I came across a letter recently that affected me a lot. It was being passed around Facebook (as things often are), and I took a moment to read. Then I took a few more moments. Until I realised I had read the whole letter.
It was a letter from Marilyn Monroe, sent to her therapist, describing her experience whilst committed to a New York City psychiatric clinic in 1961. This is the same therapist who found her dead a year later in her apartment, at 36 years young.
There’s something so profound about being privy to such an intimate moment in someone’s life. I feel like I shouldn’t have permission to read this letter. But there it is. Traipsing around Facebook, like it’s everybody’s business.
The reason I’m writing about this is because I feel like mental illness is something that’s rife in the entertainment industry. I’m sorry for being so blatantly obvious. But it is.
I’ve been given a scene this term at school where I have to play a 52-year-old woman who is bipolar, with early onset Alzheimer’s. This scene is one of Christopher Durang’s creations, and it certainly is something.
There are some huge transitions in the scene that are quite tricky. And obviously, until I ‘have’ the disorder, I won’t ‘have’ her. But how do you do this? How do you inhabit this sort of character, and her mind? Well, with a lot of work. From an empathetic place (without judgement). And with a lot of digging.
I have one tattoo on my body. It’s a single word, just behind my left ear – it spells ‘Essence.’ What does this mean? Well it relates to exactly what I’m talking about. The essence, or ‘soul’ of a character, is one of the key (if not the key) elements that’s essential for the portrayal of character. It is that elusive, just out of reach, I’m-close-but-not-quite-there, element. Because really, how do we even find someone’s ‘essence?’ Let alone, inhabit it.
Back to my tattoo – having been both an avid dancer, and once-upon-a-time model, I know a little about the importance of ‘soul’. And worth. This is because I had to fight for mine. And it was tough.
It may have been out of protest, but I got this tattoo years ago, because I had personally had enough. Booking jobs because of the way my face looked, or the size of my waist, or the colour of my hair, held no meaning for me. (I see the irony of course, having now tattooed a word on my body. But there you go. It’s part of who I am now.)
So here’s where part of the problem lies. How can an actor expect to find the soul of a character, when we all walk around in our everyday lives, forgetting that souls even exist? Now I’m not at all religious, nor am I trying to be when I refer to the ‘soul’. But I do believe that there’s something to be said for looking beneath the ‘outer’, and finding the truth of a person.
Something must also be said about the way that looks and appearance are worshipped nowadays. Instagram is indicative of this. And the word ‘selfie’, likewise. We’re all running around taking photos of ourselves, and using filters, and chasing likes. Meanwhile, whatever’s going on internally is given no consideration. I am just as guilty of this – don’t get me wrong. I’ve used many a filter before, and definitely taken a selfie or five. But what does it actually mean?
This is part of the beauty of the work. This is where we’re made to sit with ourselves. This is where I find meaning. Because when you’re working with a play that’s authored by a great writer, you can’t ignore the character on the page. You can’t turn away from their fears, and grieving’s, and imperfections. You don’t see a glossy picture, photo-shopped at just the right angle. You see humanity. You see life. You see it all.
Monroe began her letter: “As I started to write this letter about four quiet tears had fallen. I don’t know quite why.” She later goes on to write: “Was it Milton who wrote ‘The happy ones were never born’.” And she ends with: “I am almost weeping…..” I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t aware of the extent to which Monroe suffered. I knew enough to know that she had substance abuse issues, and that she died too young. But I had never been privy to her ‘voice’, or her grief.
What does it matter what we have going on inside? And can we realistically discuss the ‘essence’ of someone? I’m definitely not the authority on this. But I do know that filters and photo-shop tend to cover up imperfections. I also know that when I read a play, or a novel, or watch a film or performance, it is the imperfections in character that move me to tears, and pull on something inside me that can relate. So if it is through our imperfections that we are able to relate, and connect, why are we so busy trying to hide them? Why are we all so fearful of real connection? Why do we resist?
Monroe sounds alone in her letter. With all her fame, and fans, and management around her, she still found herself in a psychiatric clinic after her divorce. We all think we’re famous now. We all have platforms to exhibit ourselves. And very sadly, I think we are now more alone than ever before. Because photos don’t mean a thing. Not really. And followers don’t really count, do they? But the essence of someone – that ‘thing’, deep down, once you’ve done some digging? Now there’s the magic. There’s what really matters.
Full transcript of Monroe’s letter (1961): ‘Letters of Note’