Saturday, June 28, 2003


The Way of the Actor by Brian Bates
Published by Shambala in 1987

(Chapter 6. Transformation: Changing Selves. pages 96 - 98)

'Persona' originally referred to the masks that actors used in the classical period of Greek history. Implied in each mask was a complete separate personality, often of a diety, which possessed the actor who wore the mask. But today, 'persona' is a psychological term, and refers to the personal fa├žade that one exhibits publicly. This outward face includes significant aspects of physical appearance, but particularly encompasses the personal style or presence that an individual presents to the world. And this includes a strong element of conformity because the aspect of oneself which is bing presented at any one time is meant to fit in with, and satisfy, the people with whom one is interacting. The persona is the outward face of our psyche, the face that the world sees. And as we all know, what we show the world does not necessarily correspond with our inner self.

      The psychiatrist Carl Jung developed the concept of persona as a modern psychological concept. 'Fundamentally the persona is nothing real,' he says. 'It is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, represents an office, he is this or that.' (1)

      Each of us has a persona, or number of personas, which we present to the world in the various settins we enter: work, home, social occasions and so on. We have an 'image' which we show, which may vary considerably from one setting to another.

      Each persona is a character. Each image of 'ourself' that we present to people we deal with constitutes a performance. People read a whole 'personality' from the persona they see. We are often embarrassed when we neet someone from one part of our lives, who only knows one of our personas, in another setting because the different personas we present reveal different aspects of ourselves. Just like the characters actors play.

      But the crucial danger of the persona is that of identifying oneself with the mask, the role. Our whole, true self is not the same as the self which fits a particular role. If this happens, the person loses contact with the deeper sources of their own being. Life itself becomes one continuing series of role-plays, behind which the person's true self is denied. While a mask, or rather a number of masks, are essential for easy mixing with different groups of people, the masks must be interchageable, flexible.

      The persona is not the individual person. It is merely that aspect of the person which needs to be presented as a cog in the wheel of society. It is, in a way, an aspect of society rather than the particular individual. And an audience takes an interest in a character in a play or film not because the audience wants to know detailed, intimate knowledge of that actor as an individual, but because the individual character as presented in performance represents all of us, and is therefore of interest ot all of us. Through the adventures of fictional characters, who are simplified versions of what a 'real' person would be like, we encounter life in general, and are entertained and enlightened by that.

      There are aspects of the persona which lie hidden. These are either never known, unrealized potential, or they are unacceptable, not to be acknowledged. These aspects of the self, called by Jung the 'shadow', gather psychic force by not being expressed. They influence our lives, but are not seen. Until, that is, conscious efforts are made to create new peersonas. Then the shadow material rushes out 'into the light'.

      The character . . .

      To think about others' personas and to try them on for size is to gain a remarkable feeling for the way people present themselves, the minutae of voice inflection, dress, stance, walk, mannerisms and so on. The actor's skill is to allow the elements of the shadow to penetrate the persona presented. Actors are not just mimics - people with a talent for simply presenting the voice, appearance and manner of another. The actor is attempting to do more. The persona, whether close to one's own or a created one, is there to reveal the shadow. The mask is presented in order to reveal what is behind it.

      We only have to think for a moment of the effect of replacing our own persona, in a controlled and appropriate environment and adopting that of another person to guage the psychological effects. Just existing outside of one's own persona is revealing. Being sufficiently aware and conscious of the personas of others creates insight into human nature. And acting, moving, speaking 'inside' a created persona is a liberating, startling and, sometimes, deeply revealing experience both to oneself and to others.

(1) Jung, C.G. The Two Essays on Analytical Psychology New York: Meridian Books 1956