the facts, felt life, and the actor

Posted in Al Pacino, Dan Siegel, Mindsight, particularization on August 28th, 2010 by Andrew

I have written previously about psychiatrist Dan Siegel’s book Mindsight here and here and here. I want to write today about one case study in particular from his book, and some ways in which it sheds light on the challenges facing the actor.

Siegel worked with an older man, an attorney, whom he calls Stuart.

Once I got Stuart talking, his memory was excellent for details about the town where he grew up, the games he played as a child, the make and model of his first car, and even the historical and political events of the time. But when it came to questions about his early family life — or any family life — his responses were consistently vague. “My mother was normal. She ran the home. My father worked. I think my brothers and I were fine.” To a question about how his family life affected his development, Stuart responded, “It didn’t… . My parents gave me a good education. What’s the next question?”

Stuart insisted that his childhood was “fine” even though he said that he did not remember the details of his relationships with his parents or two brothers. He insisted that the he “just didn’t recall” what they had done at home, what life felt like for him as a youngster. The details he gave me sounded like facts, not like lived experience. This was true even when he told me that he had been with his brother during a bad skiing accident, which had resulted in the loss of his brother’s leg. His brother had recovered and was “fine.”

Siegel had noticed that Stuart had a highly developed ability to recall and report facts, but an impaired ability to recall what anything felt like. Siegel goes on to explain how handling facts, logic and reason on the one hand and feelings and sensations on the other are functions of the two halves of the brain, the right and the left. Now, this right brain-left brain business as been popularized to the degree that I was inclined to dismiss it as psychobabble or quackery, but it turns out that this division of labor in the brain is borne out by science. These two ways of approaching experience are handled by anatomically distinct portions of the brain that develop with some degree of independence from each other (although thet do collaborate extensively).

Siegel began working with Stuart, providing him with exercises to develop the under-utilized capacity of his brain. The ways in which the exercises challenged Stuart provided further illustration of the divide:

I asked him to recall the evening before our session and his breakfast that morning, and to convey his recollections as images rather than facts…Stuart wanted to summarize and evaluate: “I had a good evening.” “I had cornflakes for breakfast.” What came hard to him was telling me “I scoop the cornflakes into my blue bowl and hear the sound that they make. The milk carton feels cool in my hand, and I pour it slowly until I see the milk almost covering the flakes. I sit down and I notice that the sunlight is in my eyes.”

One part of our mind apprehends and traffics in facts, the other in impressions. This reminded me of something about the way an actor approaches a role in the technique that I teach in my classes.

When an actor begins work on the role, I encourage her to study the script for the facts. “Just the facts, ma’am”, the mantra from the TV show Dragnet, governs this phase of the work. The author has embedded her work with a multitude of facts, and it is incumbent upon the actor to carefully uncover them and organize them into a surveyable arrangement. I have actors place facts in the historical and immediate past, the present, and the potential future.

The importance of this cannot be understated. These facts give the actor a basic grounding in the situation of the character. An actor who fails to take in these facts will find herself unmoored from the circumstances of the piece, casting about without orientation or compass. When actors present a scene in my class, I question them to make sure that they have a solid command of the facts of the piece.

There comes a point, though, when facts must be transmuted into lived experience. It is not enough for an actor playing Blanche DuBois to know that she discovered the body of her dead lover; she needs to have imagined the episode for herself, as well as the sequence prior to it, when she discovered him in flagrante with another man and shamed him for it. The actor needs to make that movie for herself; she needs to live through it, so that it exists for her as something that happened to her, not simply facts that she noted from the pages of the script. In short, she needs to particularize it.

How does she bring this about? She needs to daydream, productively. Journaling can be a great way of going about this. One way or another, she needs to spend time alone internalizing this episode. Al Pacino said in a recent interview on acting, “A lot of acting is private time.” This private time is spent, in part, in projecting one’s self into the world of the character, acquiring the character’s experiences, appropriating them, stealing them even. I call it the “lonely work of the actor”, not because it feels lonely to do it, but because it takes an enormous amount of faith to engage in this work, as the results of the work will not be immediately evident. In our culture of immediate gratification, we want to get something for our efforts. We like the fruits of our labor to be tangible. Investing work in building these castles in the air is likely to induce feelings of foolishness. And yet building these castles of lived experience is precisely what will fortify us, so that when we rehearse and perform, we will prevail.

the production effect

Posted in acting, enrichment, memorization, particularization, personalization, production effect on June 6th, 2010 by Andrew

When I meet people new to acting for the informational coffee date at the start of the process of enrolling in the class, these people often express some worry about the task of memorizing their lines. They often ask me if I have any special techniques for overcoming this obstacle. I tell them that I do have a few things to say about memorization, but that really, there is always going to be a need to put in time doing rote study for a role with any substance. I smile inwardly, as little do these hapless newbies know, but memorizing lines is the LEAST of the actor’s worries. That memorization is the aspect of the work that they find most daunting attests to how far their conception of what acting is what what it really is at this point. This is pretty much inevitable for a beginner. The question is how they will react once the true scope of the challenge facing actors begins to sink in.

I did come across something of interest recently though, that does offer some help with the task of memorization. It turns out that if you are attempting to memorize something and you say it aloud, the act of verbalizing it makes it more likely that you will remember it. It’s called “the production effect”, according to Psychology Today:

In this paper, these researchers document what they call the production effect. They looked at people’s memory for items like a list of words. They found that if people studied the list by reading half of the words silently and the other half by saying the words out loud, that [the] words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently.

The production effect works because it makes part of the list of items more distinctive. The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them. All of this information makes your memory for the spoken items more distinct from the rest of the items that were read silently.

Good to know, but the production effect has implications beyond the learning of lines. One of the things students are confronted with in my class is the amount of concerted effort it takes to acquaint themselves with the character’s reality and circumstances to the degree that they have a credible claim to embody that character. We call this process developing a “Who am I”, or a way of perceiving one’s self and the facts of one’s life, history, and hopes and fears about the future. I provide students with a framework or set of questions to pose to organize their work on the Who-Am-I, and I urge them to write it out, for precisely the reasons that the production effect entails. The physical act of writing out these pieces of information, as well as the cognitive act of ordering all of these bits of information in relationship to each other, helps these pieces of information enter the BODY of the actor, as well as the mind. Whatever you may think of Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way, Cameron makes much the same point in advocating for the writing of “morning pages”: in the act of writing out our thoughts, we process them physically. This may or may not yield answers to our personal or artistic conundrums, but it turns up the soil, so to speak, freeing up inchoate energies to travel neural pathways they may not have traveled previously. Or whatever.

I recognize the difficulty of this. I was recently introduced to something called “cognitive behavioral therapy”, which is a process for examining damaging thoughts by identifying their origins or triggers, and then shining the light of reason on them by weighing evidence for and against them. It is a formalized process of self-reflection. In being asked to undertake this, I was handed a sheet of paper with a chart on it with columns which I was expected to fill in, which would guide me through the process.

The chart sat on my dresser for a week. I was immediately aware of the similarity between the Who-am-I process I ask actors to undertake and the cognitive behavioral therapy chart, and so I could hardly object to being asked to undertake it, and yet I felt a marked resistance to doing so. Perhaps that is partly a function of my (male) (Aries?) temperament, but I suspect many of us would similarly chafe under being asked to work out our inner struggles through a chart like this. It felt a little infantilizing. (Is it possible to infantilize just a little?)

I took note of the resistance, sat with it, so to speak, and eventually, I overcame it, and started to work with it. Did the earth move and the angels weep? No. Did I gain some insight about how to reflect on my thoughts and their relationship to my mood? Yes. As adults, we prize our autonomy, and can easily resent encroachments upon it, real or perceived. But any kind of technique is going to be an encroachment of sorts. Otherwise we could all just do what comes naturally and we would all be Awesome at whatever we wanted to do. It doesn’t work that way. Freedom lies on the other side of technique, as a wise person once said.

Writing has its benefits for the initial phase of the Who-am-I process, and it is also enormously valuable for the personalization process that follows. Personalization has two components: particularization, in which the people, places and things that comprise the world of the Who-am-I are given detail which imbues them with an enlivening vividness, and investment, in which the actor uses relationships in her own life to endow these people places and things with the appropriate kind of signficance. Writing can be invaluable for both particularization and transference. In addition to the production effect, writing down pieces of particularization and investment force a ocmmitment to be made: if such things remain as mere thoughts, they are likely to remain undeveloped and incherent. Writing out these things asks the actor to bring an urgently needed definition to her imaginative approach to the role.

Uta Hagen is a tremendous resource in this regard: in both her books, she provides countless examples of the kind of writing on the role that provides this kind of enrichment to the actors work.

Of course, what you write when you write is also important. Just the mere fact of writing does not guarantee that the Who-Am-I will be productively developed and rich personalization will take shape. But writing it down is a step in the right direction, a gesture of seriousness to your creative self about your intentions. It beats not writing anything out every time.

why we particularize

Posted in Uta Hagen, acting, particularization, specificity on February 20th, 2010 by Andrew

In A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen defines particularization as follows:

…particularization: the making of each event, each person, and each place down to the smallest physical object as particular as possible, exploring these things in detail to discover in which way they are relevant to the character, in which way they are perceived, in which way they further or hinder the character’s needs, and consequently, how they will condition “your” behavior.

By becoming familiar, in a painstaking manner, with the particularities of each person, place and thing encountered in the course of a role, the actor creates the possibility of being influenced by these particularities in the course of acting. Being influenced by said particularities is the source of the much-sought-after specificity in an actor’s performance. Too many actors believe that specificity arises by making precise decisions about how they will say a line, how they will gesture when they speak, how they will walk across the room. But making decisions in this manner is a coldly analytical exercise that has nothing to do with spontaneity or authenticity: the actor stands “outside” and evaluatively shapes or crafts each moment of the role, hoping this will mean that her work will be deemed “specific.”

Sadly, no. Specific work arises from several sources, but an important one is a clear perception of the world in which the character being played lives, more precisely, of the people, places and things that make up that world. By encountering or “bumping up against” these particularized people, places and things, the actor’s speech, gestures, behavior and experience are conditioned and inflected by them, and the result is specificity in the work.

It’s not the most sexy part of being an actor. Studying the objects that you handle in the course of a role, the furniture that you make use of, the clothing that you wear, and the people that you come across to take note of their many physical properties can seem tedious, and can seem to have little to do with the “passion” of the actor. But it is precisely by doing these things that these people, places and things go beyond being mere props or actors and take their place as an element of the imaginary world in which the actor lives. The actor becomes “attuned” to them in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t be.

The resulting influence can exert a mysterious, underground influence on an actor. Consider the following experiment in psychology:

In the first experiment 34 participants were divided into 3 groups with each group unconsciously cued into a different state: one ‘rude’, one ‘polite’ and one neither. This had to be done in a roundabout way so that the participants didn’t suspect they were being manipulated. What the experimenters did was give them a word puzzle to unscramble. To activate the idea of rudeness in one group it contained words like ‘bother’, ‘disturb’ and ‘bold’. To activate the idea of politeness the next group unscrambled words like ‘courteous’, ‘patiently’ and ‘behaved’. The third group unscrambled neutral words.

After finishing the unscrambling participants left the room to track down the experimenter but found him deep in conversation with someone, forcing them to wait. The question the researchers wanted to answer was what percentage of people would interrupt if the experimenter kept ignoring them by talking to the other person for 10 minutes.

In the group cued with polite words, just 18% of participants interrupted with the rest waiting for the full 10 minutes while the experimenter continued their conversation. On the other hand, in the group cued with impolite words, fully 64% interrupted the experimenter. The neutral condition fell between the two with 36% interrupting.

This is quite a dramatic effect because participants were unaware of the manipulation yet they faithfully followed the unconscious cues given to them by the experimenters. One group became bold and forthright simply by reading 15 words that activated the concept of impoliteness in their minds, while the other group became meek and patient by reading words about restraint and conformity.

The article I linked to above described the upshot of this and related experiments very well:

What this study demonstrates very neatly is just how sensitive we are to the minutiae of social interactions. Subtle cues from the way other people behave and more generally from the environment can cue automatic unconscious changes in our behaviour. And by the same token signals we send out to others can automatically activate stereotypes in their minds which are then acted out. As much as we might prefer otherwise, sometimes stereotypes can easily influence our behaviour and our conscious mind seems to have no say.

Got that? Our mind can absorb clues that it isn’t even aware that we are absorbing, and this can influence our behavior. In the same way, by making the choice to consciously and deliberately expose ourselves to the properties of the people, places and things that make up the imaginary world in which we are endeavoring to live, we invite our unconscious to respond and adjust our own behavior accordingly, without our being particularly aware of it. Nothing could be further from the calculations of the actor who measures out every gesture and inflection to make it “specific.” Specific it may be, but it is also dead. And “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is the name of the game, as the man said.