Thursday, October 8, 2009

What I said, or tried to say, at the Neuroanthropology conference at Notre Dame

 Speaking to a group of amazing scientists was frightening, but I was so happy to be asked.  Below is the 6 minute presentation I was asked to give.  
My hypothesis is that theatre’s highest calling is to function as a ritual activity for audiences and actors wherein both are changed on a spiritual level.  If we see the play, whether scripted or non-scripted as a journey from one point to another, it then follows that the actors, who are already initiated into the mystery of the play, must lead the audience through the terrain.
As a trainer of actors, I have two primary questions:
1.How can we best train actors to take the audience along with them on the journey of the play ?
. What can we theatre people learn from neuroanthropology, psychology, biology, and sociology and what can we tell those disciplines about human behavior.
I have been pursuing the answers to these questions for over thirty years. 
As with all serious students of acting, the work of the Russian acting theorist and director, Konstantin Stanislavski, 1863-1938, was the beginning of real learning for me.
While Stanislavski’s work is frequently misunderstood, he remains the most important theorist of acting of all time.

At the end of his long search for a system to train actors, he finally concluded that in order to fully reveal the conflict of the play, the actor must give up the pursuit of being  a character, and move to a more transitive concept of identity. 

In my reading of identity theory over the past 30 years, I came to believe that his understanding of this malleability whether accepted by psychological theoreticians or not, was appropriate to drama, because plays take place when the world everywhere is changing for all involved.

Given this it seemed to me that the actor’s responsibility was not to delineate character, but to participate fully in the essential and archetypal relationships in the play and to and allow the audience to create the character in their own minds.

For this to happen, two stages are necessary for the actor.  First analysis, and second, embodiment. The analysis involves careful study of the play’s given circumstances wherein the actor carefully and methodically implants vivid, sensory and emotionally connected images of the entire fictional world into her consciousness. As this occurs and accretes, the actor begins to live in a liminal state, neither completely in this world, nor completely in the world of the play.  As this happens the emotional power of the images become one with her own experience and she begins to respond to her partners, be they objects or other people on an impulsive level within that world.  And with repetition and physicalization, the patterns of actions become a part of her body and therefore her emotional life.

The actor must assume that her basic humanity is sufficient. She must abandon her own personality, but use her own instrument. At this point she becomes more a channel for action than an intellectual interpreter.
She must continually respond impulsively and physically to the forces acting on her.  She must initiate actions as a result of her reactions to external forces.  And to be truly effective those actions must be directed at her partners who will in turn react, thus forwarding the action of the play.  Her challenge is to get out of her mind, to become oddly passive.
Whether the action of the play is physically realized or repressed, the actor’s job is to hop out of the analytical phase of rehearsal, and into instinctive response through the embodiment of need and action.  A “flow” state will be reached and the actor will move beyond the limitations of intellect and self-consciousness.
Because the actor is working towards actions and reactions, rather than states of being, it is my belief that the audiences mirror neurons are excited.  And they are excited to the extent that the players are intentional.
When I first was introduced to the idea of mirror neurons, I was struck because at the same time I was reading a new translation of Stanislavski and came upon 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 near future, when this invisible current has been studied by science, a more appropriate terminology will be established.”[1] Konstantin Stanislavski.
Well, that made all the sense in the world to me!  These rays/signals were quite possibly mirror neurons and Stanislavski’s instinctive understanding of this phenomenon was being affirmed by the overwhelming power of Science!.

My own pedagogy has been centered in the belief that action/intention within a set of given relationships is in itself the revelation of character, therefore the actor’s job is to manifest identity through “doing” and let the audience decide what it means.  In other words, the actor in humbly and courageously reacting to the situation at hand in a simple human fashion is doing exactly what the audience would also do.  As the audience follows the logical small and large actions of the play, they can only be lost if the actor’s actions moves logically out of the imaginary circumstances.

Character-based theory postulates that characters/people have a recognizable center, and the actor’s aim is to find it psychologically and gesturally and to manifest the found identity through “becoming”. This leads the audiences to comfort, but not necessarily to true involvement.

My hope is to find a way to recapture our lost audiences and challenge them towards a deep empathy for what it means to be human through creating a theatre that is at once a ritual and a spontaneous happening wherein the actors spiritual journey is transmitted to the viewers.

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