me. As I hear the words and watch the person saying them, I let my body respond to them as truthfully as possible.
Emotions are something we have in body memory and the freedom to just let the scene itself bring that body memory forth is something that can be developed. Unless that freedom is there, actors are forcing tears and, to me, it always looks and feels a little fake. The time for learning how to respond freely in an emotional scene is not opening night, of course. Better to play and practice during rehearsals and in a good acting class, at times when you can afford to be off the mark.
One example of allowing truth to create crying on cue: When I played Lola Faye Barnes in Del Shore's play Daughters of the Lone Star State, there is a scene at the end of act one where my character is completely humiliated and deeply hurt by the fact that someone flushed her homemade banana pudding down the toilet. Now, this is Daughters is a broad comedy (albeit with huge heart) but Lola Faye doesn't know she's in a comedy; it feels more like a tragedy to her and her reaction must be real.
One night, I was able to cry by watching the particular and frequent dour downturn of the other actor's mouth, in judgment of my character. I focused on that frown of judgment and trying to mentally make it turn up into a smile. My body responded by first agitation and then, when all my efforts did not change her, real tears. In fact, as I'm thinking about this right now, years after my performance, it caused a sudden jerky, teary and spontaneous gasp when I again tried to mentally move that cruel, condemning frown! Use what the other actors in the scene with you so generously provide by their acting choices. Hone in on mannerisms and tone.
Other nights during the production of the play, it may have been other things I noticed about my fellow actors that triggered the tears, or a vision of a lone vanilla wafer floating in the toilet surrounded by poop. That one brought the sting of tears more than once. How very degrading and insulting! I've also used pure body sensation, apart from any story, to bring tears. For example, I might ask my body to tell me how it would react to an onion being held under my nose. The body remembers and, if I'm able to just let my imagination be with that idea, My face will react even if actual tears don't flow and it will be a truthful reaction.
Creating the Moments Before:
This brings up another reason some of us have more trouble than others crying on cue. It's because we forget to create a memory of what came before. Had I not walked myself to an imaginary toilet and witnessed the remains of my precious banana pudding floating there, I would not have had what I needed to be convincing in the next scene. The audience may not have seen my character find this sacrilege but I, as the character, absolutely had to make it real for myself for them, by making it real for me.
Each performance, I had to find something that would take my character genuinely through the emotions required, from outrage to devastation .... and still keep it funny to watch and not tragic. That's another thing Stephen Tobolowsky taught me....if you get too real, in a comedy, the audience will begin to worry about you, and won't laugh. You have to stop short of that much reality in a broad comedy like Daughters.
I've been a director too, and I so often have to shake actors loose from a rigid rehearsal. They come to the set already knowing how they are going to play the scene and that's death for a play. If it isn't fresh, it isn't really worth seeing. I'm bored to tears by performances that were set in stone before the curtains opened and it's easy to tell because nothing is funny, sad or whatever else. It's like opening a can of tuna, as opposed to catching one out at sea, reeling it in and not knowing til the last moment if you'd land it for dinner.
An actor's characterization has to be a living, breathing, fresh creation every time or the audience definitely knows it. So, I encourage different line readings, even outrageous ones, to get freshness back into the rehearsal. Try saying the lines from the feeling of whatever is happening to you. If you are losing focus on what you are doing on stage, because you are trying to cry, then address your need to focus back on what you are doing on stage, AS THE CHARACTER. In other words, you character suddenly has a need to remember why they are there at that moment and what they need to do.