Tuesday, December 09, 2008


When I get really good at writing, I’ll try to write about acting classes from Alvina Krause. They were mysterious, not just because she was a powerful teacher with considerable charisma, but because somehow they dealt with identity, the tending of that flame that is one’s self, probably the most mysterious subject of all.

I’m going to start this short piece with Johari’s Window, which turns out not to be some exotic bit of Near Eastern magic, but simply a way of making order that was thought up by Joe and Harry somebody one rainy afternoon in the psych department. It’s called a window because it has four “panes” and is about seeing. But it’s simple: a division between two things, which are then divided into two things each:
1. What you know about yourself and everyone knows about you.
2. What others know about you but you don’t know about yourself.
3. What you know about yourself, but no one else knows.
4. What is totally unknown: you don’t know this about yourself and neither does anyone else.

1. Mostly this is physical appearance, vocation, obvious skills like baseball or scrabble. Day-to-day apparent things.
2. Some people have a beautiful voice and don’t know it. Some people have sleep apnea and only their bed partner knows. Sometimes you’re about to win a prize, but you haven’t been told.
3. You know what you dream at night, what your secret wishes are, what you THINK you’re saying when you accidentally say something else. Others might be surprised.
4. Once there was a time when this would be described as what only God knows. Maybe now one might say TBA (to be announced) or maybe people go through life with many an undiscovered aspect that might have been seen if someone had troubled to look.

These quadrants don’t have to be the same size. In fact, I suppose the relationship size-wize among the four might be pretty interesting to think about. A good counseling strategy is to get a big piece of paper, divide it in quadrants, and then write in what the counselee and counselor or group can think of. If I were doing it with a group, I’d turn it on the group at some point and ask the counselee what he or she knows about the group that those people don’t know about themselves. It is, of course, tragically impossible to know everything about a person even if you try and even if you spend a lifetime together and maybe that’s as it should be.

But this started out to be about acting. An actor uses what he or she knows about the character to step into them. One can do it from the outside, imitating a walk or a way of gesturing or a particular facial expression or a voice. They will find their inner life changing. One can do it from the inside, drawing on one’s own experience when in a similar situation to remember what it was like. They will begin to walk and gesture like the character. (The way to access memories is often to recall sensory information, so all actors should keep a sharp awareness of their surroundings.)

There’s a good deal of talk now about “mirror cells” behind the forehead that only humans and the higher primates have and that let them feel what others feel. Not just say in their head, “Oh, he’s sad,” but to join the sadness and feel it. Some people will resist this with all their might, maybe because they feel it’s pulling them away from their own identity. The counseling term is that they “have weak boundaries,” can’t really tell where they end and the other person begins.

A person with weak boundaries doesn’t become a good actor, though a strongly manipulative director might psych them into walking through the role in a way that would photograph and edit into something convincing. But that person is a puppet and the art expressed is the director’s and often the editor’s. This works out pretty well in film. I once had a student who made a video about a family that was all desk accessories: the scissors were the mother, the stapler was the father, and the children were pencils of various sizes. He moved them around and talked for them, and they were remarkably effective. We project into objects and people can be objects.

But a truly good actor doesn’t entirely dissolve into the character: rather he or she splits in half, one part really being the role while the other monitors the blocking so as to be in the right place at the right time, remembers to cheat towards the audience, knows that the phone is about to ring but doesn’t anticipate it. I have no idea what happens in the brain when this is going on.

Ideas about what’s happening in the brain keep going back and forth between thinking that there is an assigned part for each brain function and on the other hand assuming that the whole brain is involved in everything. Both seem to be true. But that is different from knowing how to manage one’s brain from the inside.

Alvina Krause
taught a course in acting that was by invitation only. Anyone who was in it had been sworn to silence and they always kept their vows. I wasn’t invited, but I suspect that it was something akin to a “growth group” meant to explore the actor’s own brain from the inside, so that he or she knew what was there. During my four academic years, one woman and one man broke down badly enough to need hospitalizing. (Not because of the class, which might have saved them.) Both were tuned pretty tightly and the guy was a little “double,” meaning that he tried to maintain a front. That meant that as an actor he had to manage three personas: the character, the acting person, and the person who was his constructed front. The group was meant to get rid of that constructed front, so as to put all the energy into the character and the actor. It was also interested in making that fourth “window” -- the one about the self you don’t know and no one else knows either -- as small as possible. This is very frightening to some people. They should probably not become actors.

Art requires courage. At least REAL art does.

No comments: