Jeff Zinn’s “The Existential Actor”

corybeckersite | October 1, 2009

Jeff Zinn's "The Existential Actor"Actor and theater director Jeff Zinn’s The Existential Actor is a stimulating and informative read. It is very fluid, the pages fly by, and in an entertaining fashion at that.  Zinn did an amazing job at illuminating a broad perspective for actors (and theater-goers) by utilizing Ernest Becker’s ideas. This book is unique, as it is more of a set up with a payoff, as opposed to a typical narrative structure. The first leg Zinn sets up is a presentation of Becker’s core ideas, explaining “without the causa sui (the cause of oneself) we have only the raw truth of existence…we will soon die.”  Zinn outlines the psychological theories used throughout the book in a simple, informative, and entertaining way, helped by some stimulating quotes from Sheldon Solomon.  A central theme of the book is that actors should consider (both in their own lives and in the lives of the characters they play) the central motivational role of establishing and defending a heroic narrative as a shield to deny death and feel symbolically immortal.

The second leg to this book is a brief history of acting. We were engaged and absorbed by the fountain of knowledge coming from all eras of the history of this art. It was a powerful summary of the history and evolution of acting from the ancient Greeks to the Post-Moderns. The third leg of Zinn’s proposal is his explanation of the four parts of every approach to acting. Zinn’s “three legs” were set up perfectly to hold up his analysis of classic writing, including Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a pair of Ibsen plays, a few Chekhov plays, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We found the analysis of Hamlet especially compelling and valuable. This last section provides the kind of Beckerian analysis for theatrical plays that people such as Kirby Farrell, Jennifer McMahon, Daniel Sullivan, and others have done for films, for example, in the book Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black.

Actors especially may feel comfort that their own profound revelations in their acting careers have already existed since the beginning of the art. As Zinn eloquently conveys, it is human nature to need purpose, or a “causa sui”, and artists pursuing acting live so passionately with purpose that they absolutely must tell the stories of other humans and their pursuit of purpose.  In this way, actors are using their vocation as a means of service, to relate to and inspire their audiences to become more alive. As Zinn portrays through philosophical means, each character reflects an aspect of humanity and our impulse to live beyond the limits of our mortality. The circumstantial stakes are heightened in plays, but the life or death stakes in the characters’ hearts reflect flawlessly the truth within the audience members’ own hearts.

Zinn organizes all acting technique into four parts. The first is shape, which is the character, including beliefs, cultural background, style, etc. The second is action, which is the character’s purpose and pursuit in life. The third is transaction, which is the result and resistance of carrying out their purpose into the world. The fourth and final is surrender, which is the stripping of shape, to fully reveal the vulnerable human truth. This order perfectly outlines each character’s progression in any story. The character has their “psychological armor” and they go to pursue a holy causa sui, only to be met with aversion, conflict, and struggle. As the conflict builds, they are forced to strip away their protection and purpose and stand naked in their mortal truth. Their journey to absolute vulnerability, freedom, and humility, is the moment the audience members begin to break down their own walls and reveal their hearts.

The order Zinn has created is most useful for the actor when rearranged. Actors must first surrender all that they are, their “shape”, in order to take on the shape of a character. It is a cycle: actors build up grandiose ideas of their causa sui in their professional life and are shut down time and again by unimaginative directors, uninspired writers, and the industry’s superficial demands. Then, being torn off their throne of celebrity and ego, they surrender to their inevitably humble and vulnerable human state and from that place, can truly embrace a character’s shape and causa sui as their own. 

Zinn insightfully uncovers an idea that is so prevalent in our subconscious, yet rarely pursued in acting classes. The approach was a philosophical discussion sprinkled with hope, rather than a somber observation of our inevitable end. This book can help both actors learn and grow within the craft and in their lives, and help all readers gain a better perspective on their lives and deaths. Thus, we highly recommend this book as an enjoyable and informative read of great value to actors, theater-goers, and anyone interested in the application of Becker’s ideas to the arts.

Camila Greenberg is a television and film actress currently appearing in the independent film Ktown Cowboys. She has appeared in numerous television shows, including CSI, Entourage, Two and a Half Men, and 90210. Her dad, Professor Jeff Greenberg, is co-developer of terror management theory and its associated research program.

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