vulnerability and the actor

As I wrote previously, I am currently reading Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilization, and find it constantly…arousing, not sexually, but spiritually. So I want to share some of the juicy morsels that I come across as I read. Here’s one:

If freedom is the ability to live out the full potential of one’s possibilities and if the measure of one’s life is the intimacy, range, and diversity of one’s relationships, then the more vulnerable one is, the more open he or she will be to creating meaningful and intimate relationships with others. Vulnerable in this sense does not mean being weak or a victim or prey but, rather, being open to communication at the deepest level of human exchange.

Real courage…is allowing oneself to be exposed–warts and all–to another person. It is the willingness to place the most intimate details of our lives in the hands of another. To be vulnerable is to trust one’s fellow human beings. Trust is the belief that others will treat you as an end not a means, that you will not be used or manipulated to serve the expedient motives of others but regarded as a valued being.

This is at the heart of what acting is and what we value actors for. Great actors are able to engage in the mimicry of their fellows in a way that doesn’t merely reproduce their behavior, but also lays bare this vulnerability in a way that is palpable, immediate and undeniable. They bear witness to our interdependence and our capacity for reconciliation and harmony. They confront us with what we all share: a deep, visceral, unquenchable longing for connection, belonging and play.

This is why I call the “underlying objective” is the touchstone of what I teach. As actors we must learn to bring our own vulnerability to bear on the circumstances of the imaginary people we portray. By struggling (and I mean struggling, it wouldn’t mean much if it were easy to find) to articulate the need which the actor can recognize the most urgent priority of the person they are embodying, in their own visceral and direct words, the actor forges a connection with the humanity of the character that can serve as the basis for everything they undertake in the role. There is a Zen koan (or riddle) which says “The ten thousand things return to the one, what does the One thing return to?” For the actor, it is her underlying objective, the thing that she is asking for at every moment, her most urgent priority and purpose.

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the single biggest mistake that actors make in approaching a scene

It’s a mistake that is at the root of actors getting derailed in scene work more often than not. And that mistake, in short, is failing to see the other person in the scene as having something to offer. Something worth having. Something worth asking for. Something worth being vulnerable for. Something worth insisting on. Something worth fighting for.

Let me explain.

Anyone who hangs around acting classes for any length of time will learn that drama is conflict. That’s what makes it engaging: people are fighting, values are clashing, wrongs are being confronted, words are being had. However, the recognition that a scene that an actor is working on entails conflict is a very, very preliminary recognition, and a dangerous one to try to take to the bank. If you do try to take it to the bank, you come up with an account of the scene that sounds like this: “everything would be great if the other person would STOP DOING that really annoying thing that they are doing. that annoying thing that they are doing is causing all the problems, and if they would just STOP THAT, just GIVE IT A REST, we would all be just fine.” What’s the problem with looking at a scene in this way? Well, in this version, the other person is producing some kind of negative condition or circumstance, and your job is to STOP THEM. If your relationship with the other person is defined by shutting down their negative noise, then you are engaged in shutting them down, not in obtaining something positive from them, some kind of value. So you are not seeing them as someone who has something to offer you. If you do not see them as someone who has something to offer you, you cannot need something from them. And if you cannot need something from them, you cannot be vulnerable to them. And vulnerability is what it’s all about. It’s the whole game. As audience members, we are arrested and compelled by raw vulnerability. It’s relatively rare that we see this, in the theater, on films, or on television. When we do, it is truly inspiring and memorable. We do not soon forget it.

Let’s give an example. Suppose we are playing Blanche in Streetcar. In the first part of the play, we will see Stanley as uncouth, coarse, abrupt, and inconsiderate. If we describe what we are pursuing as “to stop Stanley from behaving like a barbarian or a jerk”, then we are engaged in shutting down what we take to be Stanley’s defining behavior. No one watching this is likely to find it compelling or urgent on its face. However, if we define what we are doing as “get Stanley to prove his respect for me as a true woman, a woman among women”, then we see him as having something yummy to offer us (respect!), something we can thrive on, something we value. The important point it how we SEE Stanley and how we describe the way in which we are trying to influence him. If we do so in a way that opens our eyes to the potential value to be had from him, from the yummy stuff he can send our way, then we have a scene going. A scene that people will be glad they paid money for, will remember, will be inspired by, will talk about to their friends, will generate buzz about. Nothing the matter with that.

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