The Outside In Acting Technique

Written by on | Acting Methodologies

Before we start try this: breathe as if you are panicked. Do it accurately. Breath high in your chest and fast for 30 seconds. See how you started panicking for real or started feeling stressed? Did you notice your facial mask change to accommodate this and add to the panic? Did your brain start searching for something in your life to panic about? You have just done a very crude and simple demonstration of Outside-in acting.

In this article, I will address some of the misconceptions of ‘inside out’ acting and why it shouldn’t be your only route to character or truth. Additionally, I will introduce elements of the outside-in approach and why it’s an important tool to have. Lastly, I will point you in the direction of some theorists that can help you in your journey. 

Inside-Out vs Outside-in Acting Techniques

Most of every emerging actor’s training is based entirely on an ‘Inside-out’ approach. An approach to acting which is instigated internally, and then allowed or encouraged by the performer to affect the external body and voice in a way which illuminates or expresses their internal state to the audience. Although you may not have heard it put this way before, you are probably already quite practiced in Inside – out acting. It is, after all, the most popular approach.

An actor may focus their attention on a particular set of given circumstances, employ the magic if and replicate how they imagine the character would act in that situation. Alternatively an actor might ‘target’ a particular image or memory, and through investing in the target the emotion starts building, and the actor allows this emotion to ripple through their body, affecting their posture and voice. Or an actor might imagine themselves as the character, tricking themselves into experiencing everything that happens to the character.

Either way, all these processes start from the internal (psychological) being roused to emotion or action in the belief that this emotion or action will then be expressed by the body and voice and received by the audience. 

‘Outside-in’ flips this idea on its head. It is the idea that external choreography of the voice and body can influence our internal workings in the exact same way our internal workings effect our body. More importantly, when done well, it can provide a clear and accurate expression of internal state to the audience independent of whether we are ‘feeling it’ or not. 

The Misconception of ‘Feeling It’

‘Really feeling it’ seems to be the great indicator of a job well done for an emerging actor. Whilst ‘really feeling it’ does quite often lead to a great performance, it is not actually an indication of whether performance was ‘good’. I have seen terrible performances from people claiming they really felt it, and I have seen incredible performances from people who said they felt nothing. Whether you are feeling it or not, focusing on what you are feeling very rarely produces a good performance.

In this pursuit of feeling, something often gets forgotten: The only person that needs to feel a thing is the audience. 

I can’t continue without sharing my favourite acting quote from David Mamet in his book “True and False”:

“The actor on the stage, looking for or striving to create a “state” in himself can think only one of two things: (a) I have not yet reached the required state yet; I am deficient and must try harder; or (b) I have reached the required state, how proficient I am! (at which point the mind, ever jealous of its prerogatives, will reduce the actor to (a)…”

“If one were truly able to command ones conscious thoughts, to summon emotion at will, there would be no neurosis, no psychosis, no psychoanalysis, no sadness.”

Whilst Mamet can be a little obtuse, it is true that the burden that we place on ourselves as actors to ‘really feel it’ can take us out of it completely. This, combined with a toolkit which is only inside-out means sometimes we can exert a great deal of internal, psychological or mental energy for little or no result. 

Technique Over Instinct

If you are still thinking, “Yes, but Michael, I WANT to feel it. I know if I feel it, the audience will too”, well… that’s fine, maybe not true, but fine. But let me ask you this: What if you’re NOT feeling it? 

Whilst this may be fine for a self-test, a rehearsal or an acting class where you can wait and do it again later when you are in the mood, you cannot hold up a production or do a bad show because ‘you’re not feeling it’. What if your climactic scene is meant to be shot on a day when you’re exhausted or distracted? If in a long theatre run, are you going to still be feeling the ‘To be or not to be’ speech at show 150? I doubt it. 

We all have good days and bad days. For any of you that work out or run or ride, you will know some days are easier than others. For those of you with intellectually demanding jobs or hobbies, you will find the same thing: some days we have it, some days it’s a struggle. 

When acting becomes work, rather than a hobby, it doesn’t matter whether you are having a good day or a bad day. You still need to perform, and well. No one cares if you are feeling it or not, you have a show to perform or a scene to shoot. This is where technique triumphs over instinct.

Outside-in approaches to acting are very technique based, and rely a lot on physical choreography, breath and gesture. Although there are many schools of thought, broadly speaking, an outside-in approach is more interested on the external representation of internal state reaching the audience then it is about making you the actor feel something, even though you often will. 

Although initially it does not seem as sexy as the mystical transcendence of feeling like you were really in the scene, outside-in approaches can provide the complete appearance of a fully embodied scene. If done right, the technique can even activate very real emotion within you in a way that can be replicated again and again without draining the imagination or relying only on instinct.

Where Are Emotions?

I can still feel your hesitation, so before I continue, I want to ask you “Where are your emotions?”. 

Emotions are felt and expressed through the body, not in the mind. 

Almost without exception emotions surprise us in life, instigated by external stimulus, independent of what we are thinking or doing. Quite often, the onset of an emotion causes us frustration in real life as it gets in our way of achieving what we came to do. Emotions also ripple through our body, changing constantly bouncing from one to the next, rarely in a fixed state. 

So if they are, as stated above, experienced and expressed through the body, why do we try and start them with our mind?

We know instinctively just by looking at someone if they are happy or depressed, stressed or relaxed, laughing or crying. How do we know this? Through their body language, facial mask and breathing patterns. We know that the physical act of smiling can heighten our mood, and that slowing our breathing can reduce stress. 

Outside-in approaches acknowledge the role of the body in the experience and reception of emotion. Outside-in schools of thought focus on gestures made or signals our bodies naturally emits whilst in emotional states and teaches them as choreography. When executed well, this emotional choreography is indistinguishable from the real thing. At the core of this thinking is the understanding of a bidirectional relationship between body and mind: in the same way a thought which triggers an emotion causes the body to behave in a particular way, moving the body in a particular way can produce internal experience of emotions. 

Below are three of the big players in Outside-in thinking, although most theorists will incorporate elements of this when it comes to repeating moments or performances. Whole articles could be written, and in fact whole books have been penned about these theorists, so allow this to be a brief introduction as to where to look if you want to know more. 

Acting Technique #1: Laban

Rudolph Laban was probably the most prolific of the outside-in theorists. It helps that his teachings and way of thinking was developing at a time when performance in general was going through a massive soul search. The first half of the 20th century was an extraordinary time for the philosophy of performance and during this period the walls between dance, music and acting were coming down. Whilst we are quite fixed with naturalism because Stanislavski style inside-out approaches took dominance, it is important to remember that at the time this was just one revolutionary idea in a sea of exploration to have performance reflect life. Although Laban first started in dance and physical theatre, it later became adopted by actors. 

Laban’s method is interested in categorising types and qualities of movement and gesture to externally represent internal energy. It asks that actors experiment with or try to observe the qualities of movement in real people to decide what combination of movements and qualities best represent an internal state. 

Although there is too much to report on in this quick introduction, as his work is all about categories I can briefly introduce you to the two main ones: 

Movement can be divided into four categories:

  • Direction (direct or indirect)
  • Weight (light or heavy)
  • Speed (fast or slow)
  • Flow (bound or free)

Then by combining these there are 8 gestures or ‘efforts’

  • Wring
  • Press
  • Flick
  • Dab
  • Glide
  • Float
  • Punch
  • Slash

By thinking about your movement in these categories, you can be deliberate about what you are wanting to depict. Alternatively, focusing on an effort or gesture can replace the need to inspire emotions internally. For example, rather than trying to make yourself ‘anxious’ you could instead focus on physicalising/internalising the WRING gesture/effort (Indirect, heavy, sustained and bound) which will have the outward manifestation of anxiety and may in fact induce this emotion. 

If you are curious about this, there is plenty to find online or in his book: The Mastery of Movement. 

Acting Technique #2: PEMS

The Perdekamp Emotional Method or PEM is a recent technique developed by Stephan Perdekamp, a writer, performer and director based out of Austria. 

What makes PEM really interesting is that it addresses the potentially problematic elements of substitution or self-psychological manipulation which underpins most other acting techniques. It gives a genuine alternative to playing trauma, heightened states or emotionally demanding material, without an actor having to relive trauma in their own lives or traumatise themselves through constantly placing themselves in the minds of a character. They claim that “PEM provides performers with a direct, effortless and guidable access to authentic emotions on a purely physical basis, without recourse to personal experiences or emotional memory”. Click here if you’re keen to read more about PEMS.

As it is a full comprehensive method involving many steps and elements much like Stanislavski’s method or Meisner, there is too much to explain fully. In basic terms, this technique relies on identifying and learning ‘emotional patterns’ with the body rather than the mind. Emotional states (which are themselves combinations of ‘true’ emotions) are broken down into a combination of posture, facial mask and breathing which when done accurately allows for a strong emotional response in the mind and body regardless of thought pattern. Unlike mental stimulus, this choreography can be repeated consistently, provoking the same response in the body repeatedly.

Another fantastic element of this method is that it works in parallel with other acting methods, so it is complimentary, rather than a replacement for any school of thought you currently adhere too. It is also a ‘complete’ method, in that it addresses all elements of performance. This means that whether you have a method you prefer already, or you are entirely new to acting, PEM will have benefit for you. 

Acting Technique #3: ALBA Emoting

ALBA emoting is a very similar technique to PEM. Although PEM is a full acting technique which covers all elements of performance in its scope and looks to provide solutions for all acting problems, ALBA is a little more specific and science based. 

A relatively new technique developed by neuroscientist Susan Bloch, ALBA emoting is a psycho-physical technique which essentially reverse engineers emotional expression through physical choreography. ALBA emoting choreographs the external expression of the emotional state based on breath, posture and facial expression. The findings of Bloch were that not only did the accurate execution of the choreography induce an emotional state into the actor, it also was obviously and accurately perceivable by an audience member.

acting technique 

The foundation of ALBA emoting is the breath patterns of these six base emotions. Our empathetic response to breath as an audience member is very powerful. Take for instance when you watch a movie and the protagonist jumps underwater. We unconsciously limit or hold our breath in empathy with that character. This manipulation of breath has the same effect on the audience and gives the actor something concrete to focus on and execute during the performance, taking away the need to “reach a state’ or ‘go there’ emotionally. 

Unlike other acting techniques which can be playfully explored without prior exposure, ALBA emoting theorists warn against use without prior training by experts in the field. Developed by a neuroscientist, rather than a performer, its dissemination amongst performers, directors, training institutes and companies has likely been held up because of the need to train in this technique to use it effectively. 

That being said, understanding the core components can give us insight into the importance of breath and can inspire us to think of emotion in terms of breath rather then feeling, even if you haven’t gotten trained in this method specifically. 

Conclusion

I am a big believer in the tool kit, where you have access to a bunch of different solutions to the same problem. You wont need every tool all the time, and you will definitely have favourites, but you’re better off having it and not needing it, then needing it and not having it. 

Most emerging actors have no Outside-in tools, so it is worth brushing up on a few. Who knows, it might just save you the next time you aren’t ‘feeling it’!

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