Monday, December 7, 2009

Reasons to Warm Up beyond vocal and physical conditioning

A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect
SourceJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience archive
Volume 21 ,  Issue 3  () table of contents
Pages 415-432  
Year of Publication: 2009
MIT Press  Cambridge, MA, USA


Previous research has shown that people solve insight or creative problems better when in a positive mood (assessed or induced), although the precise mechanisms and neural substrates of this facilitation remain unclear. We assessed mood and personality variables in 79 participants before they attempted to solve problems that can be solved by either an insight or an analytic strategy. Participants higher in positive mood solved more problems, and specifically more with insight, compared with participants lower in positive mood. fMRI was performed on 27 of the participants while they solved problems. Positive mood (and to a lesser extent and in the opposite direction, anxiety) was associated with changes in brain activity during a preparatory interval preceding each solved problem; modulation of preparatory activity in several areas biased people to solve either with insight or analytically. Analyses examined whether (a) positive mood modulated activity in brain areas showing responsivity during preparation; (b) positive mood modulated activity in areas showing stronger activity for insight than noninsight trials either during preparation or solution; and (c) insight effects occurred in areas that showed mood-related effects during preparation. Across three analyses, the ACC showed sensitivity to both mood and insight, demonstrating that positive mood alters preparatory activity in ACC, biasing participants to engage in processing conducive to insight solving. This result suggests that positive mood enhances insight, at least in part, by modulating attention and cognitive control mechanisms via ACC, perhaps enhancing sensitivity to detect non-prepotent solution candidates.

Photo is Worth a Thousand Ways to Change Your Memory by David DiSalvo

This article has a lot to say to actors because it reinforces the need for images of the given circumstances.

 Photo is Worth a Thousand Ways to Change Your Memory

Most of us realize that memory is fallible. We forget things all the time–car keys, passwords, whether we turned off the oven, etc.  But how many of us would admit that our memory is susceptible to change from the outside? That’s different from simply forgetting–something everyone does on their own–because someone else changing our memory requires “getting in our heads” so to speak, right?
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I’m about to tell you that not only is it possible, it’s probable. And it doesn’t even take very much effort to accomplish–just a few images and a little time.      
A recent study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology tested whether showing people photos of completed actions–such as a broken pencil or an opened envelope–could influence them to believe they’d done something they had not, particularly if they were shown the photos multiple times.

Participants were presented with a series of objects on a table, and for each object were asked to either perform an action or imagine performing an action (i.e. “crack the walnut”).  One week later, the same participants were brought back and randomly presented with a series of photos on a computer screen, each of a completed action (i.e. a cracked walnut), either one, two or three times. Other participants were not shown any photos.
One week later, they were brought back to complete a memory test in which they were presented with action phrases (i.e. “I cracked a walnut”) and asked to answer whether they had performed the action, imagined performing it, or neither, and rate their confidence level for each answer on a scale of one to four.
The results: the more times people were exposed to a photo of a completed action, the more often they thought they’d completed the action, even though they had really only imagined doing it.  Those shown a photo of a completed action once were twice as likely to erroneously think they’d completed the action than those not shown a photo at all.   People shown a photo three times were almost three times as likely as those not shown a photo.

Two factors in this study speak to the malleability of memory. The first is duration of time. The experiment was carried out with a week between each session, enough time for the specific objects and actions to become a little cloudy in memory, but not enough time to be forgotten.  This lines up well with real-world situations, such as someone providing eye-witness testimony, in which several days if not weeks might elapse between recollections of events.

The second factor is repeat exposure to images.  The study showed that even just one exposure to a photo of a completed action strongly influenced incorrect memory.  Multiple exposures significantly increased the errors. One real-world takeaway from this result is potentially alarming: the possibility of using images to alter someone’s memory of a face or other critical element such that his/her testimony is tainted.
A similar study discussed here tackled the same sort of memory issues with video instead of photos, and found a similar result.  Both studies point to a realization becoming clearer with time: memory is far more changeable than most of us realize.
Henkel, L. (2009). Photograph-induced memory errors: When photographs make people claim they have done things they have not Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1644

Friday, December 4, 2009

Grotowski, songs, archetypes, myths, everything!

A Search for the Oldest Songs in the World
Out of the crucible of modern Polish theatre comes Teatr ZAR, haunted by death, memory and the primal power of ancient song
By Jim O'Quinn

Songs grow directly from reactions to life's travails; they come from something "under the skin," something wholly organic.
—Jerzy Grotowski
How did Poland's Teatr ZAR set about rescuing the oldest songs in the world from the oblivion of history? And why has the Wroclaw-based company—currently on a U.S. tour that began last month in Chicago and continues this month in Los Angeles—made these rare archaic songs the generative element of its extraordinary, virtuosic performances?
Jarosław Fret, the 38-year-old actor and student of ethnomusicology who founded Teatr ZAR in 2002, has forthright answers to these questions. The richly harmonic liturgical chants and funeral songs that inspire his company's work were collected, he will tell you, during a series of group expeditions between 1999 and 2003 to historic religious sites in Georgia, Greece, Bulgaria, Corsica, Sardinia, Egypt and Iran, including forays into isolated communities in the remote heights of the Caucasus Mountains, where musical traditions date back 2,000 years. The songs that he and his collaborators collected on these expeditions, he says, became their primary material, their fundamental means of theatrical communication, a metaphor that "gives you a very deep, essential understanding of what the process and tradition of life, which includes death, is."
Teatr ZAR's performances—which consist so far of a triptych of low-tech ensemble pieces, none of them more than 55 minutes long—have begun to attract rapturous attention from observers around the world, not least from theatre practitioners engaged in thematically or formally similar work. But Fret's passion for the revelatory power of ancient music as a theatrical source is part of a larger historical picture involving that sometimes elusive sphere known as "laboratory theatre." And Teatr ZAR's new status as an international ambassador for the most influential branch of contemporary Polish theatre—that indebted to the multifaceted, sometimes paradoxical investigations of Jerzy Grotowski—makes this a telling moment to revisit (here and in Stephen Nunns's companion article, below) some of the seismic shifts in world theatre that the laboratory movement has generated.
Fret, who combines his role of ZAR artistic director with the leadership, since 2004, of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, has been a moving force in the most recent phases of that history. Under his directorship, the institute is in the process of expanding from its modest niche in the city's vibrant Old Market Square—the premises from 1965 to 1982 of Grotowski's Laboratory Theatre, where legendary works such as Apocalypsis cum figuris were first performed—to a spacious new multipurpose building (previously a rowing club for athletes) on Na Grobli Street along the treelined Oder River, scheduled to open next April. And when 2009 (marking 50 years since Grotowski became artistic director of what would soon be known as the Laboratory Theatre, and 10 years since Grotowski's death in 1999) was declared by UNESCO the "Year of Grotowski," Fret and the institute geared up to host an unprecedented slate of international programs celebrating Grotowski's far-flung legacy [see the May/June '09 issue of American Theatre].
It was at one of these events—a two-week festival in June somewhat ostentatiously titled "The World as a Place of Truth"—that I saw performances of the three works in ZAR's repertoire, one of which, Caesarean Section, made its U.S. debut at Chicago's Millennium Park in November. This month, West Coast audiences have the chance to see all three parts of the triptych when it plays Dec. 1—3 at UCLA Live in Los Angeles. At home in Wroclaw, even in the midst of a lineup of festival productions by the likes of Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki, Pina Bausch and Christian Lupa, ZAR's work made a singular, indelible impression.
The trilogy, on which ZAR has been working since its inception, begins with a somber, ritualistic piece called Gospels of Childhood: Fragments on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, developed over the course of three years before it debuted in Brzezinka, the forested haven 25 miles northeast of Wroclaw where Grotowski once conducted his paratheatrical research. (It subsequently had a successful run in Los Angeles as part of the 2007 UCLA Live International Theatre Festival, becoming the first and only ZAR production exported from Poland prior to the current tour.) Abstract in form and dimly lit, mostly by candles, some attached to hanging wooden wheels that become glistening chandeliers, Gospels draws upon the biblical story of the burial and resurrection of Lazarus, augmented by fragments of text from Dostoyevsky and Simone Weil. Its fluid and meticulous choreography replicates acts of childbirth, suffering, washing, communal mourning; its songs and chants infuse every image with an overpowering sense of the sacred.
Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide, the second, more extravagantly theatrical segment of the trilogy, involves its seven performers in lissome feats of physical strength and endurance and adds live instruments—cello, violin, accordion, percussion—to its musical arsenal. In considering Albert Camus's famous formulation—"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide"—Caesarean Section, Fret has said, concerns "not only artistic freedom but real freedom, and the limits of your life." Its central visual motif is an illuminated river of glass that slashes across the length of the stage, around which the barefoot performers (including the remarkable Ditte Berkeley, wearing shoes on her hands), dangerously convulse and writhe, perhaps in pain, perhaps in ecstasy. With its intimations of a love triangle and its exhilarating physicality, this performance is cruel, beautiful, sometimes slyly funny and altogether inimitable.
The final segment, Anhelli: The Calling, still a work-in-progress when I saw it in Wroclaw, uses Byzantine and Sardinian hymns to pay tribute to Juliusz Slowacki, a Polish Romantic poet who journeyed to the Holy Land to write a stylized, Biblical poem (Anhelli) about possession by an angel. A deftly manipulated room-sized parachute of translucent cloth provides a phantasmagoric frame for this piece, which ends with the performers prone and silent beneath its folds (an echo, perhaps, of Grotowski's The Constant Prince, which ended with Ryszard Ciećlak in a similar posture).
Spectators' responses to these intricately detailed and passionately realized works, with their intimations of mourning and mortality, punctuated by unsettling interludes of silence and pitch-black darkness, will vary, but indifference is not an option. "This is unlike anything I've ever sat through," wrote Back Stage critic Wenzel Jones after seeing Gospels of Childhood in Los Angeles. "The audience, perhaps in thrall to the sanctified aura that's left, sits in utter silence, applause seeming too coarse a response." L.A.-based director Guy Zimmerman, a fellow guest at the Wroclaw festival, shared his impressions of Caesarean Section in a note to colleagues: "Performed with such fearless abandon the jaw drops. Humor here and there like dollops of blood. Halfway through, the ghost of Antonin Artaud shuffles in and sits next to the ghost of Grotowski in the back row, toothlessly grinning."
When we begin to catch the vibratory qualities [of an ancient song], this finds its rooting in the impulses and actions. And then, all of a sudden, that song begins to sing us. That ancient song sings me; I don't know anymore if I am finding that song or if I am that song. —Grotowski
The world of "laboratory theatre"—a term deftly defined by Italian theatre scholar Mirella Schino in Alchemists of the Stage (2009) as "a protected, separate place where it is possible to continuously explore in order to perfect one's art or craft, without having to make compromises"—stretches across the 20th century from the Moscow studios of Stanislavsky to the Odin Teatret of Eugenio Barba in Denmark to Joan Littlewood's London Theatre Workshop to the Japanese mountain retreat of Tadashi Suzuki, and even, in significant instances such as Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre, into ensemble work in the U.S. But it was Grotowski who pushed the laboratory concept farthest, into the realms of ethics, spirituality, the internal truth of the actor, "a meeting with oneself."
His well-known focus on the body as an expressive instrument is Grotowski's most evident bequest to posterity. But music—especially music retrieved from memory or from history—inspired him as well, especially in his later "theatre of sources" research. As Princeton-based theatre scholar Kathleen Cioffi has noted in her writing about Polish alternative theatre, there are a variety of groups now working in Poland that draw upon this research (conducted, ironically, largely outside their country) to combine Grotowski-inspired physicality with work on traditional or ancient songs—beginning with Wlodzimierz Staniewski's distinguished company Gardzienice, founded in 1977, where Jarosław Fret became a member at age 20 and worked for a year-and-a-half. He subsequently worked (as did his ZAR cohort Kamila Klamut) with the Wroclaw-based company Song of the Goat, another notable music-focused ensemble.
"It was Gardzienice that taught me how to approach the music, what it means to be inspired by traditional singing, and how to do your own dramaturgy related to it," says Fret, a handsome man with alert brown eyes and an unassuming manner. "Soon after coming to work there, I understood what I wanted to do."
Fret had direct access to Grotowski as well, first meeting him as a teenager in 1991 when Grotowski was presented an honorary doctorate—"I was listening to his speech in this very room at the institute," he remembers with a smile—and later assisting him organizing projects and productions. "I talked with him often, and worked with many of his collaborators. But the most important thing was watching theatre here, experiencing 'poor theatre.' Eventually this became the only work I could imagine."
It is astonishing work to watch. Rather than attempt to evoke the rarified atmosphere of ZAR's performances—which require studio-sized rooms with a limited number of spectators (in Wroclaw it was 40 or so)—let me recount (with the assistance of eloquent notes from my festival colleague Barbara Lanciers, co-director of New York City's Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf) what I saw at a lecture-demonstration that Fret and his 11-member troupe offered visitors during the course of the festival.
It began with a slide show of images from ZAR's seminal research excursions, with Fret narrating: "At a Greek Orthodox church in Tblisi, there was one choir of old men, one of boys, and one mixed"—there they are, figures seemingly out of time—"each representing a different tradition. These choirs date back to the 10th century in Georgia, and the churches even further, to the 6th century." Other images are sparer and greener, showing the Svaneti region, in the highest reaches of the Caucasus, where the homes and churches are shaped as towers. "Svaneti was our deepest meeting—it was there that we heard zar, the lamentations sung by a huge choir of men over and over for hours during funerals. We decided to name our work ZAR—not just the group but the work—as a recognition that we are just one element in an unbroken chain connecting us to our ancestors."
The oldest of the Svanetian songs, Fret explains, have archaic words and syllables that are no longer understood by the singers themselves, but continue to be performed. Many have pagan roots. "We heard a song there," he says, "whose purpose was to stop the rain, one to call forth the sun, one to send souls to heaven."
Fret calls the company forward. They are barefoot, the men in white shirts like college youths on a Sunday outing, the women in plain black or maroon shifts with dancers' body suits underneath. In semicircles or clusters, they begin to sing, avidly listening to each other's voices, sharing the polyphonies and rhythms of these mournful, yearning songs with gentle arm and body movements, conducting themselves with a focused intensity.
The songs roll from syllable to syllable, austere and thick, often with a gasp at the end of a phrase, sometimes coalescing into a shocking, piercing unity on a single note. The wall of sound fills the brick-walled studio space like liquid; then, above the aural mass, the wail of a single female voice streams high, like a bird above a storm.
The song becomes the meaning itself through the vibratory qualities; even if
one doesn't understand the words, reception
alone of the vibratory qualities is enough. —Grotowski
How does this remarkable music relate to the equally remarkable physical score in ZAR's performances? "Simply performing the songs was not enough—we went on to create movement and theatricality," Fret tells me later in an interview over coffee. "A song is like a journey, with a beginning and a destination. Parallel to the patterns of rhythm in the songs, we began to develop physical training, integrated work for physical action. Every single action must be found in the practice of singing, and only at the last phase do the two come together.
"We are all singers—first we share that. We establish relationships with one another based on patterns of breathing. When we sing, we have common feelings and perceptions—the next step is to open ourselves to actions, breathing together as one organism. The physical score is prepared out of improvisations, inspired by fragments of text, themes, perhaps poems. Putting it all together is a unique fusion of energy. The physical score acts in strong counterpoint to the music."
As absorbing as the company's physical virtuosity may be, it is sound that Fret gives pride of place. "Theatre is more than something to be seen—to be heard is more essential. First we are listeners, secondarily we are seers. Human beings are much more deeply attached to sound than to sight—even in the womb, we hear speaking, singing, vibrations. We can even see each human being as a vibration, a unique sound."
Critics have alluded to the church-like aura of ZAR's performances, but Christian symbology is not what interests Fret. "Yes, I grew up in a Christian society, a very strong Christian family. But many in ZAR are not Christians....that is not the point of our work. Meeting with these songs means meeting with people whose details and differences you respect."
Perhaps Fret's modulation of his Grotowskian inheritance amounts to a distancing from both his mentor's insistence on the heroic "holy actor" (on the laying bare of "the most intimate layers of his being and his instinct," as Grotowski put it) and from his eventual rejection of the audience, in favor of a certain communal utility in the meeting of performer and spectator. "The only task for us as human beings is to remember," Fret suggests. "Our body has its unconscious memory, and the highest means for its discovery is art."
Memory, of course, is both personal and collective. Fret mentions that his own grandfather, who died when Fret was 17, was once a funeral singer, and that the final song in Gospels of Childhood is a kind of Polish zar that moved him deeply when it was sung at his grandfather's funeral. In a darker vein, he talks broodingly about Poland herself, which lost more than 5 million citizens during World War II. "Death is close to us here—the ground beneath us is made of bones and ashes," he remarks simply, as if to validate the emphasis in his work on mourning and redemption.
Barbara Lanciers asked Fret a fundamental question—"For you, what is the purpose of theatre?"—and the answer he gave seems more empathetic than the words Growtowski might have uttered on the subject: It is, Fret said, "to fill this void or emptiness, and share not only our pain with others—because pain is the only evidence that we live—but also the feelings and experiences of living...what it means to be alive."
Jim O'Quinn's trip to Poland was supported in part by Philip Arnoult's Center for International Theatre Development.
Ludwik Flaszen and the Pragmatics of Grotowski
The legendary director's one-time partner talks about the secret politics of the Polish Laboratory Theatre
By Stephen Nunns
"I am astonished that all of this happened during my life," says the short, white-haired man, peering into his steaming cup of tea as though he expected some revelation to materialize there. "I am trying to understand it all—everything that happened."
For the past 50 years, Ludwik Flaszen has lived and worked in the shadow of his one-time friend and artistic partner, the theatre director/guru Jerzy Grotowski. While the cult of Grotowski has grown apace since his death in 1999—notably in the "art as vehicle" projects that consumed the last decade of his life and continue to be explored at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy—the 79-year-old Flaszen has been largely ignored. But, in fact, had it not been for Flaszen, a critic and dramaturg, the work of the legendary Polish Laboratory Theatre—on which Grotowski's theatrical and post-theatrical legacy is largely based—might never have happened.
Now, sitting in the offices of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw—the home of the company that created and performed the trio of works that are at the center of Grotowski's reputation (Akropolis, The Constant Prince and Apocalypsis cum Figuris)—Flaszen is attempting to set the record straight.
The Institute has braced itself for a "year of Grotowski," a series of high-profile international events marking the 10th anniversary of the director's death, which continue through the end of 2009. "There are many old people who are coming to these events," Flaszen observes with a laugh, setting his tea aside. "A lot of historians will breathe easier after we're gone, because the witnesses and participants of history are not wanted by people who write history. History is more confident the farther it gets away from the event."
Flaszen, it seems clear, is trying not only to reinsert himself into the history of Jerzy Grotowski, but into that of Poland as well.

It will be an uphill battle. Grotowski left Poland after martial law was declared in 1981, heading first to Haiti and Rome and then to the United States before finally setting up a permanent base in Italy. The director did return a couple of times to Poland, but the visits were brief, and—as Flaszen notes—"always incognito." After Grotowski died, it became known that he had designated Richards, an American, and Mario Biagini, the Italian actor and associate director of the Pontedera Workcenter, as his designated heirs. For all intents and purposes, the director had turned his back on his homeland.
In a certain sense, Grotowski had rejected his heritage long before that. By the time he left Poland, Grotowski had already brought to a close—and more or less dismissed—his "paratheatrical" stage (the semi-ritualistic, participatory events, famously described by Andre Gregory in the film My Dinner with Andre, that Grotowski oversaw in the Polish forest outside Wroclaw); he was moving into the "theatre of sources" phase, in which he tried to locate theatrical/anthropologic examples of Jung's archetypes—rituals and performances that could represent the notion of a collective unconscious. He had also embarked upon a simultaneously spiritualized and authoritarian approach to the work. Fed up with theatre, he had begun to explore more completely the intersection between performance and religion.
Grotowski made it clear that he was not religious in the traditional sense of the word. Still, there was an ascetic quality to Grotowski's post-theatrical persona, exemplified by the physical shift that took place around 1970. Gone was the chubby, chain-smoking, dark-haired dude in a black suit and Ray-Bans; he had been replaced by a gaunt, monastic figure in flowing cotton and sandals, with long hair and a scraggly beard.
And though Grotowski remained suspicious of organized religion, he read about it voraciously and dabbled in performative aspects of ritual and the occult, ultimately finding a synergy between theatre and faith, even if it was only in the fact that both were on their way out. ("The theatre and the church are dying," he declared in 1970. "Although the two phenomena are very different, in spite of some affinities, I feel that in both of them something is drawing to an end.")
This spiritual aspect of Grotowski's work and persona has, for many years, been the focus of pointed critical attention. Clearly, it was part of the image he cultivated. It was not for nothing that the critic Jan Kott referred to Grotowski as a guru and noted that he always had a copy of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim with him.
"It is religious," says Flaszen of his late colleague's worldview, "but it is without sacrament. It is about how not to be a slave to your conditions. It's not to escape reality, but to face it.
"Now," he adds, "the mystery can be shown."
Flaszen's relationship with Grotowski dates back to the mid-1950s in Kraków, where the latter was finishing up his studies at the State Theatre School. (Grotowski had gotten in by the skin of his teeth, virtually failing the performance portion of the entrance exam but acing the written essay, which addressed the question, "How can theatre contribute to the development of socialism in Poland?") Flaszen, meanwhile, had been a theatre critic and literary director of the Slowacki Theatre in Kraków. But he had lost his job, thanks to his open criticism of the government.
"In '56 there was strong opposition against the regime and against totalitarianism," Flaszen remembers. "I was the author of a pamphlet against the official culture in theatre. So, I became an outsider, a fighter against the regime. And Kraków was not my place anymore."
The '50s-era government of Władysław Gomułka was a peculiar (and very Polish) mixture of Soviet autocratic rule, Polish nationalism and vaguely liberal cultural and economic tendencies. In art, this meant a kind of constant schizophrenia: While it was officially difficult to escape the constraints of Socialist Realism, the spirit of the Polish romantic poets was never far away. And there was a grand tradition of the Polish avant-garde, exemplified by the work and theories of writers like Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.
"We were watching the beginning of the new theatre in Poland," says Flaszen. "In the period of Socialist Realism, theatre was seen as something heretic, forbidden, because it was such an autonomic art."
And its artistic ambitions were not limited to the main urban centers of Warsaw and Kraków. In early 1959, authorities in the southern city of Opole approached Flaszen to see if he was interested in taking over a small, new experimental venue called the Theatre of Thirteen Rows.
"The name was very suspicious," says Flaszen. "I told them I was indeed interested, but they needed a theatre practitioner. And I suggested Grotowski."
Flaszen knew of Grotowski mostly through his work at the theatre school. ("I was friend of his professors at the theatre academy—they wanted to drink vodka with me because I was a very serious critic.") The fact that he suggested Grotowski for the job might seem surprising, as Flaszen had recently given the young director a less-than-enthusiastic, sarcasm-laced review for a production of Uncle Vanya. "There was a risk, because people believed that he was untalented," says Flaszen. "They thought he was an erudite."
That being the case, Opole was a perfect venue for Grotowski—here the studious director would have none of the pressures of Kraków. Grotowski and Flaszen negotiated a fine financial arrangement from the Opole People's Council, and a promise of complete artistic autonomy from the city fathers in the bargain. Off the cultural radar, financially supported and with little pressure to produce traditional theatrical fare, Grotowski was free to embark on a variety of experiments, including the development of what eventually became famously known as "poor theatre."

Theories come out of practice, so it shouldn't be surprising that a notion of "poor theatre" would emerge from Poland after the Second World War. The war had devastated the country; more than five million Poles (three million of them Jews) had been killed. Most of the larger, urban areas had been leveled either by the Nazis (during such offensives as the Warsaw Uprising) or by the Soviets. After the war, the Allies betrayed the country at Yalta. And the subsequent Stalinist attempt at collectivization in Poland was such a complete economic disaster that it was actually abandoned in the mid-1950s—something unheard of in the Eastern Bloc. There were labor disputes and shortages of basic goods and services.
In Opole, while Grotowski focused on the play selection and actor training, Flaszen took over the position of literary director ("an absurd title, as our theatre was not supposed to be a theatre of words," he recollects with a laugh). "We decided to work together in secret revolt," as Flaszen puts it. "We were underground—before the revolution. We were conspirators. Of course, I'm being a little ironic. But, in fact, we did have the ambition to make a revolution in the theatre."
One of the cagier moves on the collaborators' part was to create the notion of a Laboratory Theatre (which is the name the group assumed when it left Opole for the larger, more Germanic city of Wroclaw in 1965). The idea of turning art into a scientific exploration—something conducted in a laboratory, not in a studio—fit nicely with the 1950s Cold War-era interpretation of Marx. (After all, historical materialism was supposedly scientific.) Since his theatre pieces were constantly in development, Grotowski was able to deftly avoid the kind of state censorship that other Polish artists inevitably had to contend with.
"This was the political genius of Grotowski," Flaszen avows. "The Laboratory Theatre was a country in a country. It was independent. It was like a small kingdom—like Monte Carlo. It was totally autonomous, because it was a laboratory."
Even when the Polish authorities watched a performance, the level of metaphorical content was such that it was often unclear whether that they knew what they were really looking at.
"In Grotowski's performances and in our thinking about the theatre, there were many political elements," Flaszen clarifies. "If you take The Constant Prince: The presentation of the royal court in that play was a nomenclature of the communist government. For example, the court kills the prince. But afterwards, they cry. It's like Stalinism after Krushchev. But the commentary was not clear—it was better presented as a mystical theme. Yet it was in fact an art play about independence of the individual under state oppression."
The historical and political circumstances surrounding the creation of Grotowski's art—and critiques of those circumstances—were never too far away from the work, via representations of political torture in Pedro Calderón de la Barca's The Constant Prince and Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, or the manifestation of Auschwitz's ovens (located only 60 miles away from Opole) in Stanisław Wyspianski's poetic nationalist text Akropolis.
It had been less than a decade earlier that Grotowski had embarked on what one critic referred to as "a short but tempestuous adventure" of political activism, joining the Central Committee of Socialist Youth Movement and founding an academic outreach of the Union of Soviet Youth. He even went as far as to write at the time: "We want an organization that will teach people to think politically, to understand their interests, to fight for bread and democracy and for justice and truth in everyday life. We must fight for people to live like humans and to be masters of their fate."
For his efforts, Grotowski was brought before the Kraków authorities to explain his political activities. By all accounts, the questioning did not go well, though the authorities released him with a warning. He would later be dismissive of this period of his life ("I was so fascinated by Gandhi that I wanted to be him"), but the lesson of the cost of forthrightness was not lost on Grotowski; from then on, the director's viewpoints on Poland and her politics would be couched in metaphor, performance and poetry.
"Of course the performances were political," Flaszen confirms, "but we never talked about this. For him, real politics was the basis for personal liberation. It was a little Gnostic—it was about how to be free from politics but at the same time not escape from it. It was a spirit of fighting for the freedom of a single human being.
"Grotowski's passion was to know how to be alone," he adds, "how not to be an institutional man, a man of the masses. How not to follow of religion or ideology. But also not to lose the warmth of human community—even while being alone. That is a revolution without end. It is a process. And it never ends."
Now, as our hour-and-a-half interview wraps up, the tea Flaszen set aside is cold, and the current director of the Grotowski Institute, a robust young director named Jarosław Fret, helps the older man on with his coat. Fret treats Flaszen with deference and respect; it's an acknowledgement that the Institute, the "year of Grotowski" and perhaps even a big part of Polish theatre as we know it would not be in existence if it weren't for Flaszen's decision 50 years ago to establish a partnership with a young, bookish theatre director in a provincial Polish town.
"I'm very interested in what would have been if I hadn't met Grotowski—and where I would have been?" Flaszen wonders out loud as he wraps a natty yellow scarf around his neck. "When I am on the other side, I hope that Grotowski and I will speak of this.
"But," he adds, "I'm not in a hurry."
Stephen Nunns is the director of the graduate acting program at Towson University in Baltimore, Md., and a former staff writer for this magazin

Lying and Creativity

Lying and Creativity

  This post on Confabulation really hit home for me.

As an acting teacher, the need for actors to inhibit inhibition is primary.  Acting is in many ways confabulation. The actor must believe fully in her "lie" and be able to repress her own personal "reality" in order to reveal a deeper "truth."  We train bodies and voices relentlessly in order to allow the expression of these confabulations to emerge.  As Ian said, the artist must be both expert and child.

While in the past, acting was considered to be interpretative rather than creative, we now have a different understanding and different training methods. This new idea probably emerged with the advent of film and television.  The public simply wouldn't accept the presentational approaches used over the centuries.  The close-up dictated a new more penetrating way of watching actors. 

There is a stronger need therefore,  for the actor not to be seen "lying."  The need for "personalization" becomes more important than "characterization" as a goal. 

For this to happen, the actor must be able to marry script with improvisation, the formal with the impulsive, in the same way the jazz musician acknowledges the main score and creates around and in response to it.  

Oddly enough, as this more personal approach grows deeper, the meanings of the work become more universal.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Evolution/religion: an Integrative View of Nature, Faith and the Human Mind

Evolution/religion: an Integrative View of Nature, Faith and the Human Mind

November 29th, 2009 by Admin Leave a reply » Evolution/Religion

An Integrative Look at Nature, Faith and the Human Mind

By Robert DePaolo

Freud once described history as a series of race wars, implying that bigotry is and always has been tantamount to a non-malleable virus infecting all of human society

It is a debatable point. Detractors might say mankind can and typically has learned his way out of racial bias as a result of exposure to, interaction with, and dependence on people of other races. For example in recent times the population of blacks and other racial minorities has increased in western nations, providing support in war and industry and enhancing the national spirit in the arts, athletics and literature.

On the other hand, adherents might contend that built into the human genetic code is an equally non-malleable tendency to protect and preserve the local gene pool, and that stranger-hostility is quite characteristic of all primate groups – including homo sapiens.

Some studies seem to support that view, in particular the work of Wilson & Wrangham, (2003). Their results coincide with a main tenet of evolutionary psychology that primitive behaviors devoted to gene pool preservation will take priority over the egalitarian philosophy framing the rules of social interaction in most democratic societies.

In terms of human experience, “strangeness” does not have to be based on race. It can be based on language differences, ethnic background, gender and any number of real and superficial distinctions. It’s just that the physical differences among races makes the process of discriminating between “us” and “them” rather perceptually and emotionally convenient.

Even with distinctive racial traits, “stranger bias” is hardly inevitable. It seems to be merely one of two options provided by the human brain. As Perry, (2008) and Cromwell & Schultz (2003) have suggested, the sheer size of the brain, particularly in the vast regions of the cerebral cortex (a section less influenced by primal urges and more concerned with learning and integrating new associations and concepts) provides a check and balance on our most basal instincts. Indeed Freud’s theory regarding the separation of the ego from the id for impulse control might have its physiological correlate in the frontal cortex.

In that context perhaps, despite Freud, it is not race, but the human capacity to over-distinguish between objects and persons that comprises the true sociopolitical virus. In truth that process, often referred to as discrimination learning, is more of a two sided coin than a virus because when it comes to drawing distinctions, that component of mind can employed for better or for worse; for example to chart the course of history, politics and scientific discovery, leading either to progress or social devolution.

That all good and bad, productive and destructive elements in society emanate from the human mind is a tautology requiring no further elaboration. On the other hand the way in which the human mind works does invite scrutiny, because the mind/brain is a flexible structure by virtue of its genetic and functional make-up, which can lead to any number of behavioral and attitudinal possibilities. In fact, as Mercado (2008) has suggested, the human brain appears to be a kind of bimodal organ constantly shifting between discriminatory and integrative cognitive processes.

Since human brain evolution occurred in the context of an arboreal lifestyle requiring integrative perception, a capacity for figure-ground (stereoscopic) visual distinctions and internal memory to correct for visual and acoustical vagaries in the trees, it tends to bring ideas together into common focus. In that sense the primate brain template provided us with a penchant for integrative thought. On the other hand the latest primate brain revision providing new circuits to facilitate upright walking seems to have led to a bifurcated human mind, featuring a left-right motor cadence requiring separate inhibition-excitation sequences. This process was converted to other functions and led to an enhancement of discrimination and attention capacities. While all creatures can learn to distinguish between stimuli, the finely tuned alternating/competing capacities to separate and integrate experiences appears to play a significant role in th development of both the personality and human culture.

One can see the bimodal mind in action in virtually all human endeavors. For example the ability to put circuit A on hold while circuit B is activated enables the Eskimo not only to walk upright but to describe 12 different kinds of snow. Meanwhile the fact that humans can weave experiences together enables the rest of us to understand that snow consists of one chemically configuration and is simply water at a different state of temperature.

Thus we seem to shift back and forth between convergence and divergence in our actions, thoughts, beliefs and prayers and perhaps the course of human history is partly determined by which of those two trends is emphasized and championed by society at any given time.

It clearly has played a role in American politics. For example the evolution of the political parties has been part real and part illusory – the need for group distinctions often overriding the practicalities of “the party philosophy.” Despite its origin in Jefferson’s democratic-republican party, which favored agriculture over industry and (as evidenced in Jefferson’s letters on moral principles) held to the possibility that agnosticism and morality were not mutually exclusive, the current Republican party has adopted a fairly vigorous religious mindset and champions the cause of industry. Meanwhile Democrats…Dixiecrats, who in earlier times became a collective albatross around the neck of voting rights now claim to be the only party truly sensitive to the plight of minorities. The fact that the members of both parties compete fervently during elections based on ostensibly clear choices in policy and legacy seems to indicate that discriminatory thought for its own sake has prevailed in recent times.

If unnecessary group distinctions have proved to be a mild impediment to the evolution of American society (as accurately predicted by James Madison and Voltaire) such artificial distinctions have been insidious among the so-called major religions.

Depending one what mind-mode is in play, one could assert either that there are no meaningful distinctions among the beliefs of Jews, Christians and Moslems – making several thousand years of hostility seem unnecessary, not to mention foolish, or that the contrasts are so substantial that disputes over territory and doctrine would have been unavoidable in any case.

The integrative part of mind might angle in on the fact that the three faiths have virtually identical moral premises. For example in reading the Bible and the Qur’an one could conclude that the Ten Commandments are a staple of all three religions. While the Christian and Jewish interpretations involve slightly different wording, all ten laws are morally and functionally identical in both instances. For example the first item in both interpretations refers to placing “No Other God Before Me.” Interestingly both the Christian and Judaic versions, derived from Exodus and Deuteronomy, allude to the fact that loyalty is God’s due for having “brought the people out of the land of Egypt.” The individuals involved in that episode; Moses, Aaron et al. were of course thoroughly Hebrew, and despite their resentment-fueled drift toward pagan worship in the desert, they had no real interest in modifying the Jewish faith, as had Jesus.

Yet over time a common belief system and way of life gave way to the distinction-seeking circuits, leading to persecution of Jews who despite having different rituals, held essentially the same beliefs as the Christians who persecuted them.

The one salient distinction between Judaism and Christianity was of course Jesus’ claim to be God (if indeed that was his claim) which most Jews during the Common Era would have considered blasphemous. Yet even that distinction is somewhat dubious, since Jesus often alluded to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as being in effect, his role models. He pointed out that they too had ascended into heaven, were reborn, and transcended the usual limits of mortality. During the Common Era most Jews held similar views of the higher prophets – and certainly of David.

Even more interesting, in light of the mind’s propensity for integrating and discriminating, are the similarities between Islam and the Judeo-Christian ethic. It is commonly known that the Islamic prophets are, by and large, the same men and women worshipped by Jews and Christians. For example Moslems adhere to the words and deeds of Abraham – whom they call “Ibrahim.” They consider Jesus, whom they call “Eisa al-Masseh” a prophet. They honor the legacies of Moses, whom they call “Musa,” Noah, whom they call “Nuh”, and Isaac, whom they call “Ishak,” and they seem to hold Mary, the mother of Jesus (Maryam in Arabic) in even higher regard than either Christians or Jews.

Despite no direct allusion to the Ten Commandments in the Qur’an Moslems also adhere to the Decalogue, albeit with a few minor revisions. For instance, in “Al-Israa” (The Night Journey) The Qur’an (47:19) states: “There is no other god beside God.” In 14:35 it says: “My Lord, make this a peaceful land and protect me and my children from worshipping idols.” There are also references to not taking the Lord’s name in vain, adhering to the Sabath (though on Friday), honoring one’s parents, abstaining from adultery, murder and theft and from coveting thy neighbor’s wife and bearing false witness.

One possible distinction between the Bible and the Qur’an might be seen in a slightly different wording of one of the commandments. While the Old Testament says: “thou shalt not kill” the Qur’an says in 17: 33: “Do not kill unjustly.”

Could this subtle difference justify the current nihilistic mindset of Islamic extremists intent for so long on exterminating Israelis and infidels in the west? It seems unlikely, especially since some Biblical scholars maintain that in the Old Testament a similar distinction between murdering and killing is implied as well – the argument being that Jews also believed it was occasionally necessary to kill for purposes of self defense and tribal preservation.

With that in mind perhaps history is less a function of time and place than of mind. The Crusades, the current conflict in the Middle East, the war on terror merely a series of plays in the theater of life, staged not by the actors, as Shakespeare maintained, but by a calcium, protein, myelin, water and information containing vessel known as the human brain, during times when the discriminatory aspect of mind took center stage.

A Thousand Years Later…

While the conflict among Christians, Jews and Moslems has continued in modern times we also have an increasingly contentious dispute between proponents of evolution and people of faith. Once again, the question could be asked as to whether this is a real or anthropocentric distinction, and whether, as with The Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an, the similarities outweigh the differences.

I would like to suggest such a possibility, and do so by drawing comparisons between the Decalogue, Al-Israa and the theory of natural selection.

One integrative idea is that the biological mandate revolving around the survival of both the individual and the group, seems to be in agreement with the laws inherent in these religious texts. In order to understand how merely requires a narrowing down and re-categorizating of the commandments into two main bio-moral laws. One espousing altruistic (social, survival enhancing) behaviors or restraints, the other devoted to creating a hierarchical, regulatory structure by which these behaviors and restraints can be prompted and governed over the course of time.

To elaborate; group survival, and by inference, protection of the local gene pool, require cohesion among members. The same cooperative behaviors observed in a pack of lionesses and wolves that enhance survival are also beneficial to human beings. With laws prohibiting theft, murder, adultery and coveting, interpersonal conflict is ameliorated, thus enhancing group cohesion. That dynamic leads to a stronger esprit de corps among members, giving impetus to behaviors that provide for the strong and give shelter to the weak, especially with regard to the protection and care off offspring.

In a bio-moral sense, the Bible and Qur’an are ingenious texts, particularly with respect to one characteristic that typifies all primate groups – the alpha male/female phenomenon. While dominance is often viewed as a bad thing – particularly by those living in a democratic society, it actually works in the primate world. Dominant males protect the members of the group and maintain order by issuing unilateral decisions which are the final word on conflict resolution. The reason this works is based on information dynamics. If all members of a group had equal status and conflict arose, say over territory, there would be no foundation by which to alleviate the conflict other than by mutual destruction. Genetically speaking, that would be an unfortunate trend. Since each member would presume to have equal claim to the territory the only possible endpoint would be a bloody victory by one party over another.

Interestingly, the way this might play out is by one member lining up more supporters than his rivals, thus giving him a numbers advantage in the course of battle. At the point where he emerged victorious, the fact that he had many followers would make him by

definition, a leader – thus setting up a hierarchy in any event. Consequently, in the primate world and perhaps in the mammalian world per se, hierarchies not only work but are perhaps an inevitable by product of socio-mathematics

The problem with humans is that while we also tend toward hierarchies (witness our worship of movie stars, athletes and musicians) we also have a more egalitarian outlook that is perhaps itself a byproduct of human evolution. It results from the fact that our large brains can conjure up so many tools, inventions, artistic configurations and ideas that no single alpha male or female can be sufficient. Thus our species seems to require many alphas.

That creates a potential moral dilemma. Specifically, if power is compartmentalized so that certain individuals protect us from certain hazards but not others – for example a police officer vs. a heart surgeon – there is no overriding arbiter to protect us from broader existential problems or problems that no single person can solve. Beyond that, the powerful can themselves conflict, such that a Brutus can assassinate a Caesar. In such circumstances who then has absolute, overriding authority? Who can decide on matters of conflict and prescribe behaviors and values for all, amidst this broad dispersion of power? Even if abstract laws become the objective solution, there would have to be someone to create and enforce those laws. In other words the combination of inevitable social conflict and the survival-based need for social equanimity in complex human society would perhaps invariably require a transcendent “referee.”

Thus carried to its logical endpoint, the evolution of the human brain from a hierarchy-based and less egalitarian primate brain would inexorably lead to a belief in and need for God.

At face value this conclusion might upset both religious adherents and atheists: the former because it takes God from the spiritual to the bio-natural domain, the latter because it suggests we will never reach a point in our social evolution where we can abandon a belief in some type of God.

Actually neither group need fret over this set of possibilities. First, because it is impossible to know whether natural selection runs contrary to God’s plan or whether perhaps God, in his wisdom has simply given us laws that coincide with the nature He also created which happen to favor survival of the only species capable of religious thought. To suggest there is an inherent incongruence between the idea of a God and the theory of natural selection would be to suggest that God wants us to act in ways that don’t coincide with a world He himself created.

As for the atheists, perhaps nature is all there is. Yet even if that were true, nature would require a lawful foundation, a grounding point by which matter and energy could have formed within the hot, formless plasma known as the cosmic egg. In other words whether or not one believes in a creator, it is difficult to conceive of a universe that began or transitioned from the size of a pin to its current expanse not undergoing some sort of creation process. Even if God doesn’t exist in quite human form, a tenet to which many religions (including arguably Christianity – which views God as a triad consisting of at least two ethereal beings) have always adhered. Does that mean that some overriding regulatory, creative alpha-component (say for example a superstring or particle constant that one day might be called the “El” particle) doesn’t exist and cannot work its wonders by transcending the rest of nature? I suppose it would depend on which part of our brain was in play at any given point in time.


Cromwell, & Schultz (2003) Effects of Expectations for Differential Reward Magnitude

on Neuronal Activity in Primate Striatum. Journal of Neurophysiology 89: 2823-2838

Freud, S. (1960) The Einstein-Freud Correspondence; From; Einstein on Peace O.H Nathan & H, Norden (ed) New York; Schocken Books 186-203.

Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, Research and Collections, Montecello Research Dept. Aug 2007

Mercado, E (2008) Neural and Cognitive Plasticity: From Maps to Minds. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 134, No. 1 109-137.

Perry, B. (2008) Aggression and Violence: The Neurology of Experience. 1-2.

Qur’an: 47:19

Qur’an: 14:35

Qur’an: 17:33

Wilson, M. & R. Wrangham. (2003) Inter-group Relations in Chimpanzees. American Review of Anthropology 32: 363-392

By: Robert DePaolo

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Myth, Stanislavski and Mirror Neurons

"Art is the clothing of a revelation
." Joseph Campbell.

“Truth in the theatre must be genuine, not glamorized. It must be purged of unnecessary, mundane details. It must be true in a realistic sense but made poetic by creative ideas.” Konstantin Stanislavski

“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form they are variants of archetypal ideas created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.”
Joseph Campbell

Abstract: Stanislavski intuited human truths that scientists are still grappling to describe. Recently scientists have begun to prove what Stanislavski discovered without the aids of fMRI machines or advanced chemistry. This paper is an attempt to describe my own wrestling with neuroscience and mythology; ideas to which I believe he would have been attracted, .

As a passionate theatre practitioner, I believe that the most fundamental use of our ancient art form is the reconciliation of humanity with itself, with the gods, and therefore with the natural and metaphysical world. Theatre, for me, is not necessarily what happens in a designated performing space; it occurs whenever an “actor” and an “audience” willingly appear. This coming-together-spilt, this dualism, exists for a certain amount of time, and when it disappears the two parts leave each other altered as a result of the encounter.

The quality of live theatre involves a sensual, nearly fleshly exchange between the spectators and the actors. Whether behind masks as for the ancients, or behind grease paint, or naked-faced, actors exist biologically in the same space as the audience but separate from it. As the brilliant British director and acting theoretician Declan Donnellan says, “A theatre is not only a literal space, but also a place where we dream together; not merely a building but a space that is both imaginative and collective”. (Donnellan, 2006)

This very fact, that audiences and actors encounter dreams in a shared space, means that the perceptions of the audience are capable of actual physical involvement with the play itself. They could, if provoked, storm the stage and take over, or depending on the size of the house, they might be able to grab the apple the actor is eating. Luckily for most actors, the audience is content to watch and vicariously experience eating the apple. Theatre practitioners have always known that the audience is in someway moved and affected by the actions of the characters passing before them. The idea of catharsis implies cleansing, in which tears and laughter are physiological responses. However, there are less obvious responses that we actors and audiences have always been aware of that go beyond these outward shows. Stanislavski, when speaking to actors, remarked on an energy that seemed to pass between people in the following quote.
“. . .Haven’t you ever been aware, in life or onstage, when in communication with other people, of a current emanating from your will flowing through your eyes, your fingertips, your skin? What shall we call this method of communication? Emitting and receiving rays, signals? Radiating out and radiating in? In the absence of an alternative terminology let us stick with these words since they illustrate very clearly the kind of communication I have to talk to you about. In the near future, when this invisible current has been studied by science, a more appropriate terminology will be established.” (Stanislavski, 2008)

In his search to find natural and scientific ways of looking at acting, Stanislavski predicted the findings encountered in a laboratory in Parma, Italy in 1996 by a team of neurophysiologists. This team was studying the brain responses of Macaque monkeys when grasping objects with their hands.

“ . . . the neurophysiologist, Vittorio Gallese was moving around the lab during a lull in the day’s experiment. A monkey was sitting quietly in the chair, waiting for her next assignment. Suddenly, just as Vittorio reached for something--he does not remember what--he heard a burst of activity from the computer that was connected to the electrodes that had been surgically implanted in the monkey’s brain . . .Vittorio immediately thought the reaction was strange. The monkey was just sitting quietly, not intending to grasp anything, yet this neuron affiliated with the grasping action had fired nevertheless.” (Iacoboni, 2008)

What this meant was undeniable; the idea that monkey see, monkey do “virtually” is true. The monkey was observing and experiencing what the researcher was doing and responding to it biologically. These neurons are now referred to as mirror neurons (MNs).
Since this discovery much effort has been put into examining the human implications of this phenomenon. Researchers have recently confirmed that the same neurons exist in people and are spread widely across the brain. (James M. Kilner, 2009) There still exist many questions concerning the limits of MNs. We know that they are closely related physiologically to Broca’s area, the central area for speech production and language understanding in the brain, but we don’t yet know if this positioning has any relevance. Scientists also hypothesize that this system of neurons is responsible for a more complex emotional empathy and recognition of emotional states in others. (Ramachandran, 2007) However, given the simplest understanding of mirror neuronal activity, we can say that while the audience member doesn’t grab the apple, in a sense his body does. The same signals are sent to the same muscles the actor uses to grab the apple. What prevents the audience from charging the stage for the food is a shut-off valve in the spinal cord that knows the difference between virtual and actual. (James M. Kilner, 2009)
Furthermore, these mirror neurons are excited not only by the action, but also by intention. (Ramachandran, 2007) The viewer’s body fires as he observes the intention, before the action is fully completed. Without seeing intention, the viewer remains as passive as the person sitting by the apple or the monkey in the cage; it is only when the actor intends to pick up the apple that the chemically-electrically charged neurons explode. Studies have also shown the likelihood of the same sorts of involuntary brain responses to sounds and primal facial expressions. Once again, the more familiar the action, the more likely it is to light up our circuits.

What all of this indicates is that we as humans respond physiologically to familiar situations that because of their familiarity have the power to engage us on a bio-chemical level. Is this physiological connection to another, this “sparking” of each other as it were, the thing that actors and audiences sense in the air? Of course there are other physiological responses besides actions and intentions that contribute: the thrill of the sounds of language, lights, colors, music; all processed differently in the brain. But neuroscientists are beginning to hypothesize that MNs are the site of emotional empathy and, like the muscular response, the chemical response to another’s pain or pleasure is also “virtually” experienced in the body of the viewer. (Ramachandran, 2007)

With this in mind, the concept of separate selves begins to depart, and a communal experience begins, everyone firing neurons, some more brightly and some less, depending on their world experience. The selves of the audience begin to dissolve and an expansion of possibility begins. (Bulinska, 2007)
In accepting his Oscar, the actor, Forest Whitaker said:
“. . . when I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone--to that thing inside each of us. That light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep, that we feel it. And through our combined belief, we can create a new reality.” (Biilington, 2007)

The theatre, sport, and religion all become a means for us to re-visit cast off dreams, innate heroic possibilities and other selves that we left behind in childhood; to be re-united with a half-remembered potential if only for a while. The left-behind others about whom I speak, include not only our mourned-for frail other-selves, but all of the strong, single-minded appetites and values on which we might have built alternative lives and identities, the tyrants, the pedants, the seekers of truth, the mischief makers, the athletes, the saints, the hedonists, the builders, the martyrs, the torturers, the dancers, the executioners, the sensualists, the explorers, the madonnas, the gluttons, the criminals, the lovers. They include the lions and tigers and monkeys and snakes and eagles and elephants and coyotes and dogs we could have been.

These qualities of ravenous need and curiosity emerge from our bodies and our survival instincts; however civilization has tamed these potentially harmful impulses. Our bodies continue to experience these desires for action, but our need to remain safe, protects us from anarchy. The MN activity must suffice for us. The archetypes familiar to us from the legends of many cultures are hardwired and given faces in our unconscious world. The names we give to these gods/archetypes/heroes vary depending on issues of geography and economy.

In his search for the underlying principles of mythology, Joseph Campbell agrees with Carl Jung that myth was an outcropping of such dreams; dreams formed involuntarily by the sleeping brain. Campbell’s discovery that the symbols in dreams were universal led to his belief in the collective unconscious.

“Carl Jung describes archetypes as innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Being universal and innate, their influence can be detected in the form of myths, symbols, rituals and instincts of human beings. Archetypes are components of the collective unconscious and serve to organize, direct and inform human thought and behaviour.” (Campbell 1972)

An archetype can therefore be understood as the embodiment of a natural power, either animal, human, or some variation therein. As with all power, if the source of the energy is not able to be experienced in a sensory way, it does not appear to be present. We as humans seek ways to envision these emanations through stories and characters wherein the powers collide and intermingle. We need to find a container for these explosions, a human way of envisioning non-embodied energies. For me, these are the archetypes most useful to actors. The stories that emerge are what we refer to as myths. For the power of the myth and its attendant archetypes to be of use to society, rituals are created as needed by a given community to either assuage or contain energies that might destroy the group if left to their own devices. Mircea Eliade’s main concept is that ritual is a way for a given society to move safely from one disruption of the group’s wholeness to another. (Eliade,1963)

Religion and theatre provide spaces for a communal unification to happen in an actual and a metaphoric way. Both are ways to connect physically, intellectually, and emotionally with our culturally defined archetypes alongside other equally disconnected humans. The rituals performed by the actors and priests with their music, movement, and words serve to unite us with the powerful symbols of our archetypes, and aid in acceptance of the helpful and rejection of the hurtful. The rituals repeat symbolically the old stories, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. Often the metaphor is lost to the participant, but there is still comfort in its very being, because the meaning takes place in his musculature. The MNs fire, the images impress, the music is heard.

If we see the ritual as a journey from one point to another wherein a human being/hero confronts powers that are externalized in the ritual through symbols as well as other beings, both human and quasi-human, it becomes apparent that a play is a ritual for the audience whether sought as such or not. Joseph Campbell has codified this transformation as “The Hero’s Journey.”
Both theatre and religion repeat the old stories; that is a major part of their ritual function, but only the theatre intends to irritate us with new questions about the old stories. Even when it has no political or sociological ax to grind, its function, besides ritual, is that of investigation into what makes us human and how to interpret the world around us.

The actors, who are already initiated into the mystery of the play, must lead the audience through this ritual terrain. As the audience views the journey, their mirror neurons and entire sensory system must become so excited through the actor’s actions in these confrontations that they are re-united with themselves and altered in some way. They must be taken to a place of unity. James Joyce’s concept that the spectator must be arrested, must lose a sense of self in the presence of “proper art,” is an attempt to describe this phenomenon. (Joyce, 1916)
There are a finite number of stories. I am aware that there are only thirty-six plots, or twelve, or four depending on your reference. (Polti, 1917, McKee, 1997) If one also understands that there are only six or seven essential relationships based in kinship and community, one can easily see that (given some arithmetic beyond my capabilities) all the new scripts are simply eternal themes and heroes dressed in contemporary clothing.

As a trainer of actors, this brings up many questions.
(1) How can we best enable actors to take the audience along with them on the journey of the play?
(2) How can we enable actors to discover the powers within themselves necessary to work on an embodied level of such strength and commitment to primal action that not only their fellow actors, but also their viewers will be moved on a biological level?

(3) How can we best provoke our actors to move beyond the temporal trappings of the story to find the power of the myth beneath?

It goes without saying that such actors must be vocally and physically flexible, strong and imaginative within those systems. However, we frequently neglect to create actors who are large enough imaginatively, intellectually, and spiritually to take on such a task. In fact, we have conflated the idea that an actor “shouldn’t be in his head” with a rejection of the need for curiosity and intellectual exploration. How can we re-awaken ourselves, and our students in order to re-examine what we mean by the word Theatre?

In my attempt to find a way to a theatre that matters on a universal level, peopled by actors whose work is selfless and inspiring, I have greedily searched the works of any serious writer who addresses myth, ritual, philosophy, acting, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and anthropology. Among these are Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, Richard Schechner, Leonard Shlain, Ernest Becker, Jerzy Grotowski, Antonin Artaud, Declan Donnellan, Victor Turner, Karen Armstrong, Konstantin Stanislavski, Carl Jung, Francisco Varela, Antonio Damasio, Marco Iacoboni, Evan Thompson, Bill Ball, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Michael Gazzaniga and many, many others.

My hypothesis is that our mirror neurons are more excited by intentions that are corporeal, primal, and emotionally imbued. We have a good deal of evidence that MNs respond to emotional states and for me the purest forms of these emotionally charged actions are contained in myth, archetype, and ritual.

In order to test this idea I decided to begin at the beginning and attempt to discover how this might work for actors. If the world begins in chaos, if human development is an attempt to tame wildness both within and without, it seemed appropriate to thrust my students into chaos. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's flow theory of creativity and learning suggests that the process of learning proceeds from frustration to mastery to boredom and thence onto further frustration. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) Frustration from this point of view can be seen as chaos and so, at the top of the syllabus for this class, I include the following:
The flow of learning proceeds from frustration to mastery to boredom and back to frustration in a continual upward moving spiral encompassing greater and greater circumference. Frustration therefore is to be desired and mastery should be considered a transitory state. The circumference encircles more and more of the world of ideas and spiritual understandings in the dance of consciousness. Welcome! (Brody 2005)

I challenge myself to allow this frustration, even when it results in complaint, confusion, pouting, and general grumpiness amongst the acting students. My objective is to provoke the aspiring artists to rely on each other and their own ingenuity to create whatever pieces they are working on.

In order to prepare them for what is coming in the first and most important quarter of this year-long acting class, all students are notified during the summer that they are expected to read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell) and Peter Pan (Barrie). I strongly encourage them to attempt Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (Becker) as well. While many academics may find this easy reading, it is not considered so by the actors, it is frustrating. By being forced to grapple with material that seems to be just out of their reach, they come into the first quarter excited and popping with ideas and questions.

We spend the first several weeks simply discussing mythology, heroes, archetypes, Freud, religion, symbols, as well as the ways in which dramatic structures do or do not follow the hero’s journey as delineated by Campbell. I contribute data from neuroscience, biology, psychology, and anthropology using articles and readings concerning memory formation, image creation, and mirror neurons. We investigate the differences between female and male journeys and debate whether these journeys were a result of biological determinism or social constructs. And of course, Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, Christ, Buddha, and others begin to enter our conversations. My focus during this time is to challenge their imaginations, to expand their view of themselves as intellectual beings, and to begin to create a synthesis between practical acting work, neuroscience, and universal ideas. The actors begin to feel proud of themselves for tackling such supposedly difficult topics, they begin to look for more answers, some branching out into different inquiries. One student who had broken away from a fundamentalist black church decided to investigate the idea of ecstatic states as revealed in talking in tongues. Another became fascinated with the ideas of sex and death. It is not uncommon for the students to read Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni, return to the The Denial of Death, read widely in more widely in philosophy and mythology. Some become genealogists.

The first assignment of the quarter is to create a seven-minute solo performance piece using as many theatrical forms as possible, music, dancing, mimicry, simple props, costume, and spatial placements. The actors are instructed that the story must be told theatrically, not as a direct narrative, and that whatever the story is, it needs to be seen as one of the stops in a hero’s journey. It has to be based on a family legend using their own grandparents or other ancestors. It involves examining how such stories become a part of family lore, how they shift and change through retelling, how the actual event becomes lost in the elevation of its meaning, and how the ancestor becomes a representative of a family archetype. In addition to challenging/frustrating the actors, my objective is for the actors to understand on a personal level how myths and archetypes, that heretofore have seemed a distant, dead idea lodged in the Greek Pantheon, are ever-present in our lives.

These small pieces are usually interesting glimpses into the actors and their processes. They create a wonderful teaching opportunity to discuss structure, clarity, physical and vocal flexibility, importance of specific choices, and ways in which conflict is necessary for growth. The only critique given involves whether the actor did or did not communicate what they intended. The class is asked to examine whether they felt involved biologically/neuronally/emotionally or whether their attention had wandered. Were they aware of subtle physiological changes in their own bodies? I avoid speaking about the piece myself, preferring to wait until the other students in the class speak about the work. The performer was not allowed to verbalize until after his classmates had tried to wrangle out the meaning amongst themselves of what they just witnessed. This discussion allows the performer to hear what the audience saw and felt without defending or explaining the work. He or she begins to understand the necessity for fulfilled, intended gestures both psychological and physical, and for the absolute requirement of a clean demarcation of events. The performers also begin to develop a healthy respect for the audience’s attempt to attach meaning to whatever movement, prop, costume, or set piece is on the stage.

We do not repeat these pieces because I don’t want them to take on too much importance for the actors. They are etudes where hopefully learning takes place for both viewer and actor without the pressure of judgmental evaluation. They are ways for the actor to begin to contemplate his or her part in a large story.

From here we move on to Peter Pan. (Barrie, 1992) The reason for using this supposed child’s story is to employ the range of archetypal characters, to play with the idea of dreamscapes, and to examine the concept that the basis of all relationships are grounded in the conflict between order (Wendy) and chaos (Peter). Within Peter Pan we examine the significance of earth versus sky, water versus land, inside versus outside, male versus female, natural versus civilized, child versus adult, animal versus human, and many, many other binary ideas. At this time, I usually introduce Babylonian creation stories, androgynous gods, Jungian ideas of anima and animus and dream symbolism.

My challenge to the class is to create and enact one scene from Peter Pan in twenty minutes with whatever props or attire is present in the studio. (I usually sprinkle the room with things for them to find, scraps of material, bags, canes, balls, ropes, nets, old costumes and so forth). I leave the room and go to my office. (By some report, this twenty minutes is probably the most frustrating of all for the students). What on earth do I want them to do? What am I looking for? How could they do this well? When I return, the actors have for the most part given up the desire to please me. They have decided to simply present their story, and have formed a pact to do whatever is necessary for this bizarre assignment. However, they are also excited and turned on by the group’s creation. Once again, my aim in this exercise is to reawaken a spirit of play with the pressure of time serving to necessitate structure. They present their muddled but passionate rendition of the story, and after praising the attempt, I ask questions of intent and meaning. What did they want me to see, or understand, or feel? What powers/archetypes are present in the scene? What rituals? How did they process what the others were doing? Might the archetypes in the scene be clearer, fuller, more primal? Who exactly are the mermaids? Who are the pirates? What is the water? What is the boat? How is this related to dreams? It takes a bit of probing and encouraging, but sooner or later, their imaginations begin to bring forth better and more interesting ideas. (Ball, 1984) As soon as I sense excitement and desire to do the scene again, I absent myself once more, giving them thirty minutes to work on the project. And so it goes. The work becomes deeper, less clever, and cleaner as the actors search for better ways of telling the story. Participation in the group becomes stronger and the desire to create theatre can be palpable. The actors begin experimenting with stereotypes and more meaningful archetypes, they include more dancing and singing and the presentation becomes less predictable.

The next class is an attempt to tell the entire Peter Pan story without the script. For this to happen, we use a titled scenario list, which I have created based on the scenes in the play. I e-mailed it to them separately the evening before and it is either written on the blackboard or near at hand in the room. I give them an hour to work out whatever they deem necessary and return to view their attempt. These scenes are never graded or appraised as products; they are a means of embracing chaos, impulse, instinct, feeling in the dark, jumping off cliffs, and a certain kind of sloppiness. It might be said that this recklessness encourages failure, but when success is not an aim, failure is not a possible result.

By this time in the quarter, the actors are generally having a wonderful time, but are beginning to feel confused. What is the result of our work going to be, is our time being well used, shouldn’t we be memorizing lines and blocking yet? It is a delicate time for all of us. For me it is a leap of faith. I have to trust that my theory is somehow correct, and they have to bear the frustration of open-ended work.

It is at this time that we move toward scripted scenes as delicately as possible. We begin a process scenes that has been given the name SuperScenes by my students. A SuperScene reveals the primal energies, archetypes, and essential conflicts that underlie any scene. It is an attempt to investigate the scene beyond its temporal elements, beyond the "characterized" elements and plot-based ideas, and into the universal questions, energies, conflicts, and archetypes that are the original patterns for all scenes.
As V.S. Ramachadran says, “Art involves distortion, hyperbole and exaggeration... A specific type of distortion... Sanscrit word rasa, the spirit of something, the soul of something, capturing the very essence to evoke a specific emotion in the viewers brain.”(Ramachandran, 2001)

They have all read and discussed Angels In America, Part Two: Perestroika (Kushner, 1992) not only for this class, but in their history and criticism class. The territory has been covered, so the actors feel a bit more settled. The scenes I choose to use are are Prior’s first confrontation with the Angel, the subsequent conversation with Belize, and the angel committee scene in act four, scene five. All members of the class are involved.

The angel committee scene is especially ornery and in the preface to one of the three published versions of the play. But it offers the ability to work as a quasi-chorus, to experiment with archetypes, and to move beyond literalism and into metaphor. Who are these angels? What is this scene about? Where is it set? What is at stake? Kushner offers few hints, but as a poet, the clues he leaves are creatively rich.
The work now turns from entirely improvisational to textual. The actors use the lines of the script, although during the early days of these explorations they are allowed to riff into song or quotation if the desire arises. The rest is up to their imaginations; they are responsible for deciding upon the archetypes and how they will enact them. They decide where the scene takes place. They are encouraged to fully enact any metaphor that emerges. They are not required to pick up lines, to interpret lines, to fulfill any blocking. They are required only to play.

As usual, the first several attempts are rather formless, stabs in the dark, lots of mugging, un-needed movement and difficulty finding something “to play.” But one by one, each actor finds an archetype with which they feel comfortable and which more or less gets at the deeper meaning of the role itself. In the latest incarnation of this, one of the actors became a Super Handyman because he had to deal with the radio so frequently, another who found the language of his role dense but un-emotional became a Mathematician/Scientist, one of the women became Cassandra, and another, an Orphan adrift. One of the actors began as a Gorilla and another, a Crabby Old Man Critic. As the scene progressed, they began to discover which of the other actors seemed to be on their side in the arguments. They started bringing in objects, hand props, costumes, and other items to help in the work.

As entertaining for all of us as this was, few of them were affected by it beyond some rather generalized emotion. They ran at the scene, tried to knock it down to size, and were always less than happy with the result. Finally, in one of their rehearsals, they decided that the radio and its emanations was the problem. No one was able to fully invest it with much meaning. So they asked their fellow actor who had been reading offstage to come onstage and become the radio. The stage, which heretofore had been a rather nebulous space, transmogrified into a sort of lifeboat, with everyone waiting to hear the news of possible rescue. All actors became intently focused on the Radio/Man who proceeded to choke and return to life and again fight for breath. As the Radio/Man sputtered, the Handyman became a Desperate Surgeon trying to resuscitate the dying patient, the Mathematician/Scientist became a Guide for the Surgeon, Cassandra wept because of what she knew, the Orphan hid from death and the Old Man facing the falling away of his ability to communicate with the outside world began to weep for his own demise. The Radio/Man finally breathed his last and was dropped into the sea. All began to weep, mourning their impotence, and little by little they began to blame, to rationalize and to argue amongst themselves. The Tower of Babel was in front of me as they talked over and beyond each other in panic.

As the Angel of America came into the scene of chaos accompanied by the Prophet Prior, everyone stopped at once and looked to them for rescue. Prior attempted to give back the angelic book, and refused take up their petition. Several implored him to hear their plea, but in his need to save himself from going down with the ship, he deserted them by picking up the fallen Radio/Man and walking off stage with the body over his shoulder.

There was a silence in the room after this as the actor’s collected themselves and prepared to do the scene immediately again as the assignment for the day had stipulated. This time was to be the “Real Scene.” It was to be transported to contemporary time, and to a boardroom of sorts for the Committee of Angels. They quietly put on coats and ties, suit jackets and high heels. There was some little talking, a bit of joking, but everyone remained in the emotionally available state needed for the scene. Several of them set up our much-used movement mats to create desks, and the room configuration changed from a centrally located lifeboat to a wide V-shaped conference table with two chairs at the top of the V behind a metal table connected to the mat/desks each of which had three chairs. The metal table held the radio (they used a theatrical lighting fixture). The only addition was a series of open road maps in front of each chair. When all was ready they began the “Real Scene.” The effect was magical. The repression of all that power, and wailing, and death was replaced by the coolness and status-seeking atmosphere of such a place. The stage was full of almost visible energy, of full consciousness, of attention, and of adjustment to the new circumstance. I could feel the air vibrating between them.

The roles changed, but the archetypes remained hidden behind the etiquette of the business meeting. The questions and insights that arose from this exercise were deeply significant. How does the relationship between the sexes change in such a setting? In the SuperScene, all seemed to have equal power and were unconcerned about their place in the scheme of things. However, when the suits went on, “soft” things such as grief, empathy, fear of the unknown, were protected behind the corporate armor.

The two men at the “head table” happened to be wearing suit jackets, and the two actors on the sides had neglected to bring jackets on that day. It made an enormous difference to the jacket-free men, they reported feeling unready for the battle. Jockeying for power became tantamount, jealousy and judgment and sarcasm flew around the room. The Grumpy Old Man Critic, turned into a younger Wise Ass, sitting, jacket free, at the very end on one side of the table. At the discussion following the scene, he expressed his feeling that he was unimportant not only because he was seated at the end of the table, but also because he was separated from the other men by the two women seated to his right. He also mentioned that he began comparing his tie to those of the other men.

The women, more than the men, seemed to have difficulty adjusting to the new environment. As the men became much less expressive and more verbal, the women began to take a quieter role. They, Cassandra and the Orphan, joined forces, the Orphan becoming a Experienced Businesswoman in the world of men, and Cassandra, a Junior Woman Executive mostly silent and looking to the Orphan for security. The awareness of the need to suppress feelings of compassion, gentleness, and fear of the unknown, took over.

The former Gorilla became a rather watchful Junior Executive, seated at the right hand of the Scientist and the Handyman quietly trying to assess his role in the situation. In this situation, the former King of the Jungle, became a Watcher in the Thicket, still a gorilla, but made impotent by his inability to adjust to technology.

The two men sitting in the middle, the Handyman and the Scientist, both jacketed, had direct access to the actual radio. They became the focal point of the meeting because of their supposed technical know-how. The Handyman, now a Technician, a sort of Second in Command to the Scientist, tried to use his body as an antenna reaching out for the current, moving from side to side, and at one time hitting the radio. The Scientist disdained the Handyman’s attempts preferring to quote facts and figures as a way of gaining status.

As the radio died, the committee broke into heated debate, everyone vying to make their personal point be heard. Tempers flared, disdain was in the air, and then the Angel of America entered the room, rather confused by the noise she had obviously heard outside the door. She came without Pryor, announced his coming, and went back out into the hall to fetch him. She had morphed from a powerful albeit limited Fiery Angel/Emissary to a rather anxious Casting Director who was going to present her latest talent discovery to a group of powerful and fractious television executives seeking to save the studio.

The Angel/Casting Director returned with Pryor, formerly a contorted and bandaged Leper, now a Conscientious Objector/ Actor attempting to return an unsavory script while remaining in favor with the Big Shots. The Angel who had heretofore not realized that she had a vested interest in his success, watched his every move now because her future also depended on his success at the meeting. When he could not be persuaded to accept the role, she attempted to help him, first by argument and challenge, and finally by acceptance of his choice in life. She mourned with him about the ultimate tragedy about to beset them all. As he petitioned for a blessing he became weaker and weaker, falling to the floor and righting himself. He fought to maintain his uprightness both physically and ethically.
Cassandra finally had to leave the table, but was stopped in mid-track by the Scientist who (as he later reported) was not going to let her get away so easily. The Orphan attempted to comfort him, the Scientist ridiculed him, the Handyman couldn’t figure out what to do with him, the Wise Ass confronted him, and the Gorilla sought refuge behind the Handyman. As Pryor declared his independence of both the committee and God, he picked up the maps and folded them in symbolic preparation for his journey. The Scientist refused to give him the map and Cassandra hid the map on her person.

At last we had achieved what we had set out to do, metaphors piled on top of symbols, shifting archetypes within a realistically played scene. The ancient stories were obvious in the power plays, the sexual politics, the fear of death, the importance of denial, the sins of the fathers visited on their children, the clash between order and chaos. Contemporary problems appeared in the demise of our ability to understand or alter technology and our reliance on experts. The symbolism of the Handyman trying to channel a capricious and unknown energy was powerful. Many issues were touched upon: the chimera of human power, the revelation of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, the paradox of striving for life with full knowledge of death. In our little classroom, they had moved through play towards Joyce and Aristotle with actions that excited them physically and emotionally.

From this point forward all of our scenes are rehearsed first as SuperScenes and when we feel that we are ready we jump into the “Real Scenes.” There are times when the SuperScene is better than the Real Scene, depending on the playwright. This has been very true with Suzan Lori-Parks and Sam Shepard. SuperScenes awaken the actor and the director in such a way that the need for blocking or beat-by-beat script analysis becomes a rather secondary exercise, good for cleaning up and reference. And yet, the SuperScene does not negate nor tamper with the script; we honor the playwright by our thorough investigation of the play from a philosophical, universal level;we maintain the structure of the scene. The changes we bring to the play are in the attempt to widen the ability of the audience to receive it on a more visceral level. We strive to make theatre.

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