Thursday, October 04, 2012


Part of the reason I went back to thinking about my old acting classes  (  and is that I’ve been pondering the difference -- subtle as it may be -- between coming to Browning in 1961 from an acting context as compared to a literature context.  Of course, I DID have a literature context, because I read all the time, even books by and about Indians.  “Kutkos,” I’m fond of reporting, was written by my fourth grade teacher, a Chinook Indian, and I read “Tangled Waters” over and over -- written by a white woman married to a trader on the Navajo reservation.  “Two Little Savages,” of course, is about two little wannabe Indian kids, written by that wannabe Indian Ernest Thompson Seton.

But that’s not what I mean.  Being in an acting frame of mind is inhabiting the people you meet, trying to suss what it would be like to be them, to see what they see when they look out of their eyes.  But a literary frame of mind asks for omniscience, maybe judgement from the outside, certainly plot line and structure.  Maybe conflict (agonism).  When I’m in that novelist’s frame of mind, I’m scribbling in the back of my brain, taking notes -- “Oh, notice how he holds that pencil!”  But if I’m in an actor’s frame of mind, I don’t even ask what it would be like to hold the pencil that way -- I’m already vicariously gripping it myself.

This was explained to me as “empathy” years ago when some teacher was trying to distinguish empathy (feeling AS someone) from sympathy (feeling FOR someone).  When empathy is activated, the judgement just isn’t there, unless you’re feeling it from someone else outside both of you.  The boy says,  “My mother is so STUBBORN.”  He’s sincere, but the novelist might say from outside that she was faithful, tenacious, or committed.  The boy might be quoting his dad, identifying with him.  

Of course, sci-fi stories have pointed out the treachery of being too open to other minds.  It may be pretty hard to handle other people’s pain, so you need ways to draw the curtain -- even armor up.  Once I read a story about dolphins, who can read your body through penetrating echolocation right down to what your gut is doing.  They can get upset.  People like to think that dolphins are full of peace and harmony, but what if they sense fear, rage, contempt? 

Trying to understand other people, one way or another, is shared by both writer and actor -- but also psychoanalysts, who sort of walk both sides of the street.  While the writer is noting,  “This person has bitten his nails to the quick, leaving ugly scar tissue,"  the actor is feeling a sudden urge to bite his nails.  The psychoanalyst is noting:  “Bitten nails.  Obsessive syndrome?  Anxiety due to?”  That kind of diagnosis is a dangerous sort of judgement because the next step can be treatment and not necessarily voluntary.

The detective wants to know lots of observable and provable stuff as well, and that could lead to consequences that could be influenced by the opinion of the shrink.  The anthropologist’s reaction depends on the sort of anthro he or she is, but generally the inclination will be to consider a long view: history, the larger patterns of the culture and how they form development.  They might look at the ecology: what is there to eat and what must you do to get it?  What does the climate encourage in the people?  What natural barriers create isolated communities?  What objects and animals are in their lives?  What are their homes like?  And the actor wants to know all this stuff, but -- again -- from the inside.

When I came to Browning to teach, I was still feeling my way into “being” other people, not building evaluations of them -- which might have been more proper.  The kids themselves did not want any intimacy with their teachers.  The more distant and robotic a teacher was, the more they were interpreted as “professional.”  Surgeons are professional.  Missionaries are suspect in their declarations of love and understanding -- unprofessional.  Amateur in the pure sense of “loving.”  (There’s a book I should read:  “I Love You.  You’re Perfect -- Now Change.)

The irony is that the kind of acting I learned (if a script is considered literary which I believe it is) was literature-based,  We weren’t improvising -- we were learning lines and acting out a plot with presenting situation, rising action, climax and resolution. It contained a point of view supplied by the playwright.  Becoming the person was the means to that point of view.  

But for the rez kids, resolution was the last thing they wanted.  Their idea was to prevent change, NOT to grow up, NOT to graduate, NOT to know things about themselves and their families.  They had been well and thoroughly taught never to let nobody know nothing.  They did very well at it.  Their point of view was that they were doomed to an early death anyway. (They saw it all around them.)  Why even try?  Some were pushed hard enough to make them close down: sleeping all the time, drinking, dissociating, drugs.

Except that to an actor, their posture, their voices, what they did with their hands and eyes -- all gave them away.  Most of the school personnel had no intention of “being” them, understanding where they were coming from, because their mission [sic] was to change them.  With good intentions, of course.  The kids could feel it.  The school district was paying them to do it.

Over the years the context of things has changed.  Many more of the teachers and administrators are Blackfeet and local.  The buildings are new.  Students from decades ago have returned from the outside world where they succeeded and are not willing to accept the same old patterns.  There are women on the tribal council.  Agitators complain that the main street is packed with deteriorating old buildings, but in a ring around Browning there are new buildings, including both the hospital and the casino.  Openly gay people work in both places.

Recently a volunteer-built playground was destroyed by the kids it was built for and who had previously enjoyed it.  What do I see when I look out of their eyes?  Frustration.  Now they are awake, they feel the rage, the pain, the grief.  They need action, any action.  Impact.  This planet is packed with people who feel that way.  We should be stubborn about pushing forward until we get past it.  But how?  More plays!  More movies!  More novels!  More, more, more!!  Don't stop now!

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