the facts, felt life, and the actor

I have written previously about psychiatrist Dan Siegel’s book Mindsight here and here and here. I want to write today about one case study in particular from his book, and some ways in which it sheds light on the challenges facing the actor.

Siegel worked with an older man, an attorney, whom he calls Stuart.

Once I got Stuart talking, his memory was excellent for details about the town where he grew up, the games he played as a child, the make and model of his first car, and even the historical and political events of the time. But when it came to questions about his early family life — or any family life — his responses were consistently vague. “My mother was normal. She ran the home. My father worked. I think my brothers and I were fine.” To a question about how his family life affected his development, Stuart responded, “It didn’t… . My parents gave me a good education. What’s the next question?”

Stuart insisted that his childhood was “fine” even though he said that he did not remember the details of his relationships with his parents or two brothers. He insisted that the he “just didn’t recall” what they had done at home, what life felt like for him as a youngster. The details he gave me sounded like facts, not like lived experience. This was true even when he told me that he had been with his brother during a bad skiing accident, which had resulted in the loss of his brother’s leg. His brother had recovered and was “fine.”

Siegel had noticed that Stuart had a highly developed ability to recall and report facts, but an impaired ability to recall what anything felt like. Siegel goes on to explain how handling facts, logic and reason on the one hand and feelings and sensations on the other are functions of the two halves of the brain, the right and the left. Now, this right brain-left brain business has been popularized to the degree that I was inclined to dismiss it as psychobabble or quackery, but it turns out that this division of labor in the brain is borne out by science. These two ways of approaching experience are handled by anatomically distinct portions of the brain that develop with some degree of independence from each other (although thet do collaborate extensively).

Siegel began working with Stuart, providing him with exercises to develop the under-utilized capacity of his brain. The ways in which the exercises challenged Stuart provided further illustration of the divide:

I asked him to recall the evening before our session and his breakfast that morning, and to convey his recollections as images rather than facts…Stuart wanted to summarize and evaluate: “I had a good evening.” “I had cornflakes for breakfast.” What came hard to him was telling me “I scoop the cornflakes into my blue bowl and hear the sound that they make. The milk carton feels cool in my hand, and I pour it slowly until I see the milk almost covering the flakes. I sit down and I notice that the sunlight is in my eyes.”

One part of our mind apprehends and traffics in facts, the other in impressions. This reminded me of something about the way an actor approaches a role in the technique that I teach in my classes.

When an actor begins work on the role, I encourage her to study the script for the facts. “Just the facts, ma’am”, the mantra from the TV show Dragnet, governs this phase of the work. The author has embedded her work with a multitude of facts, and it is incumbent upon the actor to carefully uncover them and organize them into a surveyable arrangement. I have actors place facts in the historical and immediate past, the present, and the potential future.

The importance of this cannot be understated. These facts give the actor a basic grounding in the situation of the character. An actor who fails to take in these facts will find herself unmoored from the circumstances of the piece, casting about without orientation or compass. When actors present a scene in my class, I question them to make sure that they have a solid command of the facts of the piece.

There comes a point, though, when facts must be transmuted into lived experience. It is not enough for an actor playing Blanche DuBois to know that she discovered the body of her dead lover; she needs to have imagined the episode for herself, as well as the sequence prior to it, when she discovered him in flagrante with another man and shamed him for it. The actor needs to make that movie for herself; she needs to live through it, so that it exists for her as something that happened to her, not simply facts that she noted from the pages of the script. In short, she needs to particularize it.

How does she bring this about? She needs to daydream, productively. Journaling can be a great way of going about this. One way or another, she needs to spend time alone internalizing this episode. Al Pacino said in a recent interview on acting, “A lot of acting is private time.” This private time is spent, in part, in projecting one’s self into the world of the character, acquiring the character’s experiences, appropriating them, stealing them even. I call it the “lonely work of the actor”, not because it feels lonely to do it, but because it takes an enormous amount of faith to engage in this work, as the results of the work will not be immediately evident. In our culture of immediate gratification, we want to get something for our efforts. We like the fruits of our labor to be tangible. Investing work in building these castles in the air is likely to induce feelings of foolishness. And yet building these castles of lived experience is precisely what will fortify us, so that when we rehearse and perform, we will prevail.

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why The Kids Are All Right was not all right

First of all, I’ll say that there was some genuinely funny stuff in this movie. Also, I love the way the director, Lisa Cholodenko, loves LA. She gets it.

But the movie is disappointing in more than a few ways. The decisive flaw, from the point of view of the acting, is the work of the two leads, Annette Benning and Julianne Moore. Neither actor is a favorite of mine, and they did nothing to change my opinion of them here.

The biggest failing in their work was they did not create a convincing relationship with a palpable history. I just could not accept that these two people had been together for twenty years. What would I like to have seen that was different? It is difficult to write about (easier to point out in a classroom!), but it has to do with what the two actors look for when they look at each other and interact with each other. The most persuasive way that an actor can successfully make you believe that there is such a history to a relationship is that they are always looking to the other person to manifest the essence of the relationship, the sense of fit, match, connection, the thing that convinced them both that they belonged together. Even expressions of disappointment and bitterness, in a real relationship, are infused with the person in question asking for, calling for, invoking, the successful relationship that was. It is this looking for that something in the other that persuades us, immediately and viscerally, that the relationship has a history.

One of the best articulations of this that I have come across is from a critic named Percy Lubbock. In an essay on what Henry James learned from his unsuccessful forays into playwriting, Lubbock writes:

“The actors are not there only to illustrate for us the facts of the story, but through their make-believe to create an imagined world for the eye of the mind to dwell upon. Good dramatic writing, like good acting, owes much of its quality to the establishment of these imagined perspectives behind and beyond the little figures on the boards.”

These “imagined perspectives behind and beyond” the actors/characters in the film are what Moore and Benning totally failed to provide. As the film progressed, and the relationship entered a crisis, I got hints of how Benning’s character had a sense of having a claim on Moore’s character, a sense of ownership, based on being together for so long, but this is not the same as the sense of what it was like when it worked, and is something significantly less compelling than that.

In other words, in any relationship in a scene, the most urgent question to pose is: what made us us? What were the defining moments, when we became a “we”? The moments of connection and communion? The moments of crisis that were resolved in a satisfying way that brought us even closer together? What about our experience together makes this “we” worth fighting for? It’s this sense of “stuff happened to us and made us us” that gives a relationship between two actors its unmistakable reality.

These questions went totally unasked in this film, apparently. And it shows.

I am sure my writer friends would have more than a little to object to about the way the story unfolded. For one thing, the Moore-Ruffalo liaison seemed kind of arbitrary and forced, like it was there just to precipitate a crisis in the Benning-Moore relationship.

But here is one thing about the movie that I have absolutely no objections to. Nope, none at all. More of that, please.

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been savin em up: Sunday evening links

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Al Pacino’s movie magic

Below is a pretty inane Katie Couric interview with Al Pacino (if you don’t see a video, click the headline above to visit my blog). However, there are some things he says that I like, such as:

“What I did with Jack Kevorkian is I worked. I went into my little bunker by the house. A lot of acting is private time,” he explained.

It seems that people who are attracted to acting have a hard time accepting this. They see the finished product, and assume that that is what the whole thing must be like. But it isn’t. Actors need to invest. And to do that, we need to be alone.

It’s that simple.

H/T Larry Mazur

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(If you don’t see a video below, click on the headline above to watch at my blog.)

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one more thing about priming

This post is a follow up to this one about the importance of the ceremony of donning rehearsal clothes for a scene every time you rehearse it.

I have been continuing to read Dr. Dan Siegel’s Mindsight:

If you play tennis, for example, each time you put on your shorts and shoes,pick up your racket, and head for the court, your brain is actively creating a “tennis-playing state of mind.” In this state, you are primed to access your motor skills, your competitive strategies, and even your memories of prior games. If you are playing a familiar opponent, you’ll recall her moves, her strongest hits, and her weak spots. All of these memories, skills, and even feelings– of competition and aggression– are activated together.

Any questions?

Update: Tweet from Alain de Botton: Enduring wisdom of Zen Buddhism in making a central religious ritual out of the preparation and consumption of a cup of tea.

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