Posted by: bitsydungaree | May 19, 2008

The Search for Celia

I read a friend’s myspace blog last night in which he mused on the discovery that his efforts to be truthful as an actor have caused him to shy away from the bold choices he used to be so skilled at making, and settle into a lull where truth is synonymous with safety, and I have been thinking about it ever since.

I replied to him that I think as actors we sometimes fall into the trap of limiting the scope of our human experience in an effort to be “truthful.” We don’t want to make bold choices because we are afraid people won’t believe them. I certainly know that I am guilty of this, and yet, I am constantly struck by moments in my real life when I witness something that makes me think, I would never have had the guts to make that choice as an actor! Who would believe it? But this isn’t a choice that an actor made. This was the actual behavior of a person in response to something that happened in their life.

How, then, do we find the courage to make these kinds of choices as actors?

Unfortunately, this is not a question I have the answer to.

Of course, subtlety has it’s place, but I’m not sure that it’s right for it to be the default. If my character has her heart broken, why do I quietly wipe a tear from my eye when I have personally experienced the kind of heartbreak so raw and primal that it made me believe Lear’s howl when he walks onstage carrying Cordelia’s corpse? When we are given the textual freedom to make a choice this big, many of us don’t, and when the author demands it, as Shakespeare so brilliantly did in this moment, it is easy to shy away from the shocking honestly with the misguided notion that it is an impossible moment to make truthful.

This is a dangerous thing if we believe that the artist’s responsibility is to honestly capture the human experience. If we are attempting to discover and reflect what fundamentally makes us who we are, isn’t it irresponsible (and just less interesting) to do it from such a limited standpoint where we don’t allow ourselves to explore the most colorful and fascinating elements of our character because we worry that they are, in a way, too good (or too bad) to be true?

What I still believe is some of my most honest and exciting work as an actress was also my biggest. When I played Celia in As You Like It, something about that character freed every impulse within me to come to the surface. She wasn’t Rosalind’s sidekick, as she is so often played, but a full and fascinating young woman. If those choices hadn’t simply sprung out of me the way they did, I don’t know if I ever would have had the guts to make them, but Celia didn’t give me the option. She was wild, silly, passionate, and unashamed, and that was the way she insisted that I play her. Because of the way that this larger than life character burst out of me, I didn’t ever have the time to consider if I was about to make a choice that might backfire, but I think, in most cases that is a huge part of why, at least I, sometimes shy away from the big choice.

If we want our our work to reflect the breadth of what we truly experience, we have to ask ourselves how much we are willing to risk as artists. Am I willing to throw my controlling and self-conscious nature to the wind and risk falling on my face to make a choice that has potential to be fascinating? Am I willing to risk that someone in the audience will think I am over-acting, if it means that someone else in that same theatre will see something happen onstage that they thought only they had felt? I try, but I know that often I am not. Often I make the safe choice rather than the scary choice, and I don’t want to do that anymore.

I think this is why I have always believed that if I wrote a book about my experience as an actress, it would be titled The Search for Celia.


  1. I think that one of the most wonderful things about Shakespeare is the way that even the so-called “minor” characters open up to us and show us entire inner worlds that we never would have dreamed of on a first read. I’m going to confess, Celia is not one of the characters that has spoken to me yet in this way, but I’ve had the experience often enough–Casca, the Thane of Ross–that I know the potential is there with every one of them. I wish I’d had the chance to see your Celia!

  2. Loved this post. I’m an actor (and geeked out over Shakespeare) as well. I’ll be back.

  3. Hi, I’m also an actor.

    I did a short film version of As You Like it this past semester, and I played Rosalind. I remember the preliminary talks about Rosalind’s and Celia’s relationship were very much focused on the fact that Celia is NOT the sidekick, NOT the ditz, but in reality, she vocalizes a lot of Rosalind’s impetus and quite often prompts Rosalind to movement.

    I saw Kenneth Brannaugh’s film version of As You Like It and was absolutely mortified by his Celia– you know when you feel embarassed FOR somebody?

    Just popped in to say I’m glad to see you found a strong Celia. (I’m currently studying Jaques, hoping to get cast in my university’s production of As You Like It in the fall.)

  4. […] Not being an actor myself, I do enjoy reading the thoughts of actors who get to portray Shakespeare’s characters.  Here the author muses on her experience playing Celia in As You Like It.  […]

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