“How are you using them?” I asked.
“Well, whenever I get to the moment in the scene where that particular transference is relevant, I remember to call it up, but then it doesn’t work. It pulls me out of the scene. I stop listening and responding and just get lost.”
Hearing that, I knew what the problem was, and how to address it. But before we discuss the solution, let’s talk a bit about the concept of transference for those unfamiliar with it. Transference is a core concept of Uta Hagen’s technique, described in her book, A Challenge for the Actor. Some may be more familiar with substitution, which is the term that Hagen used in her earlier work, Respect for Acting. There may be subtle differences that arose from her evolving refinement of her technique, but for our purposes, the terms are essentially the same. In Hagen’s words, it is a technique that involves using “transferences from your own life to the very origins of the character, to ensure faith in the reality of your new existence.” For instance, in describing the technique as it might apply to working on the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Hagen uses the following example of a transference, among many, many others:
You have learned that Belle Reve went to seed in spite of “your” vain struggles to maintain it before it was taken from “you” by creditors. You must find a substitute for this loss of roots, for the despair that takes hold when your home is lost or threatened. Moving away—even if it is to a better place—can be a frightening experience, creating a sense of insecurity and panic comparable to Blanche’s feelings. Taking leave of a summer home, or clearing out a place for renters—any event that made you feel displaced can be useful.
It should be made clear that transference is simply one tool in the actor's toolbox. It is a way of sparking and supplementing the imagination, not supplanting it. Of course, we have to create the entire world that the character inhabits. Our imagination, along with research, helps us create this realm, separate and apart from our own life and world. Transference is simply a way of personalizing certain aspects of the imaginary experience and world so that we can feel more connected to it emotionally and identify more closely with the character. Once we identify with the character, we can truly say “I” when we are on stage or before the camera.
Here is an example from my own work where the tool of transference served me well. In the play Sight Unseen, by Donald Margulies, a brilliant painter “borrows” or “steals” a portrait that he had done of his former lover Patricia years ago, when they were in college. He painted it on the day that they had their first kiss and it now represents both a breakthrough for him as well as something that he has lost. There is much discussion of the portrait throughout the play, but it is never seen by the audience. At the end of the play, “I,” the character, am caught trying to run off with the portrait in the middle of the night. But in the production, I, the actor, was simply holding a random framed canvas, wrapped in plain paper and tied with string. In order to give that prop an emotional significance for me, I came up with the following transference.
When I was in junior high and high school, I was quite into photography. While I was never very talented, I took one photograph that resonates with me to this day. It is of a young woman on a merry-go-round, the kind that kids have to push themselves. The background is blurred, and she is leaning back, her hair blowing in the wind, with an expression of such joyful innocence that my heart breaks every time I look at it. I’m not entirely sure why the photo hits me so hard, but I think it is a combination of elements: My luck at capturing that kind of moment but my inability to follow through on the craft, which later in life might be looked on as a road not taken; the fact that the photo that represents that road is of a beautiful girl captured at a brief magical moment in time (much like Patty in the play is captured in the portrait). So the first step of my transference was to touch base, internally, with all of the swirl of feelings brought up for me by that photograph. The second part of my transference was to ask the actor playing Patricia for a photograph of her at the age she would have been when “we” first met. Once she supplied it, my work was done. (I should note that although I am describing a transference relating to a prop, the technique can be used for any aspect of a text, be it a relationship, a person, a place, or an event. The technique should not be slavishly applied, but rather adapted to suit your needs relative to the specific role.)
So what is the problem that the actor was struggling with that day in class? It’s quite simple, and it’s a common one. It stems from a misunderstanding of the part that transference plays in preparation for a role. Note that word: preparation. Transference is a part of the homework of the actor. It is a rehearsal technique. It is not to be used in all of rehearsal (probably not even in most) and it is never to be used in performance. Indeed, if your reading of the script leads you to an immediate and visceral understanding of the core of your character (as sometimes happens), there may be no need to resort to transference at all.
To return to the example from Sight Unseen, once I had come up with the transference that worked for me in that moment and used it in rehearsal once or twice, the process was complete. There was no possible way for “me” to discuss the painting or pick up that prop without being hit with the entire swirl of emotions created by the amalgamated image of the girl on the merry-go-round morphed into a portrait of “Patty” at college age. And in performance, I was never thinking of the merry-go-round girl, or of the photo given to me by the actor. Instead, I had complete faith in the portrait that “I” had painted and had now seen again after all these years, or was now holding in my hand. This is the goal of transference, simply to help foster the identification with the character, and to aid in the creation of the magical “you.” But because the student was using her ideas of transference during the performance of the scene, while she was working with her partner, her focus was being pulled away from the event and the relationship and into an intellectual exercise.