Help Me Cry on Cue

One of my recent students could summon tears to her eyes instantly and very effectively. She seemed to do it with no particular effort. It was pretty amazing to see, and she was demonstrating a rather impressive party trick. But is this necessary?

The fact that she could do this was, of itself, a great skill – but she then sought audition pieces that called for some kind of emotional out-pouring so that she could use this skill. This is not a good move. Just because I can make a mean tiramisu (I can, honestly, ask anyone who has tasted one!) does not mean I should then perform pieces that demonstrate this particular culinary ability.

The question I asked of her: “why do you need to cry?

Because I can…“, came back the response.

No! No! No!

Many actors feel that they are somehow incapable if they cannot summon tears for a role they feel should be dripping with salt water and snot. For some it appears that being able to cry on cue is some kind of holy grail in acting.

I often get asked to teach someone how to cry for real on stage…

I’ve done all of that emotional memory work and still can’t make my eyes water…

Every time my response is the same: why do you need to?

I want actors to consider the truth of a character. Just because a character has reached an emotional tipping point does not mean that they are so outwardly presenting this emotion.

Just because you can cry on cue does not mean that you should.

Breaking Down

Sometimes a script calls for a significant emotional reaction for the character. You might see stage directions requiring a character to spontaneously burst into tears and become a blubbering wreck. You may find that the playwright has had a real image in their minds as to how the character will respond, but that does not mean you have to become an identical representation of that image to still fulfill the character’s (and by default, the playwright’s) truth in that situation.

Crying is not the main emotional response when a character breaks down. There is an unpacking of multiple emotions that need to be addressed to effectively break down (all governed by the given circumstances of the text).

When you witness real life responses to gut-wrenching tragedies and horrific scenarios you will very rarely “see” tears. You will see panic, withdrawal, intense muscular tension, shock, trembling, anger, denial and a whole host of clashing emotions running at the same time.

In fact, for me at least, the most difficult thing to watch (and that rips my heart right open for a person in great distress) is to observe someone really struggle AGAINST crying. Watching someone in great anxiety and who is deeply upset fight back the reaction as they attempt to find some small ounce of strength and dignity in their situation has serious power Trying to exert control over their emotional impulses and reacting strongly away from crying – this is a striking image and a relatable reaction.

The trembling lips, the raised tension in the voice, the shallow breath and eyes that (while maybe glassy and wet) are refusing to shed their deluge…

For me, as an audience member, the breaking point in the character’s voice is the moment I am absolutely connected to them. I want them to cry. I want them to free themselves of this emotional burden. And, as a human being, I recognise and am fully appreciative as to why the character is determined not to… This is real emotional behaviour for me.

It is in these moments that myself, as the audience member, will be wiping dry my own eyes where I have shed the dewdrops for your benefit as the character. I got your back!

Acting Indulgence

There are many problems in crying for real on stage. Not least the streaking of stage makeup and the inability to sustain control over your character’s voice as the mucus builds up at the back of your throat.

The biggest problem is how indulgent the act of crying can appear to an audience.

To prepare your character for crying will require an emotional state to be pushed and this often comes at the detriment of the other emotional landscapes your character is navigating. This is hardly truthful.

In any real circumstance, you would not be sat there for minutes before crying thinking about the need to cry.

Most actors will focus on a real life situation in which they have had a deep emotional reaction and that they can use to recall a reaction – emotion memory recall or sense memory become valuable techniques to master this. The issue here is that it takes some people instants to find that emotional tug, for others it can take several minutes.

Now, if you truly believe that your character needs to be streaking their makeup and you know that you take several minutes to achieve the flood, then you will have to mark up in your script the cue where you (the actor) must begin to work the process so that you tear up at the right moment. You will have to access your memories and develop the emotional reaction from that point regardless of the text, and objectives required of the character, that need to be played beforehand. Does that sound like you are playing truthfully? I would argue that you would not be.

This is why I proclaim that it can appear indulgent. You are indulging one emotional response potentially at the sacrifice of many others. The result can be effective, yes, but more often than not it will be a two dimensional and predictable rendering.

The Blair Witch Factor

Famously lampooned in the Scary Movie franchise, the Blair Witch Project‘s downpour of tears and snot through a screwed up face is not all that easy to control on stage.

A screwed up face causes unnecessary tensions in portraying a character, has immediate effect on the voice, disregards a wider shared imaginary space for an audience and becomes exclusively about what the face and eyes are doing.

Just try forcing yourself to cry in front of the mirror. You will start by causing tension in the neck and throat as you bring tension into the face. The muscles around your eyes will stiffen and you will feel a rise in your cheek muscles. Your mouth will start to form a “wailing” shape as your forehead starts to crease. Your eyes will become wide and feel dry. You will begin to feel a build up of saliva in your mouth and you will feel the build up of mucus in your nasal cavity at the back of the throat.

You may find yourself beginning to leak. But trying to do anything else while working on this is almost redundant.

Of course, you can cry and wail and emit bodily fluids out of every facial orifice, but does this serve the purpose and function of the character and story?

If you can cry then of course you could use this skill. If you cannot cry, then you can’t. Either way, it does not mean that you should cry at all.

You can work on crying technique by all means (personally I have never seen any actor’s CV explicitly state that they can cry on command though…) You can develop those emotional triggers through the work of Stanislavski and his contemporaries. But, seriously, don’t go all emotional if you can’t tap into this very physical reaction. It is not worth losing sleep over…

But How Do I Cry on Cue?

My first advice, as a coach and as a director, is DON’T cry.

Fight against crying.

Find the wealth of other emotions that are bouncing through your character at that point in the story.

Actively work against trying to cry, even if your character is convinced that they should be crying.

By doing this, your emotional journey will be one that is recognisable and emotive to an audience. It will be believable and truthful. It may just make you cry for real too – genuine tears brought about by the frustration your character is going through.

Let the turmoil speak for itself. Don’t cry!