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Should I Stay or Should I Go?, or, acting an inner conflict

One of the central insights of Stanislavsky is that by focusing on the goal(s) of the character in a particular situation, an actor can go a long way towards entering the role and embodying the character’s experience.  The term of art for such a goal is an objective.  In the approach I teach at AWAS, we think in two types of objectives: we can call these two types of objectives needs and plans.  Basically, a character has a need, and from that need, forms a plan about how to get that need met.  In my approach, the game is to keep the need primary, and not allow it to be eclipsed by the plan, which is usually easier to spot and simpler to pursue.  Pursuing the plan always has to be seen as a means of getting the need met.

One good thing about this approach is that it allows a character (and actor) to adapt to circumstances which change as the script proceeds to change her plan, but to still have a single need which she pursues.  It’s perhaps hard to explain why having a single need is valuable, but suffice to say it has tremendous organizing power, ultimately simplifying what an actor needs to focus on in her performance.  With this setup, we get to have our cake and eat it too:  the ability to change plans affords us flexibility, and the single need grants our work continuity and ultimately integrity.

The question arises, though: what about a situation where a character is conflicted or ambivalent?  He wants to have his cake and eat it too, but unhappily for him, in his case, there is no way to have both.  How should the actor approach this?  The danger here is that the actor becomes focused on his conflicting feelings.  In the approach I teach, the only thing approaching a feeling that the actor should focus on is his need. He can have feelings, such as sadness or joy or regret or anger, but he always directs his attention to his need and his plan, and the feelings come and go as they come and go.  They are never the appropriate object of his attention.

But in a situation where a character is ambivalent, the temptation can become very strong for an actor to focus on her conflicting feelings.  This would be a mistake, and would enmire the actor in a morass of self-consciousness (as focusing on her emotional experience always will).  What is the way out of this impasse?

The answer is to take the so-called inner conflict and translate it into an outer one.  If someone is conflicted, he is conflicted, ultimately, about what to do.  Should I open door number one, or do number two?  Should I stay here with you and make the best of it, or go home and lick my wounds over how you have rejected and betrayed me?  There is usually some way of seeing an emotional conflict in spatial terms, such as what I have described.

But to give this solution legs, as it were, we need another couple of concepts.  One is Uta Hagen’s concept of destination.  “The reason for movement is destination!” is her refrain in the chapter of A Challenge for the Actor entitled “Animation”. What she means by this, on first encounter, seems to be the familiar admonition that when an actor moves in a scene, the movement needs to be coupled with an intention to go somewhere in particular, it can’t be an arbitrary movement utterly devoid of purpose.  An important insight that helps actors overcome the tendency to wander around the space aimlessly, often as a way of alleviating the discomfort of encounter with the partner or of being watched.

But this is only the beginning of the usefulness of Hagen’s concept of destination.  We can talk about destinations “heating up”: as the prospect of physically moving towards a destination becomes more appealing, we say that the destination “heats up”.  The actor should start to imagine it as exerting a well-nigh magnetic influence on her physical being, drawing her to the destination in question like the tractor beam from Star Wars.

(Skip to about 1:30)

Now, back to the actor attempting to act a character’s ambivalence or inner conflict.  One side of this conflict is typically: there is something I want from my partner.  The other side of this conflict is:  nah, this is never going to work with this person (the partner), time to cut my losses and go somewhere else to get my need met.  During the scene, as the prospect of going elsewhere begins to look like a better choice, the destination in question “heats up.”  The destination in question is often outside the space in which the scene is taking place; in other words, deciding to go towards that destination often involves exiting.  Even as that destination heats up, though, the prospect of getting the need met from the current partner remains, so the actor/character finds himself “caught”: he is being pulled, tractor-beam like, toward the destination that is elsewhere, but at the same time, there is still some hope of getting his need met from his partner.  So typically, he continues to press the partner to do what would be necessary to meet his need, but as the external destination seems more and more like the better prospect, the “tractor beam” grows stronger and stronger.  In this situation, the actor is using Stanislavsky’s notion of the circle of attention, described in the “Concentration of Attention” chapter of An Actor Prepares. The actor’s primary focus will typically be the partner, but the actor has to keep the destination (usually outside the space of the scene) in his awareness, in his circle of awareness.  Keeping the destination in the actor’s circle of awareness will start to produce subtle physical changes in the body of the actor: the body will instictively begin to prepare to move: he will shift his weight, and perhaps eventually, start to orient his feet towards going towards the external destination.  These changes should not be consciously and deliberately enacted by the actor; rather, they come about instinctively or unconsciously as the negotiation with the partner unfolds and the prospect of going towards the offstage exit becomes more and more appealing.

Ultimately, the character will decide to stay or go, depending on how the exchange with the partner goes, and, ultimately, what the script dictates.  But what has been accomplished here is the reframing of an “inner conflict” as an outer one, thus getting the actor’s attention off of herself and her emotional life, and onto the appropriate objects of her concern in the physical world.

See what I did there?

the visceral difference

In the much-read first chapter from Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, Boleslavsky says that audiences watching an actor exercising her capacity for concentration correctly should “know and feel immediately” that what that audience is witnessing is more important than whatever concerns that audience members brought into the event with them.  The importance of what the actor is undergoing must somehow be made evident by the actor’s engagement in her craft.  No small order.

The teachers I encountered at the Yale School of Drama asserted that what makes this effect possible, this immediate recognition on the part of the audience, independent of plot or story elements, is the visceral activation of the actor.  If you look up the word “visceral” in the dictionary, you will likely see something like this “pertaining to primitive or elemental emotion”, and indeed, that is what the word means in contemporary usage.  But the etymology tells the tale: the word originates with the Latin word viscera, which refers to the digestive tract, the intestines, or, more colloquially, the gut.

Visceral activation means that in some way, the actor’s gut is involved in what he or she is doing.  In our approach, this is achieved through working with the notion of objective in a particular way:  objective has to be understood as visceral need. I have discussed this distinction at length on this blog, for example, here.  But I’d like to say a bit about what the visceral difference looks like and sounds like, that is, what are the signs that such activation has been achieved?

Actors do two things more than anything else: they talk and they listen.  When a viscerally activated actor talks, they seem to be speaking from the gut, from the heart, from the core.  Perhaps the most evident example of what this is like in the current moment is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has a reputation for saying what is on his mind and in his heart in a tell-it-like-it-is way.   There is an immediacy to the way he speaks, and this is part of what accounts for his appeal.  When a viscerally activated actor speaks, he is making use of his abdominal core muscles, most importantly, the transverse abdominis, also known as the “skinny jeans” muscles, the muscles you need to tighten in order to squeeze into skinny jeans.  These muscles are deep in the layers of musculature, and they help to stabilize the spine and also interact with the diaphragm.  When these muscles are activated as part of the process of verbalizing, the actor appears to be speaking with the intention of impacting the partner: there is a palpable determination to be heard and understood.  An audience understands this immediately.  And it has nothing to do with projecting or being loud:  these muscles can be used when speaking quietly, but the effect is the same:  the actor who is activated in this way wants her words to land on her partner, and make something happen.

So much for the talking.  The listening of a viscerally- activated actor is a bit more difficult to describe.  In the process that I teach, we attempt to articulate a visceral need that the actor can embrace and pursue as a character in a given situation.  This need is understood as living in the gut.  This means that the actor needs to ground her attention in her gut, right behind the navel.  It’s like the actor has an eye or an ear there, right behind the navel, and all of the listening needs to happen from there.  This is “listening with the need”.  Everything that the partner does is immediately evaluated as either meeting the actor’s visceral need, or refusing to meet it, and this evaluation affects the actor’s next utterance, in the next moment.  This is challenging to do, because when an actor does this, she gives up the ability to monitor herself and how she is being perceived by her audience.  She can’t watch herself with her awareness placed in her belly, behind her navel.  This requires courage, but it is so satisfying for audiences because an actor engaging in this seems utterly sincere and honest.

If you consider all of this in relationship to mirror neurons we can begin to see why a viscerally engaged actor is so rewarding for audiences to watch: when the actor is viscerally activated, then through the mirror neurons of the audience, they feel themselves touched or moved in a very deep place.

Achieving visceral activation, even one time, is quite challenging.  Becoming an actor who habitually and instinctively works from the gut is more challenging by orders of magnitude, but is a very worthy goal, as such an actor can bring interest and life to virtually any script.  An awesome power, to be sure.  Like any awesome power, it comes with great responsibility.

the fun part

Have you seen Casy Affleck’s incredible work in Manchester-by-the Sea?  If not, GO!

And how does he do such great work?  It might have a little to do with this:

“The fun part for me is endlessly talking about why does he do this, or why does he do that, or why doesn’t he? I really get into that.” – Casey Affleck on Rehearsing

People who tell you that understanding motivation and objectives isn’t worth it are, quite  simply, full of it.

 

 

House of Cards writer Beau Willimon on the centrality of the underlying need of the character

In this podcast episode of the BAFTA’s Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, screenwriter Beau Willimon of the series House of Cards talks about the distinction between plot goals and the character’s fundamental need, which is a central distinction in class at Andrew Wood. His discussion starts at about 58:30, in response of to a questions posed by the audience.

From the transcript:

The one thing I always go to, and I mentioned it before is, what does the character need more than anything in the world? Because I believe characters’ behaviour, that’s it. You can talk to death what they’re thinking about, what their psychology is, what their motivations are, but ultimately all the character is is what they do, because that’s all we see. And if you know what they need, and they don’t have to know what they need necessarily, but if you know what they need then all their behaviour will be dictated by that. And then their needs will conflict with other people’s needs, and that’s where you get the conflict of drama. And the honesty of that conflict is completely determined by the brutal honesty you have about these characters’ needs. And these needs tend to be things, they’re not plot driven. It’s not like this person needs to get a new job, that’s plot. A need is, this person needs respect, this person needs love, this person needs validation, this person needs warmth. And all of the sort of tertiary needs that derive from that usually go back to that same core need, and I guess that’s as much as I can say about it.

H/T Jared Canfield

more on the trouble with meisner

By far the most popular post on this blog is from nearly a decade ago: the trouble with meisner. In that post, I acknowledge that Meisner training can be very valuable and effective, and is a good way to learn certain things.

However, it has some limitations, as I outlined in my previous post on the subject. In the interceding years, I’ve had a few more thoughts on the subject, which I thought I’d outline here.

The centerpiece of Meisner technique is the repetition exercise. This involves the repetition of a pair of phrases between two actors:

A: Your shirt is blue.
B: My shirt is blue?
A: Your shirt is blue.
B: My shirt is blue?
.
,

The phrase is allowed to change occasionally, and only occasionally. The exercise is intended to teach actors to tune into the behavioral cues from the partner, and to allow those cues to shape the delivery of the next phrase. It also helps to strip away affectation, which gets tiring to maintain over time, so that the actor is merely responding to the prompts from the partner, and not “adding” anything from an idea about how the lines should be spoken. All of this is what is meant by listening, a word that is given a talismanic significance in Meisner technique training.

And listening is important for acting, no two ways about it. It’s one of the most important elements of any performance. An actor who is not responsive to what her partners or offering her is dead in the water. So learning to be attuned to the partner is very valuable.

However, there’s only so much that can be taught about listening without entering into the question of who is listening and what they are listening for. In other words, to character. And character arises from circumstances: among other things, it arises from what has happened to someone (like how they were treated by their parents or their peers, but not limited to this, at all), and from the choices they have made (about where to live, who to marry, how to earn a living, and how those choices have panned out, but again, not at all limited to do these things). You cannot begin to listen deeply as someone in particular without taking account of these things.

Now, in a two-year Meisner program, such elements are generally taught in the second year. In reality, not everyone ends up doing a two year program. Not everyone even undertakes to do two years of Meisner training, and even when people set out to do so, not everyone crosses the finish line. So not everyone gets exposed to these important matters. And my sense is that even for those are who are, a prejudice against thinking too long on these things gets acquired, as is attested to by the email I received that I quoted in my previous post on Mesiner:

I’m a Meisner-trained actor looking for
a scene study class with a minimal focus on technique. Coming
from a Meisner background, I want the class to be more about the
interaction between the actors, and staying truthful
moment-to-moment and less about script analysis.

As important as the moment-to-moment responsiveness is, without serious consideration of the circumstances and the priorities of the character that emerge from these circumstances, this moment-to-moment responsiveness risks remaining in the shallow end. Without a significant effort to enter into the circumstances and priorities of the character, the listening risks remaining superficial, and even glib. To achieve deep listening, listening that happens in the visceral core of the actor, the circumstances and priorities have to be studied and embraced fully and painstakingly.

Part of the appeal of Meisner, I think, is that the course of the typical training regimen postpones this focus on circumstances and priorities, which involves a deep engagement with the text and the actor exercising her analytical faculties, among other things, so that for the first six to twelve months of training, the actor doesn’t need to be bothered with all that studying and thinking and puzzling over objectives, and she can just focus on repetition work, which may ask to be practiced but doesn’t require the effort of thought. (“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”–Joshua Reynolds) The focus is heavily on execution, and preparation is put off for later. This appeals to many aspiring actors, who are used to seeing actors executing in their favorite films and prestige television shows, but haven’t seen all the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that execution possible. In other words, intentional or not, structuring the training in this way amounts to a kind of pandering to the aspiring actor’s notions of what an actor’s day-to-day work is like.

That’s one issue. Another is this: on the execution side, the heavy emphasis on listening in Meisner, on receptiveness, as valuable as it is, may mean that the importance of assertiveness, of tenacity in going after the priorities of the characters, of what in my tradition is called playing to win, may get short shrift. Receptivity to the partner is very important, but there is an active principle to acting as well: the actor needs to fight for the character’s priority, to move the ball down the field, to claim territory, physical and psychic. When the focus is so heavily on how the partner’s volleys are being received, and allowing those volleys to condition the actor’s response, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the character that the actor is playing is heavily invested in proactively seeking to transform her circumstances. She is not merely answering to prompts of the partner, but is looking to impact her world in significant ways, to bring it into accord with her own vision. She is asserting herself. The opposing-yet-complementary principles of assertiveness and responsiveness are important for any actor.

The approach I teach shares the emphasis on imaginary circumstances and focusing on the partner with Meisner, and to the extent that it teaches these things, Meisner is a valuable course of study. The approach I teach begins with the leap into the character’s world through an immersion in the text, rather than with the basic fact of a partner who is to be responded to, which is Meisner’s starting point. The approach I teach also emphasizes the simultaneity of the assertive and the receptive principles: the actor needs to be fighting for what she needs at the most visceral level possible, and be responsive to her world from that visceral place moment-to-moment. It’s bringing these values into harmony that makes for the most compelling and memorable work.

circumstances, underlying objective, and Donald Trump

In reading about this crazy primary season circus, I came across a profile of Al Sharpton on Politico. The subject was Sharpton’s take, as a fixture of New York politics for decades, on the Donald Trump phenomenon. And what he said about what motivates Trump is instructive in terms of the concept of underlying objective, which is central to the approach to acting that I teach:

And that’s when he gets to his keenest observation — the best assessment of Trump’s deepest motivations I’ve yet heard, and one that Beltway pundits who don’t understand the tangled psychological geography of the five boroughs miss: Trump may have been born with millions and erected huge buildings that bear his name, but he still feels the resentment of a gaudy, new-money outsider who has decided to burn down a Yankee establishment that always viewed him as a garish, grasping joke.
“Donald Trump was a Queens guy,” says Sharpton, who hails from Brooklyn’s Brownsville, the city’s toughest neighborhood, a collection of housing projects jammed hard between Queens and the Jamaica Bay swamps — and the scene of an all-out crack war in the 1980s and ’90s.

“His father was a successful real estate guy, but they were Queens guys. They were outer borough

[and] had to break into the big Manhattan aristocracy. He was an outsider — rich, but an outsider. He was not part of the Manhattan elite. So, he always had this outsider feeling — us against them. So, in many ways, when I read people talk about, ‘Well, do you have a billionaire as a populist?’ He does feel like he’s one of the guys who was shut out.

So, in terms of underlying objective, which is a way of thinking about objective that unites the character’s long-term plot goals with his moment-to-moment needs, we can see that Trump needs respect as an elite American , as a man among men. And we can also see how this need arises from the defining circumstance of his youth: that his father and himself were shut out of the winner’s circle in Manhattan social life. So then it becomes incumbent on the actor to do the imaginative work of exploring what that condition of being shut out actually looked like, how it was directly experienced in that past of the character, so that it becomes particularized and lives in the body of the actor.

See also the Islamic State and acting and rethinking “motivation” with Sebastian Junger and Rachel Maddow.

not you as the character, but the character as you

The other night, I was saying goodnight to a student who was leaving class. This was her first acting class, and she hadn’t yet put her scene up. She mentioned that she and her scene partner had done their scene for someone else, a third person, and she had asked that third person whether or not it had seemed like she was a different person when shte was acting, whether she had “become the character”.

I didn’t want to detain her from getting home, so I didn’t take the matter any further at that point. But I subsequently sent her an email in which I gently explained that thinking about “becoming the character” was not really the thing that she should be worrying about in the moment.

I once heard the following piece of advice: Don’t try to see yourself as the character. Try to see the character as you.

I remember the first day of acting class at Yale. Someone was doing a scene from Three Sisters, playing Masha. Earle, the teacher, said to the student: Masha lives in you. He was trying to tell her that she didn’t need to “become someone else” to play the role; he needed to bring herself to the role.

The lay person believes that “becoming the character” is what actors do, and in a sense, of course, that’s true. But only in a sense.

I don’t teach Meisner technique, but I know enough about it to know that the regimen of repetition exercises is about getting people to simplify what they are doing, to strip away the affect, to get out of their heads, and to respond as simply and authentically as they can to the partner.

In other words, it’s not helping them to become someone else. It’s helping them to allow themselves to show up.

My approach goes about achieving that in a very different way, but the goal is the same: you, the actor, are bringing your own passions and vulnerabilities to the character, channeling them appropriately, so that the words of the writer arise from “an authentic place”.

This is a really challenging point for a lot of new actors: they want to think about the character and what “he (or she) would do”. But you don’t have to think about what he or she would do; the writer has already provided that! You need to find the need in yourself to do those things.

Of course, people sometimes do play characters who are very far from who they are as people, and a transformation is required for them to do that. But that transformation cannot eclipse the actor’s own self or humanity or vulnerability: that is always going to be a part of any successful performance. That’s kind of an advanced challenge, to be able to change voice and body dramatically, without compromising the actor’s investment in the character’s needs and priorities.

the great challenge of making imagined relationships feel like real ones

I came across a column on The New York Times website, called The Myth of Quality Time.

Columnist Frank Bruni shares a realization that he had about why he changed his mind about thinking that brief visits with family members or other loved ones were best:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

Bruni is saying that the defining moments of relationships of any duration occur as they occur. Not on anyone’s schedule. Not by appointment. Not by any kind of design.

What does this tell us, as actors? It tells us that the relationship-defining moments, the moments that make Blanche and Stella into Blanche and Stella, or make Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, happen in the midst of long stretches of time the individuals in question have spent together. And it’s also true that these special, definitive moments arise, unexpectedly and mysteriously, from the daily, mundane interactions, the exchanging of pleasantries, the doing of favors, the reporting on how the day went, etc. The special moments of connection emerge from the everyday comings and goings, and the familiarity that grows in the process.

It’s this familiarity, borne out of repeated, everyday interactions that occur over months, years, even decades, that actors attempt to create when they enter into an imaginary relationship in a fictional situation.

Doing this successfully is no small feat, and one that is, sadly, often taken for granted.

How to go about this process of making fictional relationships seem like real ones? There are some tools that I present in the class, which I’ll describe briefly below, but the most important thing is to recognize that making a fictional relationship seem like a real one is not something to take for granted. There’s no one way to do it, but it must be done. Too often people think it’s as simple as saying “Ok, we’re sisters” or “You’re the boss, I’m the employee” and then you can get on with the all-important business of deciding how to deliver the lines or whatever. Keeping in mind the fact that a relationship is something that develops across an expanse of time, often a vast one, and is given definition both through the major milestones, good and bad, and through the process of unremarkable, everyday interaction, is paramount. If you keep these facts in view, you won’t forget about what you’re up against.

One important means of lending depth and substance to an imaginary relationship is to bring imagination and specificity to the defining moments of a relationship, the major milestones that I mentioned. How did the relationship come into being? What were its origins? What were the high points? The crisis points? How were the crises overcome, so that the relationship survived? Making these little short films of the imagination is a great way to begin to give the relationship a specific gravity. It’s backstory, yes, but not a more or less arbitrary stream of factoids strung together into a “”backstory” or character bio; it’s backstory that focuses specifically on the defining moments of the relationship, its origins, peaks and valleys. We can call this process particularization of the relationship.

Another valuable tool is transference. The term comes from Uta Hagen’s book, A Challenge for the Actor. Transference means finding relationships from the actor’s own experience that approximate the relationships of the character to people, places and things. Playing Stella Kowalski? You want to find a transference to help you make the relationship with your Blanche feel more real. If you had an older sister who you were once close to, or even one you still are close to, you’re all set. If not, then you have to try to find another relationship from your own life whose essence approximates the relationship that the character you’re playing has with the character in question. Then you want to find ways to reinforce that transference. While you don’t want to be trying to think of the person from your own life while you’re rehearsing (you want to be present, in the moment), creating little rituals to regularly remind yourself outside of rehearsal of the connection can go a long way towards prompting the unconscious mind to direct the energy associated with the real relationship into the fictional one.

Also, taking care to always engage in relationship while rehearsing, that is, to treat every moment when you are actually rehearsing a scene as a moment of relationship in involving give and take and the pursuit of visceral need, then each of these moments acts as a deposit in the piggy bank of real relationship, and gradually, over time, the fictional relationship will start to take root and find a reality of its own. But every time you treat a moment of rehearsal as an exercise in remembering the lines or the blocking, this deposit in the piggy bank of relationship does NOT occur, in fact, when rehearsal is approached that way, a deposit is made in the piggy bank of mechanical repetition, and that’s NOT where your want your money.

These strategies are most effectively used together, in and out of rehearsal, to get over the bar of making fictional relationships seem like real ones. It takes work, but it’s one of the greatest pleasures that the craft of acting affords.

STOP! in the name of doing it better

Interesting piece on NPR this morning about a photographer who has photographed every New Hampshire primary since 1980.

What caught my interest was this:

Cole has a rule he follows when out on assignment: No matter how crowded the press gaggle gets, he never takes a picture while he’s touching another photographer. The point is to force himself to think of a different approach to each shot.

Take, for instance, a campaign appearance by George H.W. Bush at Nashua Airport in 1988: All of the other photographers followed the then-vice president on board an airplane.
Vice President George Bush waves from the cockpit of a World War II B-17 bomber at a quick campaign stop at Boire Field in Nashua, N.H. on Wednesday, July 15,1987.
Jim Cole/AP

“I stayed outside, and with all the luck in the world, Bush stuck his head out the pilot’s window and waved to everybody,” said Cole. (click here to view the picture)

With this rule, which does not allow him to take a picture if he is touching another reporter, (in other words if he is stuck in a scrum of reporters all taking the same picture ) Cole is practicing what in the Alexander technique is called inhibition. While inhibition might not sound like a good thing, in the context of the Alexander technique, it is. In the Alexander technique, inhibition is the ability to suppress one’s habitual response to things in order to open up the possibility of a different kind of response. Since many of our physical habits are the results of trauma or other kinds of negative input, it’s important for actors to engage with their physical habits and develop new habits that maximize expressive capacity and presence.

While the Alexander technique works with physical habits, in class at Andrew Wood, we work in part with mental habits, particularly the habits that we have involving how we understand and frame human motivation. Knee-jerk attempts at stating the motivations of characters often entail negative judgments and are focused on goals about the future (what we call plot objective), rather than on the present moment. At Andrew Wood, we learn to “inhibit” these initial ways of looking and thinking, and to find ways of understanding and framing what characters are after that are empathic and oriented towards the here and now of relationship rather than the future. Actors are forever enjoined to “be in the moment”, but aren’t asked to think about motivation in ways that promote this focus them on the here and now of interpersonal dynamics.

It’s what makes this kind of difference.

cocaine and the rat park

Interesting piece in the Huffington Post on some new thinking about the causes of addiction. It’s interesting for actors because it throws into relief the central place that the need for social connection and belonging occupies in understanding why people do what they do, which is a subject I have written about extensively.

Briefly, if a researcher put a lone rat in a cage with a choice between water laced with cocaine and water, he would fixate on the cocaine water and become an addict.

But put him in the Rat Park,

a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want.

and a funny thing happened:

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

These are rats, though, not people, right? Not so fast:

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

I have heard a different explanation of why these soldiers successfully shook the addiction than the one being pushed here, but this result viewed in light of the rat experiments and the other results described in the article underline that the need for human beings to feel a sense of belonging and connection to a social world is so strong that they will go to self-destructive lengths to compensate if they are deprived of this connection. That’s how strong the need is. And that is the need that we try to touch and leverage in scene work at Andrew Wood.

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