The Atlas of Human Emotions

If you’ve seen the Disney film Inside Out you are familiar with the characters that make up the personality of every human being: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear. The film was a moving look at the emotions that we deal with in our lives, and how they interact with one other.

Imagine my surprise to have stumbled across Dr. Paul Ekman’s Atlas of Human Emotions, which is also a collaboration with the Dalai Lama. The emotions, which he calls “Continents” are made up of the same characters found in the Disney film. Dr. Ekman has done research which has tracked similar human emotions in all human beings all over the world. When we can understand these common human emotions as performing artists, we can gain insight into the humanity of any character we sing.

Ekman describes the site as follows:

This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing, and how our emotions influence what we say and do. While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to give us more awareness of our emotions, and sometimes even some choice about what we are feeling, through better understanding of how emotions work.

Ekman’s site lists these five common emotions to all humans across the globe. 

From an acting perspective, portraying emotion onstage can be a challenging proposition. For many acting pedagogies, emotion as the DOING is a big NO NO! The techniques of Stanislavsky and Uta Hagen assert the actor should be engaged in the act of DOING, not worrying about emotions as an objective of a scene or monologue. Ekman reiterates when he says, “While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it.” This tracks exactly with Hagen and Stanislavsky.

Ekman’s Atlas can be a useful and playful tool for the singing actor. Perhaps we can put it to some good use to map the emotional range of an aria or song.

Let’s use as our song example the aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s opera Tosca. 

Looking at the chart of “Continent” emotions we can decide which emotions might be relevant to our particular aria or song. In an aria as complex as “Vissi d’arte”, we might cull many different emotional states. There are no WRONG answers here, it is merely a TOOL to open up creative thought.

For the sake of ease, let’s take as our two emotions FEAR and ANGER.

Let’s open up FEAR first.

When you click open the FEAR continent, you see a variety of levels of FEAR, from the most benign to the most intense. Understanding these levels of intensity can give you something to aim for in the singing of the aria. It can help you understand the INTENSITY factor of any given aria or song.

There are several states of FEAR which run the gamut from TREPIDATION to outright TERROR. Planning out the arc of the emotional state can give you an overall understanding of the levels of intensity in any major emotion. 

In the case of Tosca’s aria, it would probably fall somewhere in the mid-to-high levels of FEAR. So feelings of ANXIETY, DREAD, DESPERATION, and PANIC could all surface over the course of the aria.

When you click on each individual state, the site opens up further to show specific ACTIONS that occur during these states of emotion. To use an example, I’m sampling the manifestation of DESPERATION.

ACTIONS OF FEAR can be a useful entrée into the specific DOINGS of an emotion. It’s important to remember that ACTORS ACT. It is in the DOING of something that behavior is understood. 

In her DESPERATION, Floria Tosca can be seen to be engaging in the following actions during the course of the aria: AVOID – when she is avoiding Scarpia and the action of the drama stops to allow her to RUMINATE on her circumstances. There are also elements of FREEZE as the entire action of the second act comes to a halt.

When you understand these manifestations, you can understand their portrayal. I often recommend to students that they purchase the wonderful book Actions: An Actor’s Thesaurus as this book is filled with ACTION words to be utilized in the ‘actioning’ of a vocal score or song. These ACTIONS are the meat of the actor. The ACTIONS can be our gateway INTO the emotions, and not vice versa. This is an important point to make. Never aim for the EMOTION!

Once we understand the family of emotions and their manifestation, we can select ACTIONS that are cued to the right ‘temperature’ of the song or aria. For example, if we are considering Tosca to be in the mid-to-high level of intensity, then choosing actions at extremes of the scale (APPREHENSION, TERROR) would probably not ‘match’ the intensity of the aria. A good family of choices can be drawn from these high (but not too high) emotional states.

Were we to open up actions of other emotions in this map, we’d find other elements which would be useful in the overall arc of the aria itself. Now, let’s look at ANGER.

The levels of ANGER vary from mild ANNOYANCE to raging FURY. For a character like Tosca, in her aria we might choose emotional states like FRUSTRATION, EXASPERATION. Both feature in the aria “Vissi d’arte.”

When we open up EXASPERATION, we get some more actions to play with in our aria choices.

In her state of EXASPERATION, we see Tosca in a state of DISPUTE with God. Her line, “Perchè me ne rimuneri così” is an example of this, and could also be PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE or QUARREL. 

The Atlas of Human Emotions can be a useful site to develop a framework of understanding the emotional content of every song. It allows the singer to explore which emotional states are manifest within a larger emotion, and to develop strategies for ACTION built upon logical choices. It engenders SPECIFICITY.

Ekman’s site is a playful destination for singing actors. It focuses awareness of emotional states and their intensity, facilitating more natural and dynamic performance which are framed with the emotional landscape of each song.

Every song is an emotional landscape. The Atlas of Human Emotions can help be the guide map for understanding the territory.