In the preface to her outstanding new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, head of the acting program at Juilliard, mentions her teacher at the Yale School of Drama, David Hammond, and credits him with providing “a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”. So what is this notion of stimuli that is so life-changing? She doesn’t outright define stimuli, but it becomes clear from her discussions of them that she is talking about sensory matter that the character “bumps up” against: things the character can see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Over the course of the book, she provides examples based on work on a short play by John Patrick Shanley called A Lonely Impulse of Delight. The play is about two friends, Walter and Jim, visiting Central Park Lake at two in the morning, because one friend has something he wants to show the other. In discussing how the actor playing Walter, who is expecting his mermaid lover at any moment, might plant stimuli in the scene environment, she writes the following:
Some stimuli in Walter’s romantic, middle of the night park might be: the gentle rustle of leaves in the wind (sound and sensation), a bright white or harvest-orange moon, fireflies, cooing birds, the distant glow of city lights, the lapping of water on the sandy shore or rocky outcroppings, the smell of honeysuckle, the dappled moonlight on the water and through the leaves of trees, the gentle croaking of frogs.
So here we see that stimuli (or triggers) are sensory stuff that the actor playing Walter might “bump up” against or encounter prior to or during the course of the play. The potential stimuli that Walter’s friend Jim, who is resistant to being in the park at that hour, might find are quite different:
Jim’s park might include: scary shadows, the sound of sirens racing down Fifth Avenue or up Central Park West, mysterious rustlings in the bushes, the buzzing of mosquitos, occasional raised voices from deeper in the park—are they shrieks of joy or terror?—the smell of urine, barking dogs, the hoot of an owl, the howl of a . . . not sure what, the squish of the muddy bank, an abundance of goose and occasional dog droppings dotting the patchy grass, treacherously slippery boulders, broken glass under a flickering street lamp, abandoned litter washing up on the shore—cigarette butts, deli wrappers, coffee cups, an old syringe.
These two examples make it clear what Yionoulis has in mind when she speaks of stimuli: sensory input that the actor can “bump up” against in the course of playing the scene. The physical environment of the scene should be “loaded” with stimuli, but stimuli are to be found in the character’s past history as well, as I discussed in my post on personalization and as Yionoulis describes in her book. In fact, the actor’s homework, according to Yionoulis, is practically solely concerned with identifying stimuli that the character has experienced or might experience along her journey:
In the analysis phase of the work, your job is to identify stimuli and triggers in the world of the play that have affected or might affect your character. You’ll imaginatively “bump up” against stimuli from your character’s past during your personalization process and encounter others from their present during the action of the play itself. At that time, your response to each stimulus will lead you to the next point in your character’s path…Part of your homework—which continues into rehearsal—is to make objects in the world of the play—and, by extension, all the circumstances of your character’s life— specific and resonant. You want to uncover—and plant—potent stimuli.
The sequence of stimuli that the actor encounters across the arc of the play is called the path. Much of the path will be made up of the lines of the other actor/characters, but that is not the only source of stimuli or triggers, as Yionoulis has demonstrated. So what about stimuli and the path is life-changing for Yionoulis? Yionoulis says at one point that stimuli work “in and on the body”. The senses involve our nervous system and in that sense our body, and by identifying stimuli that have affected or may affect the character, we are imprinting ourselves in a physical manner with the stuff that makes up the character’s reality. And that, I think, can be life-changing.