The Cryin’ Game
If that happens, they may want to get in touch with Dee Cannon, an acting teacher who works at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) and for private clients who have included Matthew Modine, Jon Voight, Courtney Love, the singer Craig David and the former soccer star David Ginola. She followed her mother into this work. The legendary Doreen Cannon was an acting coach in New York until she married an Englishman and came to teach in London at the Drama Centre, for 20 years, then at Rada. Her students included the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Simon Callow (whose book, Being An Actor, includes a gripping account of her classes). Eight or nine years ago, her daughter was working as an actress but taking additional jobs to bring in money – in her case, by teaching. So when Doreen needed cover for a holiday, RADA called in Dee and judged her good enough to make her a permanent fixture.
We sit in her lounge, on the third floor of a block in a leafy street in Ealing, west London. The room is brightly decorated in primary colours. A fan hums quietly to keep down the high temperature outside. Cannon, who is in her 30s, wears sunglasses on the top of her head and sits back on the sofa with legs crossed – but leans forward urgently to explain the mysteries of Stanislavsky’s Method, and particularly his use of emotional memory.
In classes, she explains, students lie on the floor. To relax, they’re encouraged to imagine themselves on a beach, or in a garden. Then she asks them to look back on a traumatic episode. “It’s normally death, to be honest,” she says. “Or it could be a car accident.” Whatever it is, the memory must be at least five years old, because the emotion associated with anything more recent may be too strong to control. Cannon invites them to shut their eyes and consider every aspect of that event. “You get them to go back to the beginning of that particular day,” she explains. “Where were they? What were they wearing? What were the sounds and the smells? You try to get them right up to the moment when they picked up the phone and heard the bad news.”
Gradually, this forensic attention brings most students to tears. Is it odd, for Cannon, to see everybody crying at her feet? “A little.” But also gratifying? “Oh, absolutely.”
Afterwards, she asks students to identify the precise detail that elicited the tears. “It could be the look in someone’s eye, or an intake of breath, or the sound of the telephone.” Whatever it is, that’s the trigger they take with them into the studio, or on to the stage.
Another method she recommends is to choose a piece of music. By replaying that constantly, actors teach themselves, like so many Pavlov’s dogs, to cry whenever they hear it. (Researchers at the University of Keele have investigated the effect of musical passages on the emotions. Among other things, they found that shivers were most reliably provoked by relatively sudden changes in harmony, while the heart races at acceleration and syncopation. Tears were most reliably evoked by melodic appoggiaturas, or grace notes, in which a note above or below the main tone precedes it, creating tension that is released when the tonic is then sounded. Listeners’ expectations are aroused, frustrated and satisfied in fairly mechanical ways – so much for profound emotional response.)
Not so long ago, Cannon directed a play, Steel Magnolias, in which an actress had to come on crying because of the death of her daughter. “She found a piece of music, a classical piece, and she listened to it for 10 or 15 minutes beforehand, then came on sobbing. It worked throughout the rehearsals and the performance. The only thing is, I don’t think she had enough control. She came on crying at once, because the music was so powerful. I would have liked her to hold on for a few minutes into the scene.”
Yet another technique is to use objects with sentimental significance, such as a ring or a photograph. “I get students to talk about it, where they were when they were given it and what was their frame of mind. You build up a whole picture. And by talking about it and sharing that slice of their life they quite often find tears rolling. I’m absolutely overjoyed when that happens. Quite often you can get the whole group to cry. These personal objects are your friends, you endow them with memories and use that in performance.” Any object will do, so long as it has emotional resonance. “I could go through this apartment and show you what all kinds of things mean to me.” She picks up a cushion and waves it. “Even this.”
Whichever technique they use, actors – and politicians, or their wives – must then work out how long it takes for the memory to produce tears, and build that interval into rehearsals so that they cry exactly on cue – and that’s rather more difficult than it sounds.
As in representations of drunkenness, says Cannon, the most effective criers appear to struggle against their condition. Thus, just as it’s funnier to watch drunkards straining for sobriety than mere slurring and staggering, an audience is less likely to be moved by incontinent sobbing than by characters who fight back their tears. The prime minister’s wife seemed to do that, in her speech last year. An exceptionally gifted performer, as we have seen, can do this. Could Booth? Perhaps, but she’d endured a tough week. Is it possible, boringly, that something unscripted flickered in her brain, the lacrimal gland started to produce tears and – pace William James – she only registered her miserable mood when it was too late to stop? What does Cannon think?
“Well, it doesn’t always take much to produce tears, especially if you’re feeling a bit low in the first place… ” She pauses, remembering something that is interesting, particularly for students of rock music, but which leaves me no more sure than I was before about my own tears; and less sure about Booth than my father was about me, justly, all those years ago.
“The point of acting techniques,” says Cannon, “is that you are in control. Vulnerability and sensitivity are not techniques – although if you are clever you can use them. When I worked with Sinead [O’Connor] she would just tap into something and cry. It was amazing. But she would say, ‘I’m on my period, I was feeling vulnerable before I came in.'”
John-Paul Flintoff is contributing editor of the FT Magazine