By Hunter Lee Hughes
It’s no accident that notable filmmakers and painters, writers and even musicians have all drawn on their dreams to inspire their work. At a dinner party here in L.A., I met an acclaimed author who sets her alarm for 3 a.m. each morning so that she’s still half-asleep and esconsenced in dreams while she’s writing. Paul McCartney famously heard the title lyric of “Let it Be” coming from a mother figure in his dream. Salvador Dali called his work “hand-painted dream photographs” and acclaimed master film director Akira Kurosawa achieved a career pinnacle with “Dreams,” adaptations of his own nighttime excursions into fantasy.
So that begs the question….are dreams useful to the actor’s creative process as well? To answer this question, let’s delve a bit more into the actor’s challenges in building a role.
One dilemma that’s always haunted me as an actor and someone who directs actors – how do we channel the most primal, compelling material of our unconscious into a role whose demands (the lines you must say, the marks you must hit, the character’s arc charted by the writer) must by definition be processed through the conscious mind? It’s a bit of a paradox.
For many actors, the pipeline to this reservoir of energy and rich inner life has been…memory. Actors identify a compelling recollection from their life that lines up with the character’s experience in that moment. If the character describes a treasured lover from the past, the actor will – as part of his preparation – identify a treasured lover from his past to make sure that he can understand what the character is feeling and expressing. In this way, the actor deepens the dialogue. Now, instead of simply saying something about a past lover, the actor actually is experiencing mental images of a past love, that trigger authentic emotions, which the other actor…and the audience…can observe.
An actor may make his way through the entire scene in this way, filling in details from his own life to match up with the specifics his character faces. If the character experiences a traumatic loss, the actor will also conjure up a memory of a traumatic loss as a reference point. If the actor receives a thoughtful and meaningful Christmas present, the actor might stir a moment from her past when she received an incredible gift. And so on.
To be sure, actors will make other choices to build the performance as well. What is my character’s objective or need? What are the beats of a scene and how do my tactics change from one beat to the next? Some actors may work on physical traits of the character – how does my character walk, talk, move?
By confronting and answer these questions, the actor begins to understand her role and how she might be able to relate those to her own experiences as a human being. And, through this process, the contents of the actor’s unconscious may work themselves into the scene, because the need of the character is so primal that that actor’s primal emotions get engaged. Or a chosen memory may spark contact with an experience hidden from the actor that taps into an unconscious reservoir. But notably, all the choices are made and decided by the actor’s conscious mind. So even as the actor may hope and desire that the unconscious contents bring vitality and depth, those shadow elements have a narrow path in which to operate since the conscious mind is directing the performance and choosing which memories and objectives to embody.
This is where dreamwork comes in for the actor. According to the brilliant psychologist Carl Jung, dream figures represent unconscious aspects of ourselves. When you see yourself in a dream, the figure that is “you” is actually your ego, according to Jung. The other figures are the parts of you (or complexes within you) that you’ve not yet integrated, parts of the broader, unseen personality of which your conscious mind is not aware. If you dream of your mother, it’s most likely your own “mother complex.” If you dream of a shadowy monster, it’s likely your own psyche’s shadow or power drive. And what’s more, Jungian principles explain that these other elements within your dream are trying to communicate with the ego/conscious mind through the dream to achieve a more integrated personality. So if you see a shadowy figure in your dream, it may be that the shadow part of your personality is emerging and active in your life in some way the ego/conscious mind has not yet recognized. The dream is a counterbalance so that the ego can begin to understand the unconscious forces at work. But dream figures don’t always communicate with you directly – they use symbols and the associations around those symbols as a sort of code.
By writing down our dreams, decoding them, then contacting our dream figures through a process of active imagination, we can become aware of the sides of our personality that our own ego/conscious mind represses. This process is well-documented for those seeking personal growth through Jungian analysis.
I also found out – almost by luck – that dream figures can transform an actor from solid to spectacular, from interesting to riveting.
At my StoryAtlas studio, experimentation and innovation are our key principles for developing work. To reflect that, we switch topics every five weeks to force ourselves into looking at the craft of acting from a different point of view. Inspired by my friend and artistic mentor Deni Ponty, a painter who started a dream symbolism course for his students at Arts Center in Pasadena, I started looked at dreaming as a possible lens for actors to view their creative process.
In our January cycle, I used Jungian dream analysis followed by some of the active imagination techniques advocated by Robert A. Johnson and attempted to apply them to actors. The results blew me away. I interviewed the dream figures of an actor’s dream, sometimes asking these “characters” to take over the actor’s performance. Many of the female actors in class invoked powerful male figures from their dreams, lending a new power and sexuality to their work almost immediately. For the men, it was sometimes the opposite – a female figure from the dream would emerge, then provide a depth of emotion I’d never witnessed from the actor. But sometimes the male actors, too, allowed shadowy figures from their dreams to play the scene and, all at once, a new energy and power was unleashed. I saw risk averse actors whose work was always grounded in truthful realism suddenly allow themselves to take risks physically and effortlessly channel an entirely new way or walking or talking that still seemed authentic…because it was. These actors weren’t mimicking characters outside of themselves. They were channeling repressed characters within their own psyche that had opinions and desires, who treasured the chance to take over the actor’s performance because they desperately needed and wanted to express something. The scene then became a dance choreographed by the unconscious mind through which the conscious mind made realizations about its previously unseen inner drives/complexes. The active participation of the unconscious mind made the work riveting rather than merely good.
Of course, dreaming isn’t the only way actors delve into their unconscious and then spin that energy back into their work. I believe it’s no accident that actors are so prone to alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, diva-dom, nasty ego trips based in a drive for power etc. and other high risk behaviors, because in a way, the powerful forces being unleashed by these mechanisms are rooted in the unconscious, something actors feel obligated and compelled to make use of in their creative work. More so than other professions, we need all that primal energy of the unconscious….and if we’re going to dive in, why not get lost in the murk down there and have some fun? The alternative is to remain firmly ensconced in the conscious mind/ego. But who wants to see work that feels entirely under the conscious control of a pre-planned or regimented actor? So – to inhabit a role fully – some actors hand over the “keys of the kingdom” of the psyche to unconscious forces/drives. Are those the choices? Stay in control and cut yourself off from powerful unconscious drives OR submerge our consciousness into the unconscious and allow these primal wounds/desires/appetites to completely take over our creative lives (and, perhaps, subsequently, our personal lives, too) and hope for the best?
Again, the dreamwork is a mediation of the two, a way for actors to experience their unconscious drives and hidden aspects of their personality in a cauldron of experimentation without completely submerging into the abyss of the psyche or handing over the “keys of the kingdom” to an unconscious power drive or complex.
What I thought of as a monthlong experiment now appears to be a possible template for how the work of actors can be expanded further into the unconscious in a way that is imaginative and constructive. It’s something our studio will continue to explore as a cornerstone of empowering content creators to produce innovative work.
Hunter Lee Hughes, founder of Fatelink and StoryAtlas, is a Los Angeles-based actor-director whose award-winning feature film directorial debut Guys Reading Poems was recently called “essential viewing” by The Los Angeles Blade. The film debuted at the Palm Beach International Film Festival and went on to screen at eight international film festivals, winning three awards before a week-long theatrical run in Los Angeles. The film will be coming out across platforms in January, 2018. He also directed the web television series Dumbass Filmmakers!, winning “Outstanding Director – Comedy” by L.A. Webfest in 2013. He’s written two plays, the solo show Fate of the Monarchs and The Sermons of John Bradley, for which Hunter won “Best Lead Male Actor – Drama” by StageSceneLa.com for the 2008-2009 season. He’s currently developing his second feature film Inside-Out, Outside-In.