Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Oneself as Another


Spence-Campbell, Susan


As I drive to the theatre, I practice my lines. They have become second nature to me.  I say them fast and slow, with an English accent.  I feel them in my mouth.  I go to the dressing room, I chat with the other actors. Later, as I prepare myself to become Miriam, the dressing room is mostly empty.  With the exception of Miriam’s husband and son, everyone else is on stage.  As I apply the makeup, my face becomes rigid. This face that stares at me is mine but is different from the one that looks at me in the morning.   My facial stress line becomes a permanent mark on Miriam’s tense face.  She is a lower middle-class woman who has managed to marry well.  Her position in society has become everything to her.  As I pad my bra, my hips broaden.  My back becomes rigid, my body less flexible.  My sense of self is gradually lessening.  As I descend the stairs to the stage, I speak in Miriam’s voice; shrill, enunciating clearly each word.  The lithe, happy-go-lucky dancer is left behind but her energy drives Miriam. I breathe in deeply.  As I (who is now Miriam) knock on the stage door the transformation is complete.  I enter the house of my son’s future in-laws and am appalled. This family’s circumstances are totally unacceptable.  These people have no sense of propriety.  Everything about them is unacceptable.  Does my son not realize what he is doing?  The time spent in that house is long and tedious, minutes tick by slowly.  I am aware of the audience but I see no one. I hear the audience laugh at the jokes someone else makes.  Although I, the actor, am aware of the audience, it is only a minute part of me.  As Miriam, I am not amused.  The whole situation is insufferable.  I feel the audience breathe with me.  I feel their energy.   I feel their expectation.  They are with me and yet not with me.  I am with my family and my son’s future in-laws on stage.  And it ends.  As I bend to take my bow and the first clap sounds, my breath gushes from my body and I see the audience, I see my fellow actors.  I shed the skin that has been Miriam.   My voice deepens.  My face loses the stress line. My back becomes less rigid. As I remove the makeup and the padding more and more of me returns.  I feel so energized.  I glance at the clock.  Have I been here three hours already?

I, Judith, act the character of Miriam on stage and in acting I seem to become Miriam.  But I am still Judith.  Is Miriam a fake self?  Is she part of actual self or is Miriam my hidden or potential self?  Do I have more than one self?   And how is the self involved in acting?  Can these questions be pursued – not through the use of conceptualizations or theories of acting but – by focusing especially on the experience of acting itself?


The actor’s experience of self as another

How do I experience myself as another?  Ricoeur (1992) suggests that we experience our sense of self in two distinct ways.  He distinguishes between the continuity of self or selfhood (idem self) and the sameness of self (ipse self).  The ipse self might simply be described as the self that adapts to new circumstances, acquiring new characteristics while the idem self has a sense of permanence.  We might describe it as our inner self, our real self.  Although these two experiences of self are separate, they can overlap and can be indistinguishable from one another.  When character dispositions are acquired through habit they take on a sense of permanence, the ipse appears to be an expression of the idem (Ricoeur, 1992). As I acquired the traits of a teacher or mother, those traits became habit, and as time progressed, ingrained aspects of my idem self.  Does the same happen for an actor?


Does the actor create a new ipse self as she takes on new body knowledge while maintaining her selfhood, her idem self?  Body knowledge or habit is described by Riceour as how the ipse self acquires new characteristics (1992).   The knowing of the body of the character seems to become part of her self-sameness.  The character becoming yet another layer in the plurality of selves we experience.


How does the actor prepare to become the other self?  Each morning we get up and prepare for our day, shower and get dressed, perhaps put on make up.  How does the image in the mirror change as we comb our hair?  As I apply eyeliner and mascara, the teacher begins to appear.  I dress in my school clothes, distinct from my regular clothes.  But as I look in the mirror, I still see myself.  The teacher self has overlapped the idem self.


For the actor, the image in the mirror changes radically. The actor seems to don a mask through makeup, covering up the idem self. “As I apply the makeup, my face becomes rigid. This face that stares at me is mine but is different.”  The new self covers the old self.  The body changes, hips broaden as Judith dresses.  But it is a mask that can be removed, a skin that can be slipped out of. The actor seems to take on the look and the habits of the character for as long as she requires them but then is able to and needs to slough them off. “As I bend to take my bow and the first clap sounds, a breath gushes from my body and I see the audience, I see my fellow actors.  I shed the skin that has been Miriam.”  In releasing that breath, Judith begins to leave the Miriam self behind.   She sees the audience and her fellow actors.  But the makeup has not yet been washed off, the costume still remains.  How can she still be wearing the mask still, yet in the same moment be Judith?


Judith needs to reconnect with her idem self.  “I need to feel like Judith again to keep my sanity.” The character, the ipse self of Miriam, does not connect easily with Judith’s idem self.  Does my idem self feel that way?  On Saturdays I feel a sense of relief at not having to get dressed, or put on makeup, of not becoming the teacher.  I love lounging in my comfortable clothes.  Is this part of my idem self or do I have a relaxing self?  I don’t need to relax to keep my sanity or do I?


Hornby suggests that, “The difference between everyday role-playing and role-playing on stage is that our everyday roles have important emotional connections, being ideals that must be lived up rather than masks that we put on for fun” (1992, p.22).  But cannot the playing of a role change an actor?  In habitually creating the movements and speaking words of the character, does the actor not begin to absorb those attributes and values.  Can parts of the ipse self, the character, overlap into the idem self?


In playing Otto Frank, an actor describes how he is changed:

It was kind of a growing up role.  A 22 year old playing a 52 year old man.  He was an intelligent, cultivated, loving man and playing him sensitized me to the reality of parents and loss.  The values of that character bled back into me.  When you’re a 22 year old, you don’t see life from a parents’ point of view.  You don’t value what they see in their children. I came to appreciate my mother and her role in my life more.  I was sensitized to the issues of being Jewish.  When you live it out, you become very sensitive to the plights of the Jews in the 2nd World War.  It was an experience that made me aware of so many things.  It made me grow up; made me feel, and be and think things that I would never have thought or felt or become but by living in those boots.

Judith talks about how Miriam appears.  “Occasionally, bits of Miriam appear when I do not expect her. I am at home with my husband. I turn to him and say in Miriam’s voice, my tone critical, ‘Did you put the dishes in the dishwasher?’ He looks at me and says, ‘Judith, what are you doing? You sound like your character.’”   Despite Judith’s desire to leave the self of Miriam behind, she couldn’t completely.  But will she continue to show that self long enough for Miriam to become part of her ipse self?


A difference between these two actors is that the first admired the ipse self of the character whereas Judith didn’t.  She didn’t want to become like Miriam, a social climber whose social status was vital to her identity.  Miriam was a passing self to be used for a period of time and then forgotten. Otto Frank was a person with admirable traits, and co-opting his disposition would be positive development.  One might liken playing Otto Frank to having a mentor whose characteristics you hold in high regard and wish to emulate.  In playing different characters, the actor has the opportunity to experience many distinct selves and may choose which of those selves he wishes to adopt and which he wishes to discard.


Rehearsal: the knowing of the body

How do we learn to act when we take on different roles or characters?  When I became a mother, how did I know how to act?  I did not rehearse how to talk to my child, discipline my child, or bathe my child before she was born.  Did I remember how my mother behaved with me?  The longer I was a mother, the more I changed.  I seemed to learn from being with my child.  I watched other parents.  When I became a teacher, how did I know how to act?  I remembered one important teacher and tried to be like him.  I often thought about how he would have acted and mimicked him.  As I interacted with my students, I changed.  I learned from them.  The development of the character, be it mother or teacher, seems to be a gradual, ever-evolving process.  But is this how an actor takes on a character or role?


Practice.  Rehearsal.  “As I drive to the theatre, I practice my lines. They have become second nature to me.  I say them fast and slow, with an English accent.  I feel them in my mouth.”  The character for the actor doesn’t slowly evolve as does the character of the teacher.  The actor has to practice and rehearse.  The actor practices the words so often that the words become second nature, an acquired skill.  The knowledge is in the body.  The mouth knows how to form the sounds, “it is the motor grasping of a motor significance” (Merleau-Ponty, 2004, p. 165).  The actor is not thinking about the words and how to say them.   The knowing of the words is in the mouth.  The mouth knows what to say without the actor thinking.


“You have to be thinking but you can’t be thinking.  If you think on stage, you’re thinking, you’re not acting,” explains Hazel.  How does one think but not think?  Merleau-Ponty describes this not thinking as habit. “The example of instrumentalists [musicians] shows even better how habit has its abode neither in thought nor in the objective body, but in the body as mediator of a world” (Merleau-Ponty, 2004, p. 167).  The actor does not think about how or where to move, the knowledge of how to move is in the body, the organist knows the keys to play on the organ, much like a dancer’s body knows the steps to the dance.  Merleau-Ponty continues,

During the rehearsal, as during the performance, the stops, the pedals and manuals are given to him [the organist] as nothing more than possiblilities of achieving certain emotional or musical values, and their positions are simply the places through which this value appears in the world.  Between the musical essence of the piece as it is shown in the score and the notes which actually sound round the organ, so direct a relation is established that the organist’s body and his instrument are merely the medium of this relationship. (p. 168)

And so the relationship between the actor and the script unfolds on the stage. Hazel attempts to explain her relationship to the script.  Her mouth is the medium of the relationship between the script and the words. “While I practice my lines, I think about the intent of the playwright, the vision of the director and my interpretation.  As I begin to feel the words in my mouth, I stop thinking.  As my mouth forms the words, I can see them spilling out onto the page, recreating the script before me.”


The role is quickly learned, in a matter of weeks.  The actor does not have time to gradually learn.  The “habit forming” does not take place over years but in days and weeks.  Judith spends hours every day practicing until the habit is formed.  “If you have to think, you haven’t practiced enough.”


The audience

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary one meaning of to act is to “perform a fictional role in a play or film, behave so as to appear to be” (Soanes & Stevenson, 2005).  Both these definitions are written as if they mean the same thing. But is it not acting when we put forth what we deem as the acceptable or expected face to others?  How are these different? Judith is behaving so as to appear to be Miriam. T. S. Eliot describes how J. Alfred Prufrock seems to take on a character as he prepares to go to a party, how he prepares “a face to meet the faces that you meet” (Eliot, 1917, p. line 27). Is not Prufrock behaving so as to appear to be the “expected persona” of Prufrock?  One difference is the audience.


When Prufrock takes on his role, does he perform before an audience; an audience being “the assembled spectators or listeners at a public event such as a play, film, concert, or meeting” (Soanes & Stevenson, 2005)?  The other people  appear to be both audience and characters at the same time.  The people he describes react to what he says, watch what he does and talk about him with others.  Are my students in the classroom not both characters and audience at the same time?  Do they not watch, respond, laugh, judge what they see?    But there is a difference between the audience on one hand watching an actor act and the audience on the other hand participating in an everyday event.


At the party that Prufrock attends, the people mingle traveling from one room to another, constantly mixing up the characters and the audience.  The focus changes as the people wander from room to room.  Conversations between characters last minutes before they move on to the next room or group.


But for the actor, the audience is focused on the stage, separated from the actors by the stage and the lights.  The lights draw the audience’s attention to the stage so that everyone looks at the actors. And at the same time the lights separate the actors and the audience.  The lights prevent the actors from seeing most of the audience.  Yet the actor needs the audience in order to act.  When the actors are learning the habits of the characters, they are rehearsing.  Not until the audience is assembled do the actors act on stage. “I feel the audience breathe with me.  I feel their energy.   I feel their expectation.”  Despite being separated, the audience and the actors interact.


The audience comes with a purpose in mind, to watch the play.  All the attention is focused on one area.  Although that area may shift from one side to the other, the audience continues to look in the same direction, together.  Augusto Boal (1995) describes a force that draws the eyes of the audience to the stage.

This force of attraction is aided by the very structure of theatres and the positioning of stages, which oblige the spectators all to look in the same direction; and it is abetted by the simple presence of actors and spectators who connive in their acceptance of the theatrical codes and their participation in the celebration of the show (p. 18-19).

Prufrock interacts with his audience, much the same as I do as teacher.  I speak to my students, they respond to me and to each other.  Prufrock speaks to others at the party.  All the characters interact.  They are aware of each other.  But for the actor, it is quite different.


As actor and character, Judith is aware of the audience but sees no one.  As actor and character, she hears the audience.  But her focus is so with her fellow characters that she does not see them because she is Miriam.  Yet she does acknowledge them.  She does not tilt her head in their direction.  She does not look at them as one normally would in acknowledging another.  But she waits for them.  Other characters make jokes and she waits for the laughter to die down before she speaks.   She gives the audience their time to laugh before she continues on.  She is annoyed with them for she does not think what has been said is funny at all.  But she acknowledges them by waiting.  The audience and she develop a relationship.  They acknowledge her by looking, laughing and listening.  They seem to breathe together.


When Judith acts in a play, the audience pays to watch.  They expect to see a fictional character, perhaps different from the actor because they do not know the actor.  In contrast, with Prufrock, there is no paying audience and the audience is expecting Prufrock as my students are expecting me.   The audience also has expectations about what will happen, the course of events, the shape of those events.  In my classroom, the students (the audience) are expecting that I will teach them language arts and French and math.  They are expecting that we will play drama games.  They may not know exactly what will happen but they know the parameters within which those events will fall.  They have learned what to expect from the experience of going to school.  For Prufrock, he knows what to expect at this party as well as the audience does.  He knows the chitchat, “the women come and go talking of Michelangelo” (line 13, 14).


The irony is that despite a play being set down in writing often the audience does not know what to expect.  The audience may know if the play is a comedy or a drama or a musical.  Some of the audience may know the play having seen it performed or having read it but often the audience does not know what to expect.  The play and the characters are a surprise.  They may not want to know either.  In the Saturday paper there is a review of the play we are going to see Sunday.  My husband says, “Don’t read me the reviews.  I don’t want to have any expectations.”


Occasionally some audience members have expectations.  When students of Judith’s came to see her perform, they asked her afterwards, “How can you be such a bitch?”  Judith is acting in a manner that is very different from how she acts as a teacher.  Her students had expected Judith to be more of the teacher they knew.  They should have known that she was not playing the character of their teacher but the role of Miriam.  The character was a surprise.


The space of the performance

All the world’s a stage to some but are all the stages the same?  In my teacher role, I walk into my classroom.  Prufrock enters the home of the party giver.  It could be any classroom in which the lessons are taught or any home in which the party takes place.   The teacher who uses the room makes modifications to create a space for herself and her students. The classroom remains the same for the time, usually a school year sometimes longer, that the teacher uses it.   A homeowner creates a space to live in.  The space remains relatively stable until the family leaves or sells the house. The classroom always remains a classroom and the house always remains a house.  For both there is a sense of ownership.  The classroom belongs to the teacher, the home belongs to the owner.  Not so for the stage.


The stage is an aesthetic space.  A set specially created for the play at that moment.  The stage tells part of the story.  But the actor has little to say about how the stage will appear. There is no sense of ownership for the actor.  The set designer and the director decide what colour the walls will be, where the chesterfield will be placed.  The set may change as the play takes place.  Sometimes it is a waterfront; sometimes it is the home of a wealthy person, all for the same play.   When the play is over the stage will remain but the set is “struck,” taken apart, torn down, destroyed.  In its place, a new set for a new play will rise up with a different story.   Although a few plays run for years, most plays run for a matter of days or a few weeks.  The space tends to be short-lived.  One month it could be a tavern, the next a pirate ship, next New York City.  One can never predict what role the stage will play, it depends entirely on the play.


It is on this temporary set that the actor acquires the habits of the character, where the body acquires its knowledge.  When Judith opens the door to the stage, it is Miriam who walks out onto the stage.  The knowledge of Miriam that is in Judith’s body becomes manifest.


Two characters, two experiences: one body

How can time go fast and slowly at the same time?   As Miriam, the woman is bored and unhappy and so the passing time seems to be an eternity.  But when the show is over Judith is amazed at how the time has flown.  She did not feel both senses of time at once.  While she was her Miriam self, she felt time drag as Miriam would have under those circumstances.  When she became Judith, having enjoyed herself, the time flew by while she was unaware.


“I am aware of the audience but I see no one. I hear the audience laugh at the jokes someone else makes.”  Who is it that is turning off her vision but not her hearing?  Is it Miriam?  Is it Judith?  Is it both?


Judith changes her body to take on that of another.  She does this partially through make-up and padding but also through habit.  Miriam’s patterns of speech have become hers.  What is important to her?  What does she look like in her mind’s eye?  Judith feels like a full-figured middle-aged woman who has had a child while Judith is a childless thirty-five year old dancer/teacher who keeps herself thin.   Judith establishes a relationship with Miriam.  She begins to embody Miriam.  Judith allows this woman to enter her mind, body and soul.  She allows her to be a self in her.  Two characters living in the same body.


Judith seems to self-forget when she acts as Miriam.  Gadamer (1975) describes the quality of self-forgetfulness in relation to the spectator as “the nature of the spectator to give himself in Self-forgetfulness to what he is watching” (p.111).  In this instance, it is the spectator who forgets who she is in order to become situated in the performance.  I suggest that Judith also “forgets” who she is in order to become situated in the acting.  Gadamer adds, “Obviously there is an important difference between a spectator who gives himself entirely to the play of art, and someone who merely gapes at something out of curiosity” (pp. 111,112).  When watching a performance, it is obvious which actor has merely memorized the words and which has forgotten himself or herself.


While using drama as a teaching tool with a grade primary class, I experience self-forgetting and self-remembering while acting as the giant from “Jack and the Bean Stalk.”

Here, I vacillate back and forth between the giant and myself.

While I wait I think about the giant, how he looks, sounds, thinks and moves. In doing so, I prepare to become him.  I see the class through the glass window and close my eyes briefly.   I breathe slowly to centre myself.  As I open the door to meet the class, I am the giant, large and menacing .  My sense of self is left behind.   I am gruff and unwelcoming as I meet the students.  I grudgingly allow them to enter my castle, wondering what they want with me.  They have arrived with a sheet of paper that they want me to read.  In this letter they try to tell me that the manner in which I behave in not very nice and I will not have any friends if I continue to treat people poorly.  At this point, I become aware of myself, as teacher.  I do not want to easily give in to the students because that would appear too facile.  The giant would not give in too easily.  But at the same time, I want to encourage the children so I know in the end I will give in.  These thoughts happen as I briefly change gears in my head back to the giant.  My body has remained the giant, large and cumbersome, I threateningly hold the club in my hand.  My voice remains lowered and gravelly.  I dismiss the request of the children initially.  I make they convince me with reason.  What advantage would there be to changing?  The spokesperson for the group, Andrew, comes up with reason after reason.  He looks me in the eye as I gradually begin to accept the idea that I could enjoy life more if I was a better person.  Having friends would be a good thing I decide.  At that point, Andrew looks at me again and accepting my change asks, “What about the troll?”  I change back to teacher in my head.

In this case, I am able to physically remain the giant, but my thoughts are at times those of the teacher.  Both the character and the actor appear to be present but not at the same time.  Andrew as an audience member, also, self-forgets and loses himself in the play.  To him I am not the teacher but the giant.


The unexpected

What do we do when the unexpected occurs?  When someone surprises us with a revelation that we are unprepared for?  We’re at a social event and a man announces to his friend he is leaving his wife of twenty years.  What do you say?  Do you know what to say?  We flounder for words, stuttering and mumbling.  How is the unexpected different for the actor?  Do they not stumble when the unexpected occurs?

I address the 16th century audience, introducing the play, Romeo and Juliet, until my fellow actor, misses his lines.  I stop thinking as the narrator and think about how I will handle the situation if he doesn’t somehow cope with his lapse. His and my lines run through my head.  What will I say? He manages to get his lines out in a fashion.  I’m hoping the audience hasn’t noticed too much.  Having lost my focus, I, too, proceed to bumble my lines.

In this case, the actor is looking out over the audience as if the time period were 16th century.  The unexpected then happens, the other actor forgets his lines.  His words are important to my words.  My words will not make sense without his.  How to cope?  Suddenly the knowledge is not in the mouth anymore.  The words are not there.  The knowledge is dependent on the other person’s words.


A conversation that takes place between individuals is quite distinct.  The first person speaks.  The second responds.  The situation could be described as one person giving a gift which the other returns modified.  The gift giving continues as the two participate in a conversation.  Although you cannot predict what words will be spoken during the gift giving, for the most part, the words lie within certain parameters.  However, occasionally, one party will be shocked by the information or gift given by the other.  Such is not the case between actors.  Each actor knows exactly what the other will say.  The words have been written down by the playwright.  The actors have practiced them until they have become a part of the knowledge of the mouth.  The lines that are given back and forth to each other are dependent on each other.


Although the words of each participant in a conversation are dependent on each other, for actors the dependence is much greater.  Each line within a play is set down for a reason.  It tells part of a story to the audience.  Each line is essential for the audience to understand the story.  “I believe that the playwright chooses each word carefully, so I must also practice each word carefully.  I cannot change the words or I change the play,” Hazel explains.


But what happens when one actors forgets the lines of the play?  Is the play changed? “We improvised until we got back on track,” says Hazel.  Hazel, the actor, takes over for her character until the words can be felt in the mouth again.  For that moment, the skin of the character is pulled back but then smoothed back into place.



What does performing on a stage give to the actor in terms of recognition?   Is this different from recognition received from other achievements?

Playing the lead role in a major production at a small university made me feel like I had value and significance within the community.  Being an important member of the theatre group gave me status.

Here the actor’s sense of self-esteem and self-respect have grown.  Being given the lead role in a production gave this actor a sense of having more value, being more important than he had been before.  He was doing something that was important.   He had been chosen, having been seen as more capable than others to create and perform the role.  Professional actors are seen as “stars” whose opinions are sought, whose picture is taken, whose thoughts are values are published and listened to.


But who is the audience applauding, the character or the actor?   As the audience, do we know the idem self of the actor or only the ipse self, the character that appears before us?  Often we are surprised by the behaviour of well-known actors who do not behave as their ipse selves would when we see them on talk shows and they are being “themselves.”  Perhaps the recognition is different for the actor and the audience.  The audience recognizes the ipse self of the character but the idem self of the actor accepts the recognition.  “As I bend to take my bow and the first clap sounds, my breath gushes from my body and I see the audience, I see my fellow actors.  I shed the skin that has been Miriam.”  The actor reappears to accept the recognition.  Now, she can hear their approval.  She has measured up.




Boal, A. (1995). The rainbow of desire : the Boal method of theatre and therapy. New York: Routledge.

Eliot, T. S. (1917). The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock.   Retrieved January 28, 2006, from

Gadamer, H. G. (1975). Truth and method. New York: Seabury Press.

Hornby, R. (1992). The end of acting: a radical view. New York, NY: Applause Theatre Books.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2004). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge Classics.

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2005). The Oxford dictionary of English (revised edition) (11th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.