Fleshing out the fictive soul: A screen actor’s personalisation of characterisation through collaborative subtextual improvisation

Author Identifier

Damian Foley


Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)

First Supervisor

Lyndall Adams

Second Supervisor

Frances Barbe

Third Supervisor

George Karpathakis


This practice-led research formulates a method for collaborative characterisation by merging the filmmaker/director’s approach and the screen actor’s technique. This method provides access to a deeper emotional ‘inner world’ submerged within the imagined subconscious of the fictive character. This exploration into varying improvisational filmmaker/director’s practices aimed to identify the most effective methods of supporting the screen actor’s access to emotional subtext by submergence and living through the fictive character’s subjective experience. The outcome is a flexible directorial approach focused on collaborative characterisation method/s to be employed during the filming process while remaining within the scripted context.

The research was inspired by luminary improvisational and collaborative filmmakers, including John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, and further contextualised by contemporaries such as Derek Cianfrance, Milos Forman, Darren Aronofsky and Lynn Shelton. This thesis draws parallels between the theoretical underpinnings of their approaches and the pedagogical frameworks of acting technique authors, teachers and coaches, including Judith Weston, Sandford Meisner, William Esper and Robert Carnegie.

Apart from literature and practice reviews, this research involved three practice-led phases: shadowing improvisational filmmaking practice alongside studio exploration, semi-structured interviews (with the student actors), and journaling. Investigation into Leigh’s process was extended by direct observation and participation in the creative practices of directors Chris Edmund and Robert Marchand. The initial inquiry into Leigh’s process investigated whether any improvisational techniques could be extended to evoke an unexpected moment-to-moment awareness in an actor’s performance during the actual filming.

This led to the second phase of questioning to determine which techniques practiced by Leigh could be reformulated and extended to those of filmmakers such as Cassavetes, Cianfrance and Shelton. In addition, Judith Weston’s active engagement in improvisational rehearsal techniques led me to participate in her directors’ workshop at Judith Weston Studio in Los Angeles, California.

The findings from the first two phases resulted in a third, unexpected question, suggesting this directing approach be reframed and contextualised by the acting technique pedagogies of Weston and Meisner. Consequently, the final significance of my research findings occurred while auditing a Meisner acting class taught by founding director Carnegie at the Playhouse West, North Hollywood, California. This research offers an alternative model for collaborative directors, which is based on Meisner’s acting technique and newly aligned with the directing practices of Cassavetes and Shelton. My conclusive outcome involved reformulating screen acting techniques based on Meisner’s departure from Konstantin Stanislavski. Subsequently, this reformulation clarified and revealed my own pedagogical schism with Leigh’s and Weston’s approaches.

The goal remained to find an acting technique that would cohesively merge with a directing approach that allowed the actor to retain immediacy and spontaneity while staying emotionally congruent with the character’s imaginative backstory and yet working moment-to-moment with their still emerging ‘life script’. The significance of this research is its formulation of a collaborative language and working method for actors, directors and filmmakers focused on evoking an authentic voice for the fictive character as if they possessed a consciousness of their own volition while living through the actor.

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