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.

one more thing about priming

Posted in Dan Siegel, Mindsight, priming, rehearsal clothes on August 11th, 2010 by Andrew

This post is a follow up to this one about the importance of the ceremony of donning rehearsal clothes for a scene every time you rehearse it.

I have been continuing to read Dr. Dan Siegel’s Mindsight:

If you play tennis, for example, each time you put on your shorts and shoes,pick up your racket, and head for the court, your brain is actively creating a “tennis-playing state of mind.” In this state, you are primed to access your motor skills, your competitive strategies, and even your memories of prior games. If you are playing a familiar opponent, you’ll recall her moves, her strongest hits, and her weak spots. All of these memories, skills, and even feelings– of competition and aggression– are activated together.

Any questions?

Update: Tweet from Alain de Botton: Enduring wisdom of Zen Buddhism in making a central religious ritual out of the preparation and consumption of a cup of tea.

rehearsal clothes, "priming", and the land of make-believe

Posted in Dan Siegel, Goldie Hawn, Sanford Meisner, acting, implicit memory, priming on August 8th, 2010 by Andrew

“What the hell are rehearsal clothes?”

This scornful question greeted me once when I was in the midst of an argument dialogue on the message boards of a prominent entertainment industry trade rag. I was attempting to explain why I didn’t believe it was necessary or even wise to try to get every student up to work at every class, and I was doing the math on another teacher who made that promise, given the published length of her classes and the number of students per class. (It turned out that each student got about 12.5 minutes of feedback per week, which to my mind is not enough time to roll up your sleeves and really address anything in depth.)

“Rehearsal clothes” figured into the calculation because, to my mind, any scene study class worth its salt will expect students to bring clothes to wear for their scene, i.e. “costumes”. And getting into those clothes takes time, unless you want people to sit around in their clothes for the scene for the whole class, which is undesirable for reasons I’ll get to below. At the Drama School, in the design department, with legendary costume designers like Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein at the helm, it was the practice to refer to the costumes for shows in which actors were dressed in a contemporary, more or less realistic idiom as “clothes” rather than costumes. A designer was said to be “doing the clothes” for a show or film if the costumes were contemporary, realistic ensembles. That turn of phrase has stayed with me, and I used it in the context on the message board. Hence the confusion and consternation of the person who wrote “What the hell are rehearsal clothes?” (I imagine they must have been picturing something along the lines of uniforms for martial arts classes).

Anyway, I have always insisted that students pick out rehearsal clothes for their scene, and that they bring them to class and change into them. Further, I urged them to do this when they rehearsed outside of class: bring the rehearsal clothes and change into them, do not wear them to class, do not wear them to rehearsal. This had the effect of making life a little more difficult for the less motivated students in the class: they might be inclined to show up in street clothes, and, if their scene permitted, to claim that these were what they were going to wear for the scene. However, with my edict, even if they were wearing street clothes for the scene, they still needed to bring clothes to change into.

But aside from that, why put people out in this way? Why demand that they find special clothes to do their scene, even if the character might dress similarly to the way the actor dressed in everyday life. Well, there are a few reasons for this. First of all, I am a firm believer that the actors greatest enemy, in terms of his/her preparation anyway, is the temptation to ignore some aspect of the character’s life or experience, rather than shining the light of awareness on it. I sometimes call this the “get it off my desk” syndrome. There is always pressure from the part of our minds that fears challenge and change to assume that its better to let sleeping dogs lie, not look under that rock, and just assume that some particular aspect of the role does not call for inspection or reflection. Actors have to work hard to counteract this, and developing the awareness of this danger (for that is what it is) and cultivating the habit of examining every conceivable facet of the role takes hard work and dedication.

The clothes worn by the character, or by the “Who-am-I” as we say in the class, are one more instance of this. Clothes make the man, as the maxim goes. What we wear is an important part of our self-presentation, of the way we play the role(s) that we play in the various contexts that we move in and out of. Reflecting on what kind of clothes the character would be wearing, given the situation of the scene, is both good for the scene AND for the actor’s developing practice of considering ALL aspects of the role.

But I am getting at something beyond all of this. It has always been my conviction that changing into the clothes for the scene can assume a kind of ceremonial significance: in putting on these clothes, I am now entering another persona in another world. Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, as Sanford Meisner said. It’s entering a land of make-believe. And changing into the clothes can become a ritual that speaks to the whole person of the actor, body, nervous system, and mind, and says: “Now we are becoming Blanche DuBois” or whoever.

It turns out that the latest brain science bears me out. As I mentioned in previous posts, I am reading a book called Mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel, which proposes that an understanding of how the brain works can be combined with mindfulness and other mental practices to promote mental health. Last night, I came across the following:

Finally, implicit memory creates something called “priming,” in which the brain readies itself to respond in a certain fashion. When his mother arrives home, the boy anticipates a hug. Not only is his internal world primed for receiving that loving gesture, he’ll move his arms in anticipation when he hears her car in the driveway. As we get older, priming continues to operate with more complex behaviors. If you’ve learned to swim, when you get your bathing suit on, your behavioral repertoire for swimming is primed and readied to engage when you jump in the pool.

And when the actor puts on her rehearsal clothes, her whole being primes itself for what is about to happen. This only happens, of course, if the act of doing the scene is repeatedly associated with putting on the clothes: actors who don’t wear the rehearsal clothes when the rehearse, only when they perform, will have no such experience.

Note that Dr. Siegel talks about priming in the context of “implicit memory”. Briefly, implicit memory is the recall of things in which the act of recalling is not consciously registered. He uses the example of how once we learn to ride a bike, we don’t have to remember how to ride the bike each time we do it. We recall it without intention or conscious effort. So with priming, the behavior that happens to prepare for some encounter or activity happens unconsciously. You could say that as the clothes are donned, they speak to the actor’s nervous system and prepare it to play the role in question.

The same goes for creating an environment for the scene. Recently, I had a student who was doing a scene in which his character was in a conference room at a hotel in which he had just finished giving a lecture. The student informed me of his intention to go out and purchase a bunch of chairs for Friends and Family Night, and then return them the next day. I gently explained that the environment was to be created for the rehearsal process, so that by setting up the environment every time they rehearsed, gaining familiarity with it and using the setup as a springboard into the land of make believe, they would be getting themselves ready to act. Bringing a bunch of chairs for the performance only was not going to help anyone act, and would probably undermine him and his partner, since it would be introducing a new element on the day of the performance.

When actors act in projects, in films or in theater, they aren’t going to be setting up the environment, but they do need to be attuned to it. The practice of creating an environment for a scene and setting up each time they rehearse, allowing that arrangement of rehearsal furniture to become an altogether different place where the actor leads an imaginary life, is a great way of developing the awareness that provides for that kind of attunement when they walk onto a movie set.

Here’s a talk that Dan Siegel gave with Goldie Hawn about his work. The first part of the video is Goldie talking, he comes in about halfway through. He gives a good overview of what he’s about.

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in defense of the third degree

Posted in Dan Siegel, Evan Yionoulis, Mindsight, acting, narrative, preparation on August 7th, 2010 by Andrew

I have been reading this book that came highly recommended to me called Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel J Siegel. It was discussed in a book I recently finished and have discussed on this blog at length. The person who recommended Mindsight to me had not read that book, so it was a little bit of a Jungian synchronicity moment, if if you believe in that sort of thing.

Mindsight is all about the proposition that awareness about how the parts of the brain interact can actually impact mental health. It’s brain science meets I’m OK You’re OK. Ok that was kind of glib, but it gives you the idea. And so far it has been interesting, notwithstanding the fact that it can’t seem to make up its mind (heh!) about whether it is making a serious intellectual argument or popularizing brain science, mindfulness and other stuff. But anyway, I came across something quite striking as I was reading it the other day. I’ll just lay it on you:

Research has revealed that the best predictor of the security of our children’s attachment to us is our ability to narrate the story of our own childhood in a coherent fashion.

You want your kids to be able to securely attach to you because, from both a neurological and a psychological point of view, their ability to form attachments in the future is going to be heavily shaped, limited, and conditioned by the success of these initial formative attachments (Read about attachment theory here).

So let’s recap that: the best predictor of the ability of children to form these all-important bonds with their parents is the ability of said parents to narrate the story of their own childhoods.

Not what you would call an obvious or intuitive connection.

What struck me about this was that this ability to narrate a life is what my teachers at Yale, and in their footsteps, I, use as a way to take the measure of an actor’s preparation and their readiness to walk in the shoes of the character or “Who-am-I” the actor was attempting to portray.

During the three semesters that I was a TA to Evan Yionoulis, who chaired the acting program at the Yale School of Drama for five years, I watched Evan elicit narrations from actors by posing questions to them that they were to answer in the first person. It was part interrogation and part Socratic dialogue. These questions were about the past, present or the future of the character. At the very minimum, these questions were intended to probe the actor’s mastery of the given circumstances of the scene. “So why did the second of your two daughters turn you out?” “Who did the person behind the curtain who you stabbed turn out to be?” etc. A firm grasp of the circumstances is essential to anything further. Often actors take such knowledge for granted, only to discover, awkwardly, that their command of these basic facts is lacking when they are standing in front of the class being questioned by a teacher.

But it’s not only the facts that Evan wanted to hear about. She wanted to hear about how the actor had surveyed those facts and arranged them into a narrative that heated up the scene. It’s the difference between “And I discovered I had killed Polonius” and “And I discovered that the man I killed was Polonius, the father of the woman I love and the trusted advisor of my late father.” Actors were expected not just to grasp the facts, but to be able to talk about them in ways that articulated their importance, and injected urgency into the situation.

And then there was the fanning of the flames, the term for the supplementing of what the writer provides by the actor to enhance the interest and urgency of the scene, and provide greater fullness and specificity to the life the actor is leading in the scene. Actors were taught that they should not just arbitrarily add details to their background, but details that make the scene more compelling.

Actors were also expected to be able to talk about the potential future of the character. They were expected to be able to say without hesitation what they would most like to see happen in a given situation and what they would least like to see happen.

Finally, it was important that the actor have personalized all of this: found ways to make the people, places and things that make up the world of the character carry the weight for the actor that the story called for. So the actor needed to be able not simply to recite the facts in the first person, but to talk about those facts as if they were the facts of their own life. Not that the question and answer process was supposed to be a performance, only that when the actors address subjects important to the character in the first person, the weight of the topics discussed should have been palpable in the actor’s narration.

The ability to speak about these things with fluency attests to the time and thought an actor has put into the situation and priorities of the character. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. It’s the process that I use in class when students show their scenes for the first time, and the first pair that gets up has the hardest time. At the end of the night that the first pair show a scene during a ten week cycle, other students invariably express relief that they got to see the process once before having to go through it. They leave class knowing that they have a lot of work to do.