Monday, March 3, 2014

Imagining Iago: The Transforming Power of Metaphor

How an Actor Turned Performance Anxiety into a Brilliant Performance through the Use of Metaphor

(repost of a popular one from last year)

 The actor Liev Schreiber received universally positive  reviews for his portrayal of the evil trickster Iago in the NY Public Theatre’s 2001 production of Othello.

"...audiences couldn't ask for a more captivating creator of chaos than the Iago of Liev Schreiber…."

"...awful and fascinating...thanks to the lucid complexity of Schreiber's performance, disturbingly real."

"...the ability to animate or embody an idea, as opposed to emblemizing it…"

"I found myself thinking, 'This guy would fool me, too.'"

The following year, Schreiber described how he created his Iago in a PBS "Great Performances" documentary. At first he found it nearly impossible to fully engage with the other actors. No matter how much direction he received, he kept finding himself circling the scene rather than dominating it from center stage, as the role is usually played. The root of this problem, Schreiber discovered, was his anxiety that he wouldn’t be able to remember all of his lines. (Iago has more lines than any other character in all of Shakespeare’s plays.)

Rather than work to “fix” or remove his anxiety, he and the director Keith David began to play with it – especially its physical manifestation of circling the scene. Together, they looked for metaphors that would combine Schreiber’s circling behavior with that of a character intent on destruction.

They came up with the image of a shark, a predator by nature that circles a group of prey until it senses vulnerability, and then strikes. Schreiber worked to embody the gliding, purposeful, predatory nature of a shark into his Iago. In the process, he lost his fear and was able to not only remember the lines, but to endow Iago with a depth and complexity uniquely his own.

He changed the story.

How to Harness the Power of Metaphor for Yourself

“Every dragon is a prince or princess yearning to be kissed,” wrote Rilke. Is there a quality, emotion, habit in you that appears to be sabotaging your best efforts? Instead of fighting it and getting caught up in a losing battle to control, defeat, or fix it, do the opposite: work with it. Externalize it by turning it into a metaphor. Let it tell you its story through creative expression.

Ask yourself: What animal, god, demon, landscape, or weather expresses this emotion or physical experience? What would it feel like to let it inhabit your body, your voice, your words and intent?

Fully and safely express it through drawing it,  having an imaginary dialogue with it, expressing it in movement or sound. Allow it to release its unique energy into whatever it is blocking. Watch this vulnerability transform into something brilliant.

Change your story by fully encompassing, exploring, and embodying its depths.


  1. Hi Juliet, I like this post immensely, having just seen a small theater production of Macbeth with performances requiring long difficult lines and explosive emotion. I wondered how they could reach what seemed to be an altered state of consciousness, a state of possession. I speak at conferences about my research on poets who use dissociative means to access creativity. The last time, somewhat nervous as always, I stepped away from the podium and spoke with an infusion of personal experience, the first time ever; and I seemed transformed, not by a metaphoric takeover, but rather the real self, or perhaps a calm, strong, dissociative self, unafraid of exposure, telling her story entwined with the poets' stories. The result surprised me and apparently pleased the audience.

  2. Hi Carole (I went to Right Mind's web site because I liked her reply so much!), I think you get to something crucial about gaining access to a more powerful and authentic voice. Whether metaphor or the ability to articulate direct personal experience is the path to this voice, it's being in Flow that is the thrilling thing. Possibly, interweaving your personal story with those of the poets released you into a large collective reality. And you were ready. I think this is the essence of charisma. Thanks so much for your response. Warmest, Juliet