Being able to cry is an important tool in an actor’s toolkit. While it gets a lot of hype as one of the more visible “tricks” of the trade, don’t worry if you can’t cry on command. There is a difference between summoning tears whenever you please and connecting those tears to technique and an organic moment in performance. Being good at one doesn’t necessarily mean you have command of the other. Additionally, this isn’t something you have to be born with or take to naturally, learning to cry during a scene is very much learnable! Here are some steps you can take to start you off.
1. Build self-awareness.
Knowing your own body is crucial to being able to make yourself cry. When I was first starting out I had a very difficult time bringing myself to tears, and it was because I had no physical roadmap for that expression. I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t allowing myself to cry in real life, so it didn’t feel like a natural response when I invited feelings of grief or distress in during a scene. Getting in touch with myself physically and allowing myself to cry in a safe environment in real life (during movies, etc), helped me build awareness and figure out where those feelings live in my body. This made it much easier to replicate in my work.
2. Breath work.
If you’re not sure where to start physically, breath work is an excellent tool. Breath is linked to all physical acts, and being connected to your breath will make summoning tears much easier. When learning to cry, make sure you’re letting your breath drop all the way in, deep and relaxed in your belly. Stopping or holding your breath throws up a physical roadblock that will only slow you down.
3. Build an emotional connection.
Many actors and even instructors will use some form of substitution, sometimes suggesting using moments of personal trauma to relate to your character. This method poses a couple of challenges. First, depending on the subject matter, there is the danger of unnecessarily retraumatizing the actor, or creating actor/character confusion. Furthermore, using your own experiences is unreliable. Perhaps you are less connected to those memories one day, or repeatedly calling them up makes them lose their bite. When you have to perform multiple takes in varied conditions, or have to produce the same performance night after night in a live theatre production, using personal experience as your only means to connect emotionally can leave you stranded. For this reason, it is important to build a bridge to those emotional connections using the text, your actor’s imagination, sensory stimulation and physical technique. These things, unlike your personal memories, are more easily adjustable and repeatable as you may need.
4. Get out of your head.
The more you think about it the harder it will be. Crying is an act of vulnerability, and judging yourself is the fastest way to close off access to those emotions. If you find yourself falling prey to your own judgment, try to find a way to reconnect to a sense of play and freedom. Perhaps that means rehearsing on your own where no one can here you, or screaming out your text as you beat a pillow, or listening to music that distracts you from destructive inner dialogue, whatever can get you out of your head and back in your body.
5. Take care of your body.
There are a number of physical reasons it might be difficult for you to cry in your scene work. Dehydration and muscle tension are two of the biggest culprits. Remember that mind and body are inextricably linked, and if you’re having problems accessing emotions, there may well be a physical solution.
My biggest advice to beginning actors on this matter is to be patient and kind to yourself. Every skill takes time to master, and sometimes time and experience are the best cure. Set yourself up for success by remaining non-judgmental, playful and vulnerable. Working on your technique will take care of the rest.