Emotional Immersion: A Prototype in Progress

What I work on with 42 Seconds of Happiness is converging, integrating emotions, which makes this personal to everyone in the group, whether she is an actor or a member of the audience. While doing this, we go against linear storytelling, against cause and effect, against the thinking process, and immerse into the different layers of a story or a character.

Considering also the actors who are not involved in an improv session or a scene, as part of the audience, I started developing what at the moment is a five steps prototype of emotional immersion. It allows for emotional participation by the audience which influences the storytelling, while the characters evolve more and more towards their emotional truth, because of the audience’s participation. Of course, the actors who have been in the skin of another, following one of the steps of the prototype, are transformed too: that experience will show in their next improvisation, for instance it will define their emotions towards the character they have doubled. Needless to say that this work goes further than this project – realizing and experiencing what we do, changes profoundly not only the characters but all of us “in the room” and hopefully ultimately any audience member.

This is very much a work in progress, and I am excited to see where it will take us. The question we started out to answer, is mind blowing: Is there an emotional unified field? Are we all connected? The work so far seems to imply that we are, more than we even dare to imagine. Only, more often than not our preconceptions and our thoughts stand in the way – thought runs us. So, can we strengthen that connection? And what will that do to our storytelling? What will that do to our lives?

And, taking it even further as a vision: Can we apply the process of emotional immersion in transmedia? Can a participating audience immerse online, for instance through live streaming? To be continued…


1.  Emotional Doubling: I ask each member of the audience to “get into the shoes” of one of the characters. The first stage allows for them to shift if they feel more compassionate with one of the other characters. The second stage asks them to stay in the character they first chose, however painful or insupportable.

2. Emotional Fusion: The goal is to break all boundaries between character and actor as a first step, and then all boundaries between character/actor and doubling audience member as a second step. In order to achieve this, I change the actors in some roles, so use character doubling. Featuring some of the actors in multiple or “split” roles, so that the characters have multiple, fractured identities, means that one character is being played by a different actress mid-way – an actress who played someone else up to that point. Although the actors playing one and the same role are different, both in terms of their personality as well as their life experience, so also emotional experience, and although I made a point that neither of them has watched the work of the other in the same role, they immediately took on the same temperature and direction, they were seamlessly the same character.
Another interesting aspect of this which helps for further immersion is when this happens between “rival” characters – which allows for amazing emotional insights, helping one to see “both sides now,” to use Joni Mitchell’s relevant song. An audience member who doubles the same character, improvised by a different actress, experiences an interesting fact: the surface (face) changes but the essence (sense) remains.

3.   Observation of emotions, and how they shape our thoughts: As a first step I assemble confessions. These are direct confessions of the characters to the camera (me asking questions) after an improv session or scene. The amazing part of this part of the experience, is that the characters will give us their emotional background and their emotional present, but that it is more often than not very different from what we experienced while watching/doubling. It becomes very clear that appearances and truth (what things are and what they seem to be) are two different levels, and that they are often at two opposite poles. A character may for instance still insist that he does what he does for the love and care for his child, while it has become very apparent that he acts out of vengeance for having been abandoned (on an outer level) and out of fear of loss (on a deeper level.) Those who have doubled him, have even experienced the fear, an emotion they know too well: we all act out of fear – and losing that fear is the ultimate goal. The next stage of this step is to assemble the reactions of the characters which are directly involved – so they are not in the scene, as they would not be in the scene in real life, but what happens in the scene affects them. The third stage is assembling the reactions of the doublers and the rest of the characters. Again, amazing insights: Pre-conceptions and fear make us so dogmatic that we become blind. Thought drives us, and we are then slaves of the way we choose to tell the story – to ourselves and to others. Ultimately each one of us creates their own reality. Consciously or unconsciously.

4. Dissolution of time: The characters include/are informed by their past but they also include/are informed by their future. I like to think of this in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke: Our wishes are recollections from the future. Mostly we work on the past of the characters, as we work on our past in real life – often re-writing it till it fits what makes us feel more comfortable (and that is not always a good place to be, for instance we may be more comfortable in sadness, because that is all we know emotionally, or we may be used to being trapped in a certain way.) In our normal lives we use chronological order, rational/psychological thinking and the causality principle, trying to figure out what yesterday was all about: yesterday informs what we do today, and what we think of yesterday defines what we do tomorrow. We choose one possible version as the one making sense to us, thus eliminating the others, and ignoring the deeper layers. In order to break this pattern, and for the sake of emotional immersion, I work in other time directions. For instance, I may flash forward to six months from the moment we are in the timeline of the story, and have the character experience something in her future, and then return to the present time of the story. Sometimes I will break the boundaries of time and space completely. So I may have a character meet their father at the same age they are now. There are no boundaries in a world of time freedom and ego freedom.

5. Actualization of experience: This is the last and most difficult step so far, and a very intense one too. The idea is that we give to the character we are OR double (by now it will be the same) the face, heart and soul of a person in our life from an experience, we have not yet told anyone about. So something which has not yet found its way through storytelling, either in the form of therapy or in the form of telling one’s best friend. Ideally, that person should be someone we consider “our rival,” someone we do not understand, someone we possibly look down to or fear. We will be that person for a while, so it is quite a challenge. This part of the process is complex, as one needs to become that person and be the assigned character carrying that person and their thoughts and emotions at the same time: so it needs some preparation and a mindful aftermath. (TBC)

Christina Kallas

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