the actor and GTD


In my travels through the twittersphere (I just made that up!), I kept seeing this acronym pop up: GTD. I had no idea what it meant. I imagined it was some type of software that required special skills to operate. Well, I was wrong. GTD stands for Getting Things Done. It’s an approach to, well, getting things done. The core principle is summarized by wikipedia:

GTD rests on the principle that a person needs to move tasks out of the mind by recording them externally. That way, the mind is freed from the job of remembering everything that needs to be done, and can concentrate on actually performing those tasks.

When I read this, it resonated immediately. One of the most important things I have ever done was a year of private lessons in the Alexander Technique. I worked with this remarkable instructor. She noticed my occasional “absent-minded professor” tendencies, and suggested that I get a planner to carry with me, so that I could record things I needed to do as they arose. She explained that this would reduce the mental strain involved in my day-to-day existence. I took her advice, and found she was right. Things were much easier when I knew that I had recorded things. I knew I had the information SOMEWHERE, so there was no pressure to keep it all in my head. I felt free to be more present.

Another example: when I am watching students do a scene in class, and I write down notes as I do. Sometimes, I will notice something very minor: a slight error in the lines spoken, or some of the actor’s hair getting in her face. The hair is actually kind of important, because if it continues to distract me as I watch the actor, I am less effective as an instructor. Also, if the student is not made aware of the issue, she will eventually get up in front of people when the scene is presented at the end of the class with her hair getting in her face a bit, and this will distract everyone trying to watch her work. It’s not significant in terms of her craft as an actor, but it does constitute an intrusion of sorts. I used to find myself having little debates with myself about whether to write such things down. After all, while I was writing this down, I would not be watching the actors, and so I would be missing out on some other possibly much more significant part of her work or her partner’s work. But I have learned that no matter how minor the issue, the best thing to do is to write it down immediately. By writing it down, I let the issue go, for the moment at least. This frees me to return with a clear mind to what is happening in the scene. If I don’t write the issue down, then it will continue to nag at me, and I will be less fully available to what I am looking at. And if I do write it down, I can address it once the scene is over, and hopefully it won’t be there to distract me the next to time through.

A third example from my own experience: I try to keep the production of content for this blog pretty steady. However, I never know when ideas for posts are going to come to me, and I also never know I am going to get to the actual writing. But as soon as an idea occurs to me, I go to my blogger dashboard and I create a new post. Possibly it will just be a title or a title and a link, but then I have a placeholder for it. I can come back and actually write the piece when I am ready to do so. I can come back to it whenever I need to. And my unconscious knows that too. It knows it can let go of that issue for the moment, and move onto new things, which will, we hope, lead to new ideas being generated.

What does this have to do with the actor? Well, in the approach that I present in the class, the process begins with a careful, thorough study of the text, to attempt to glean as much information as possible about the character from what the writer has provided. There is a framework for organizing this information as it is collected, called the “Who-am-I” or the Five Questions. Interestingly, this is very close to the first phase of the GTD work sequence. According to wikipedia:

The notion of stress-free productivity starts with off-loading what needs to get done from one’s head, capturing everything that is necessary to track, remember, or take action on, into what Allen calls a bucket: a physical inbox, an email inbox, a tape recorder, a notebook, a PDA, a desktop, etc. The idea is to get everything out of one’s head and into a collection device, ready for processing. All buckets should be emptied (processed) at least once per week.

Allen doesn’t advocate any preferred collection method, leaving the choice to the individual. He only insists upon the importance of emptying the “buckets” regularly. Any storage space (physical inbox, email inbox, tape recorder, notebook, PDA, etc.) that is processed regularly by the individual is acceptable.

It’s of course essential that the actor actually WRITE DOWN the information that she is gleaning from the text. No matter how much I stress that, though, both explicitly and by example, it’s often difficult to see the importance of doing that up front. It’s only later in the process that assuming that “Yeah, I read the play, I know what happens, I don’t need to write it out” has consequences, and the need for discipline and exhaustiveness at this phase is made indisputably clear.

The benefits of writing down the information are manifold: first of all, by engaging in the physical act of writing, the body is engaged, and this begins the process of transforming textual information into experience grasped in a bodily, physical way. Once it is written, the actor can look at it, and this may trigger valuable questions or intuitions. That particular bit of information is then out of her head, and she is then fully receptive to other pieces of information. She can move through all of the scattered information in the text that may be relevant in a somewhat linear way, dealing with one issue at a time, and placing it in a “bucket” where it can be found easily later.

The hardest part of all of this, probably, is the fact that you don’t necessarily see the payback right away. But it is precisely this recognition, that learning to act well involves sustained work over time, which doesn’t always immediately result in a payoff, that is the beginning of the actor taking command of her own working process.

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