Wednesday, October 24, 2012


The Kenty/Carroll thesis called "The Space Between" has made a very helpful map.  Consider these “places” and “paths” marked on it by the willingness of an assortment of undergrad actors reflecting on what it is that happens when they are acting onstage.  

1.  A young man in the group asks,  “When I have an erection onstage, is it the character having the erection or myself, the actor?”

2.  A young woman says, “A person with whom I acted and who was fine onstage afterwards could not give up seeing me as the character.  In spite of me asking him to stop, he just couldn’t realize that I was NOT the character, not anything like the person I was acting, and that for him to treat me as the character was offensive."

3.  Another student remarked on being jolted when a member of the audience, absorbed into the “reality” of the play, called out to her character,  “Get rid of that guy!  He’s poison!”  The “fourth wall” came smashing down.

4.  An actress was cast in a part that called on her to “murder” a character being played by her long time good friend.  She said she simply could not overcome her “real” feelings about the person enough to imagine killing or even harming her.  

5.  A grown man recalled as a young adolescent acting in a scene from “Huckleberry Finn” with the boy acting as “Tom Sawyer” and them actually entering that virtual world together, a phenomenon so powerful that it has followed him all his life, so that he has tried many times to recapture the mystical intimacy offstage.

My own theoretical exploration has been through object relations psychology (Winnicott’s “play space” between mother and child), introspective psychology (Gendlin’s “focussing”), anthropology (Turner’s “liminal space”), and “Method” acting classes (Krause’s “responsiveness.”)  Kelty/Carroll, who is much younger than myself, goes to Lacan’s theory of transference, which builds on but differs from Freud’s version of transference.  Clearly, this phenomenon is interesting cross-discipline and it may be time to coordinate.

One main focus has been the management of boundaries.  In acting, these would include:

1.  The boundary within between the actor and the character he or she portrays.
2.  The relationship/boundary between one actor and another onstage and then the boundary between the relationship/encounter between those same persons when they are not acting.
3.  The boundary between the actors onstage and the audience in their seats.
4.  The boundary between the context of acting in a play and living real lives outside the theatre.
5.  The boundary between the teacher/director as an authority figure and the student/actor in the context of the institution (school/theatre company).

Kelt/Carroll mentions all but the fifth, even though the Lacanian/Freudian theory depends upon an asymmetrical relationship in which the lesser “transfers” a previous key relationship onto the more dominant party.  This might happen unconsciously or deliberately and might be used constructively or not.  Most parties seem to think that the more transparent the phenomenon is -- that is, the more both parties are aware and willing -- the more useful it can be.

But I like Winnicott’s idea of a shared “play” or learning space much better, even though the relationship between mother and child is asymmetrical and a child cannot know what is happening.  I think it is a more “pure” occasion close to the formation of identity and boundaries: an origin rather than a repetition.  It is as though a bubble had formed that creates a safety zone in which “focus” is on the kind of task that would create emergent“flow.”  Maybe piling blocks, maybe saying words, but almost always with eye contact that “kindles” whatever it is that enables empathy so that one partner knows how the other is thinking and feeling -- in an accepting and valuing way.

A preacher, a liturgist, might try to achieve that kind of “shared space” between the speaker and the congregation, with the boundary willingly suspended in the task of considering the ideas.  These might be quite emotional in their impact and likely to be full of sense images, metaphors like “God’s Love,” which presumes that same kind of shared positive regard.  But possibly preaching could be about a judgemental, potentially destroying relationship.  A sermon might not just be happy talk.  A mother relating to her child might not be loving.  So the feel-good dimension is not what makes this “space between us” happen.  (In fact, deliberate infliction of pain as in torture might also be intimate -- but that’s not usual in acting.  Maybe in films.)

Kelty/Carroll mentions some possible factors in the creation of the “space between” two actors who are in the midst of a successful “connection”.  The safety of the situation.  Having the skills and knowledge (learned lines) to respond without conscious weighing -- “blurring.”  Absence of distractions from outside the interaction.  A rather mysterious component is that of being “seen.”  She doesn’t talk about it much. There is a lot of post-structuralist theory about the “gaze,” and there IS something about an audience sitting out there watching, but I think what makes this “space between” happen is the sensation of being truly understood, comprehended, so that what one does is effective and important.  

The importance of the “story”, the plot, the “through line”, is not emphasized in this thesis, but surely this helps to motivate the shared “seeing,” to “see” what will happen next, where things are going.  I’ve experienced speaking to an audience who are somehow “pulling the speech out of me” by listening acutely with understanding.  Feminists used to talk about “listening stories out of women” by giving them space to tell them and understanding of what they said.  

Getting it wrong will break the experience.  The student actors were eloquent about what it was like to work with other actors who couldn’t interact in this communicating way, maybe because they didn’t learn their lines or blocking.   They are described as closed, shut down.  One described them eloquently as being “a cow staring uncomprehending at an oncoming train.”  No sense of where things were going.  Therefore no ability to communicate and therefore no -- this is their word -- communion.  Coming together.

In short, acting is not a single actor emoting alone, but rather a communion between actors that creates some kind of space between them and also the audience: the willing suspension of disbelief, the blurring of boundaries, vulnerability in the interest of understanding, and a sense of where things are likely to go.  If all that sounds dangerous, that’s because it is.

No comments: