In acting, substitution is the understanding of the elements of one’s life by comparing them to the elements of one’s own life. For example, if an actor portrays a person who is being blackmailed, he or she might think back to some embarrassing or private fact about his or her own life, and mentally superimpose it on the character’s secret.
In respect to acting, Uta Hagen compares acting to make believe, saying, “My strength as an actor rested on the unshakeable faith I had in making believe. I made myself believe the characters I was allowed to play and the circumstances of the characters’ lives in the events of the play.” And later Uta Hagen said, “I use substitution to ‘make believe’ in its literal sense—to make me believe.”
Linking Actors to Their Characters
It is clear to Hagen that substitution is a means of further linking actors to their characters and the actions of the play, as opposed, for example, to tears. Substitution is not an end in itself, not an end to involve you for self-sake involvement’s without consequent action. Substitution is the aspect of the work which strengthens your faith and your sense of reality in each stage of the total work on character. It is a way of bringing about justified, personal character actions.
Hagen also warns against any traumatic experience, believing it to be unhelpful. “There are teachers who actually force actors into dealing with something buried (their response to a death of a parent, or the trauma of a bad accident). What results is hysteria or worse, and is, in my opinion, anti-art. We are not pursuing psychotherapy. If you feel mentally sick or disturbed and in need of it, by all means go to a trained doctor or therapist, but not to an acting teacher.”
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