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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Barrie, J.M., 1992. Peter Pan or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. A Fantasy in Five Acts New York: Dramatists Play Service.
Becker, E., 1973. The Denial of Death New York: The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster Inc.
Biilington, A., 2007. Post-Oscar: Forest Whitaker's Brilliant Acceptance Speech [online]. www.firstshowing.net
Bulinska, H., 2007. Mirror neurons as a proximal mechanism of social interaction. Conflict, Citizenship and Civil Society, 8th ESA Conference, European Sociological Association. Glasgow Scotland.
Campbell, J., 1972. The Hero with a Thousand Faces Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience New York: Harper Perennial, HarperCollins Publishers.
Donnellan, D., 2006. The Actor and the Target second ed. London: Theatre Communications Group.
Eliade, M., 1963. Myth and Reality first ed. New York: Harper and Row.
Iacoboni, M., 2008. Mirroring People New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
James M. Kilner, A.N., Knkolaus Weiskopy, Karl J Friston and Chris D Frith., 2009. Evidence of Mirror Neurons in Human Inerior Frontal Gyrus. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29.
Joyce, J., 1916. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man B.W. Huebsch.
Kushner, T., 1992. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika New York: Theatre Communications Group.
McKee, R., 1997. Story: Substance, Struture, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
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  1. This what great! I have been looking for an article JUST like this. Thank you for your great and studied work. Almost a year ago, in the midst of trying to make a rather important life decision I was analyzing Chuck Mee's "Iphigenia 2.0" and my entire life lit up, everything had meaning and I was Agamemnon. I left grad school to do what I intuitively felt I had to, to discover myself. I am now beginning to feel as though I may be ready to go back, because I'm finally good enough. I've decided to leave scenic design and pursue directing. Nearly all of the books and articles you site here are scattered around my house scrawled with notes. I'm excited to have a few more to look at!! And I'm really excited to try this SuperScenes idea, sounds perfect, let them play! I would love to ask you some questions right now but I'm a little too distracted to be very articulate, perhaps after I let this sink in a bit. Again thank you SO SO MUCH!

    1. Mike,
      You must have written me years ago, but I just read your note on my blog spot. I would love to chat with you after all this time. Jbrody845@gmail.com