Sunday, June 07, 2015


Entering into a question about human beings through the theory and experience of acting is different from any other kind of analysis.  The basic premise is that the actor can “become” someone without any judgment, just trying to feel -- emotionally and bodily (which is to say through both viscera and muscles) -- what this person feels as indicated by posture, movement, seeming goals.  The actor looks for the character’s “spine” which is the central metaphor around which the personality of the character has developed.  Originally (unless it’s improvisation) that will have come from a playwright, with a little bit of leeway for the actor to interpret, but without a strong-spined central character the play will be weak.

In spite of it being guided by a script and dialogue, this is VERY different from liturgical worship with prescribed steps and an order of service with communal prayers.  For some people this kind of written predictability is reassuring and expands their consciousness of what is sacred.  The neurology of repetitious devotion can be powerful for some.  For others it just doesn’t do anything.  A prayer book or order of service gives safety and inclusion for a conventional person.  An indigenous congregation, particularly African, may want the freedom to express emotion in movement and gesture.

I’ve been impressed by realizing that the reason so many “religions” are called “pagan” and denigrated is that they aren’t considered institutions because they have no writing.  And in fact, it’s very hard to have an institution without writing to describe to the rules and hierarchies.  It’s like a nation without boundaries, flag, or headquarters, which is natural for preliterate tribes.  But to engage in holiness doesn’t require writing or an institution -- it only needs a person.  Not even two persons.  Prayers might be in words, either as a dialogue with God (whether or not he is real -- this is a play) or a soliloquy.

Theatre needs two kinds of persons: one kind to initiate as the primary and another in the audience to receive feeling through empathy.  They can trade off and, amazingly, one person can split into two and create this dialogue of experience internally, which can be productive in exploring and learning or can be crippling if the two start an internal war over contradictions.  The key to many Christian/“Western” systems is this confrontation sort of argument.  We use it in law, in debate, in politics, and in stories of combat between Jesus and the Devil or Jacob and the Angel.  All about who has control.

Confrontation is one way to be intimate without being absorbed.  To have an ongoing enemy is a way of knowing your place in the world.  Ferocious opposition demands recognition and attention.  If an overwhelming person breaks down one’s boundaries, one might need to put up barriers to protect one’s inner self.  Maybe more than one fenced and hidden sanctuary, well-disguised, maybe even to oneself.  These can make a person hard to reach on normal terms.

Performance is physical.  I’ve been exploring what I’ve been calling “five step theory” which started as the stimulus/response three steps of bringing the world into the self (something is felt, it is measured and sorted, then something is done) but reflection demanded the addition of human empathy and then awareness of participation in the cosmos.  (It seems that some people don’t have the last two -- or haven’t activated them -- which is too bad since they are sources of the feeling of the sacred.)  

I was surprised to discover the five steps are formally called the “bodily loop” and includes the information stored in muscles and viscera, possibly as habituation and possibly below consciousness, like learning to ride a bicycle or a skateboard, like the digestive system learning what and when to expect to eat so it can be prepared.  Like learning lines for a play, except that the play is real.  Like the body that learns to depend on an outside source of a vital molecule, so that it shuts down its own production of serotonin or dopamine.  This means not all thought is in the brain.

Most physical systems are reciprocal: that means they operate in tandem with the other parts of the system.  One could envision a teeter-totter or a tug o’ war, but maybe that’s where our insistence on binaries comes from.  Maybe spiritual feeling comes when that two-ness is combined into a unity, all systems in harmony.  It’s a nice idea -- maybe too nice.

One of the writers reminds us that brains are not engineered -- they are organic.  That means they are not precision calibrated or optimized to tight tolerances.  Rather there’s a lot of slippage, work-arounds, compensations, redundancies.  This is generally good since it means a bit of wiggle in the system, survival in the face of destruction.  For an acting company one night’s performance is not the same as the next night’s.  Which one is better depends on the judgment of individuals, which might differ.  It’s an art and art is often about discovery.  A new actor in a role may cause revelations in the rest of the cast.

A play is about a progression, a process, a realization, a shift.  So is a person and so is a community.  But some holy performances are about confirming an attachment, a point of reference -- this is probably the origin of the fantasy of a god.  But also something as simple as crossing oneself with a bit of Holy Water.  Awareness of the seasonal sequence can also serve, as can a pilgrimage or a building.  A community that meets regularly is a way of reminding you of your identity and your role in the world.  If it has enough resilience to allow its members to grow and experiment, it will be more powerful.

In the preliterate world people rarely knew more than individuals in their family and community.  An outsider coming in or a trip out through unknown territory was exciting and risky.  If those Other people did things differently, esp. in their relationship to what is sacred, the information was literally exotic and maybe beguiling.  On the other hand, maybe they were a threat and one’s own community demanded their death.  Much depended on the ecology and what it required for survival.  But no one could write down memories, just preserve oral myth which could exaggerate or minimize.

In the best of circumstances, the outliers could expand the world and trigger reflection on meta-sacrality, like the Transcendentalists reflecting on the new information about Asian and East Indian religions that sea captains brought.  Those came to Boston and Concord as writing like Upanishads, very impressive to quasi-scholars who read while seated in Nature on a log.

By now our reach far exceeds our grasp, the images of the galaxies and even the brain connectome are sources of awe. Robert Turner reminds us that images of the brain are really a computer-processed version of something that only looks like a blob of fat, which it literally is, but the computer is only wires and bits of silicon.  How are we to find them holy when our kids play the old games of destruction and rivalry on them?

We go back to the images and strategies of the pre-literates in a vocabulary that’s nearly forgotten once we learn to read and write, but that toddlers can activate on a tablet.  The first question is how universal can it become -- we’re not there yet.  The next question is about the consequences.  No one knows.  Can we hold each other and the world sacred in the way pre-literates did?  Or will we fall back on war?  

The more we are as empathic as actors and as conscious of authentic performance, the more likely we are to survive.

No comments: