the facts, felt life, and the actor

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.

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