Alexandra Gustafsson on how empathy and creativity are at the heart of being an actor

I caught up with actress Alexandra Gustafsson to chat about creativity and empathy from the perspective of a stage performer.

Alexandra is currently studying for her Master of Arts in Theatre and Drama.

Her journey into the world of acting is a pretty classic one; she has loved being centre stage for as long as she can remember, and her childhood included a lot of coercing family members, friends and guests to sit through her one-woman shows.

And whenever there was a chance to perform at school, she took it.

She also secretly directed her peers and classmates so that the productions would reach a level of quality she was satisfied with.

“I’ve always had extremely high demands on my creative projects. Apologies to anyone who was traumatised by my demands when we were kids!” she laughed.

The first time she heard of The Theatre Academy was in high school. Her study supervisor happened to mention that it was a challenging program to get enrolled in, which only solidified her motivation to gain entry at any cost.

While she pursued her dream she tread a winding road.

After finishing senior high school, she did some adult education, got halfway to becoming a registered nurse, and worked a whole host of temporary jobs from teaching to cleaning and substituting.

In between, she took every opportunity she could find to work in theatre.

Finally, after three tries, her persistence paid off, and she passed the entrance exams at The Theatre Academy in Helsinki.

“It was my dream and I was determined to get enrolled. The long application process helped me develop the perseverance and willpower necessary to survive a career in acting.”

Now that she’s completed her Bachelors of Arts and moved on to finishing her Master’s degree, I asked her how her view of acting had changed from when she first started.

She told me that it had granted her a lot of freedom in her creativity and thinking.

She now sees more opportunities and possibilities than she did at the start of her schooling.

“I had a very clear-cut image of the theatre and what kind of work I’d like to pursue, but already after the first year in school, I’d been introduced to new interesting things and had found possibilities I couldn’t have dreamed of previously.”

She has begun viewing herself as a performing artist through her education, rather than merely an actor because it gives her more brevity in her creative process.

Alexandra believes that to be a good performing artist, she needs to experience many things that aren’t directly related to her craft.

Alongside her studies, she has worked as much as possible, partly to pay the bills, but also because it has enabled her to experience different realities outside of the artistic bubble she often finds herself in when acting.

She wants her work to be permeated by vulnerability.

Alexandra likes to explore human, fragile themes through acting. Loneliness is a recurrent theme that she has enjoyed exploring through her creative expression.

In her experience, delving deeper into questions and topics that help us respect and understand each other are essential to fostering empathy.

“I strive to be true to myself and my interests when I choose what to create. It helps me be strong in my work, and it feeds my creative energy to do what I want to do, rather than what I ‘should’ be doing.”

Alexandra has always been fascinated by trying to comprehend the true nature of another person.

And, in doing so, force herself to become acquainted with the different parts of herself.

She used to think that she could hide behind a role or a character but has learned that to do the writing justice, she needs to be aware of her own emotions constantly.

“That awareness allows me to create an interchange between myself and the character, using my feelings as a point of reference for developing the inner emotional life of the character I’m portraying. And in developing that emotional background for my character is when I, as an actor, can make the most of different acting techniques to separate my acting work from my private persona.”

She explains that the two inevitably always influence each other and that this interplay is another thing about acting that she finds tremendously fascinating.

The notion of “twofoldness” has been used to characterise the audience perspective on the relation of the character.

This kind of double attunement also applies to the perspective of the actor herself who must, at certain points of preparation, distinguish between the character she’s portraying and her own portrayal as a craft that allows her controlled access to her own emotions.

As an actor, you need to deeply consider the motivations, beliefs, and value systems of the character you’re enacting, and then make those internal states come alive.

It’s through this concept that the actor can empathise with her character.

When an actor studies and rehearses her character, empathy often begins with higher-order processes (narrative and imaginative) that provide her with a contextualised understanding of the character.

This understanding eventually integrates with a more basic empathic process in her actual performance.

Having this kind of ‘discussion’ with a character requires knowing how to listen and be empathetic, but most of all a strong curiosity that propels you forward.

Acting is constantly working with other people, even when working on a solo performance.

It’s essential to have a respectful and empathic approach to other people’s needs and boundaries, whether working with a colleague or a character.

“Good communication skills are a central tool for actors since communication is a basic requirement in acting. If we aren’t adept at communication, we’d struggle to understand each other and the people we’re portraying.”

I asked her what her process looks like when she’s preparing to play a character, and she said that she always likes to use the physical as a jumping-off point.

“I learn and understand myself best through the physical, so I start by figuring out how the character moves, what kind of body language they use,” she explained.

When there is a script, she uses a lot of physical movement to transfer the dialogue into her own physical and working memory. Learning text is challenging for Alexandra, and she makes voice recordings of the script, which she then listens to since auditory learning is her most vital mode of learning.

The part she enjoys the most is when it’s time to combine the physical character development with the script.

The process looks different for every character, but this is where she feels the character come alive, and it’s where she gains a deeper understanding of the person she’s portraying.

Often Alexandra finds it helpful to read about the person, character or period she’s portraying.

Acting takes an emotional toll.

For Alexandra working as a performing artist is often heavy work, though she wouldn’t have it any other way.

For her, it’s the mental capacity required to create something that feels the most challenging; working through all the personal emotions that the process gives rise to is tiring when you’re dealing with them on top of the emotional work of the process itself.

“I like to challenge myself and rarely choose to work with something that feels too easy, so the thought of stopping and giving it all up strikes me at some stage in every artistic process I go through,” she told me.

Emotions that arise during the creative process for Alexandra include doubt, fear, uncertainty and shame.

“To recover from a strenuous process, I put myself on what I call the ‘baby treatment’. It typically kicks off with a migraine that blossoms when the stress is released, and then I focus on fulfilling my basic needs, which often take a backseat during periods of hectic work.”

Plenty of rest, eating good food and spending time with friends and family is a necessary counterbalance when she surfaces from a deep dive into the creative process.

Time alone also helps her round out the process and prepare for what comes next.

When I asked her what significance self-care has for her, Alexandra admitted that she finds it challenging to show herself kindness and compassion.

“I’m extremely critical of my work and demand a lot from myself. I don’t think it’s a sustainable way of working, but it’s also a strong driving force in my work, and I’m always working to find the right balance.”

Alexandra strives to set boundaries for herself when she works because she knows that she’ll quickly fall into working all the time without them. She has also started finding the courage to be satisfied and proud of her work.

Her favourite self-care practice is simply letting her needs and desires guide her.

Setting aside whole days when she does whatever she feels like and focuses on enjoying herself is becoming a regular habit, though she admits it takes discipline and practice to take time off.

Creativity needs to be nurtured.

Alexandra considers her creativity a vital component of her work, and it isn’t something she takes for granted.

“I don’t think I could work as a performing artist without being in touch with my creativity. I’m aware that it isn’t always there on demand, yet I still need to access it for work.”

She tells me that she’s incredibly grateful for having an array of techniques to help her reconnect with her creativity when she’s feeling uninspired at work.

Accessing that unimpeded flow of creativity is one of the most beautiful things Alexandra knows, and she feels that’s what she strives to achieve whenever she’s working.

When she isn’t working on stage, she nurtures her creativity by listening to music, at least an hour a day.

Sometimes she writes or paints, spends time with friends, or sits down by the piano to while away an afternoon playing and singing.

I asked her what advice she’d like to hear from her future self, and she said, “Great things are waiting for you; trust in who you are now, and that what you’re doing today is enough”.