WHAT ACTORS KNOW ABOUT SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
Since I’ve been preparing my notes from Alvina Krause’s acting classes for a blog at the same time that I’ve been exploring therapy issues and liturgical design that will support spiritual experience, I see quite a lot of overlap. (The notes are at www.krausenotes.blogspot.com.) This post will list a few things in common. Bear in mind that this training is for stage actors rather than movie actors. It is meant for live people in performance and includes the whole rehearsal period -- maybe more if the actor is a member of a reportory company.
FOCUSING: This is first on the list because one really cannot do much internal work without learning how to do this. One exercise is a good illustration of the skill. Imagine yourself sitting in a chair that is surrounded by a pool of light. Now imagine the pool slowly shinking until it is just on you, excluding everything else. (Eugene Gendlin developed this into a whole technique for counseling which he described in his book called, of course, “Focusing.” http://www.focusing.org/focusingbook.html There is a wealth of information at his website, enough to keep a person learning for the rest of their lives with themselves as the text. It seems trivial and obvious but,in fact, it is the key to all that follows.
BODILY AWARENESS AND CONTROL is the first place that focusing will take you, so that you are aware of your skin, your muscle tension, your visceral state, your skeletal posture, and so on. But that’s only the beginning. An actor needs an exquisitely attuned performance sense: is the body inert, paralyzed, energized, at the beginning of a gestural move or a bodily transition? From the other side, observing others, how are their bodies telling you who they are? Do their shoes hurt? Have they had military training? Are they wondering whether they remembered to turn off the stove?
AK sent us down to the Field Museum of Natural History to the Hall of Man to take a close look at the sculptures by Malvina Hoffman because they had captured each unique person from around the planet in a moment, just as Rodin did. We were to pick out one of those figures, duplicate their muscle tension and stance and see what we could learn about them from that. A woman who balances things on her head all her life will be quite different from a hunter who crouches while scanning for prey.
http://www.adta.org/ is a good place to start working on expressive and interpretive issues. It’s the url for the American Dance Therapy association.
CULTURAL SOPHISTICATION And that takes us to the next domain, which is broad and specific knowledge of cultures everywhere in the world. In this time of diasporas, people from every climate and geography, every kind of subsistence and accommodation, are everywhere around us. Television documentaries and ordinary news bring us such an avalanche of people of such different kinds, in tranquility and in trauma, that we can scarcely assimilate it all. It takes a strong sense of history to cope with it all.
Beyond that (there’s always a beyond) every culture is in layers -- economic, educational, moral -- each adapted in an ecological way to various niches. These always include an underculture, a counterculture, a splinter culture, and individuals in the process of sorting. In terms of acting, this is crucial to portray accurately. The research may be close at hand, but a little scary. Whites visiting black churches, Native Americans hanging out at Starbucks, conservatives going on ridealongs with cops. It is not necessary to take major risks.
In terms of therapy I worry that too many people are guided by supposed experts who in reality know nothing about any culture but the nice one that made them professionals and therefore they give unintelligible or inappropriate messages. Or, on the other hand, the “I been there” folks -- maybe wounded healers -- who come to counseling addicts or abuse victims may be so locked into that context that they miss resources that might really work.
THE MYTHIC & METAPHORICAL -- FELT SENSE The key to spirituality, acting, and all the arts is discovering this level that most of us have come to through Joe Cambell as interpreted by George Lucas in “Star Wars” or by Bill Moyers on PBS. (Don’t forget Moyers has some seminary background.) There is a huge mass of literature to explore, including all the Sacred Stories of the various religions of the book.
Metaphor is uniquely human and doesn’t usually appear in consciousness until high school -- early adolescence. Perhaps it has something to do with the development of sexuality. (I remember vividly realizing what a phallic symbol was and blushing everytime I saw something vertical.) It is a powerful recognition to see that one thing can “stand” for another. Sexual paraphilias or fetishes are certainly examples.
Sensory metaphor is actually one of the strong brain connections to memory. In fact, the Alvina Krause “method,” which is sort of a variation on the theme of Stanislavky’s method, uses sense memory and metaphor to take the consciousness of an actor to a detailed portrayal (almost an inhabitation) of a character in a play.
EMPATHY/TRANSFERENCE Gendlin points out and Krause confirms that human beings live in communication with others, even if the others are not physically present. In fact, one can be in communication with parts of oneself. This is what Schwartz means by “parts” when he suggests that we each have an internal family, sometimes helpful and sometimes so obnoxious that a person can avoid them only by creating intensely stimulating “noise” in the actual world.
For the actor, empathy for the other person and then the ability to deliberately project how the actor feels until the other person feels it as well, is almost a definition of their craft.
AGONIST SKILL is the ability to do these two things, empathize and transfer emotion, clearly enough and artistically enough that an observer is drawn into the exchange and participates in it. Agonism, the opposition of two fairly evenly matched forces, is at the root of dialectical Western thought: theatre, law, and religion emerges from the struggle between person/culture and the environment and then between persons/cultures struggling to maintain their access to survival. They may be mistaken about what they need, they may need to learn how to compromise, they may not know what to do once they win, but this is the origin of the stories that teach us. Asia and indigenous America follow a different path but produce equally compelling stories.
LIMINAL SPACE is what Gendlin describes as “clearing a space” and what Victor Turner was able to identify in a cross-cultural way. It might be a actual space or only a head-space, but the skill of entering and leaving that space at will is a major gift of any artist in any field. It is a meditation skill as well as a meeting place.