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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 camera and the gut

The idea of acting being “physical” is a popular one.  Actors live in fear of being “in their heads”, and hope that their acting is physical and not intellectual.

Well and good.  But riddle me this: if acting is or should be physical, in what physical part of the body does it happen?  In the face?  In the chest, in close proximity to the heart?

If you like the idea of acting being not only physical but “visceral”, then you want acting to take place in the actor’s gut, in the pit of his stomach.  That’s what visceral means: gut-level.

But so much of acting and film and television happens in close-up.  So what of the gut, in that case?  The face, the neck, perhaps the chest: that’s where the action is.  Acting has to happen there, or not at all, if it is to show up on camera, right?

No.  Not right.

What is happening viscerally, at the gut level, shows up in the face and in the eyes. And if nothing is happening viscerally, that shows up too.

Sometimes actors fall into thinking they have to “act” only with what is visible in the camera frame, and while they know better than to mug and indicate, they still end up with overactive faces, because they feel like the face has to do all the work.

When the acting is good, we see through your face.  We see into you. Acting is an exercise in laying yourself bare.  This means that generally speaking, the face should not be too active.  This allows whatever is happening viscerally, at the gut level, to be visible.  But if the face is too active, then what is happening viscerally is masked.  Again, this is a rule of thumb, not a recommendation to keep a blank facial expression at all times.  There are times when an active face is appropriate and called for.

The gut is where it’s at.

“You must realize that the center of the universe is in the pit of your stomach.”–Zen Master Harada-roshi

 

 

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.

the Islamic State and acting

Like many people, I have been poring over reportage about the Islamic State, and I came across a discussion of what makes people vulnerable to ISIS recruiters, and ultimately prompts them to join ISIS:

The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.

This quest for what these psychologists call personal significance is what we call underlying objective in the approach taught by me and by Evan Yionoulis at the Yale School of Drama. In this approach, every scene, and in fact every moment of every scenes, has to be understood as a bid for this personal significance, in a manner that it is independent of the medium- and long-term goals that the character has for changes in his circumstances. These medium- and long- term goals, which we call plot objectives in the approach, are easier to spot, and tempting to fixate on as a way of articulating something to pursue as a character, but they are insufficient, generally, for the purpose of helping the actor to activate her own visceral need for personal significance, her need to matter, to be meaningfully connected to others.

It’s striking to see that even in the case of people who join such an alien and horrific organization, we can understand something about what motivates these people with this notion of underlying objective.

It’s a revolution in the way in which scenes from dramatic texts, and indeed human encounters more broadly, are understood. Sign up for a class at Andrew Wood and plug yourself into this amazing source of acting power.

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.

see what I mean? (eisenberg vs. segel)

segeleisenberg

(This post continues my last one.)

Quick: which of these two actors seems more alive to you in this moment?

If you said Eisenberg, on the left, look again, and this time, pay attention to what is happening inside of you when you look.

See what I mean?

I am always astounded at the power of still photographs to reveal exactly how much an actor has going on.

If you said Eisenberg initially, you may have been attracted to a certain alertness and sense of expectation in his face. And none of that is bad (as long as it isn’t preventing something from happening in a deeper place, which can sometimes be the case). But what makes an actor compelling, involving, gripping, what makes their performance sticky, so that it stays with you and you wake up the next morning and it’s still there, somehow inside you, is the still-waters-run -deep quality evident in Segel, on the right.

My belief is that this has to do with mirror neurons: when we watch someone perform, our nervous system is replicating, for us, what they are experiencing, in our mirror system. That’s why the screen kiss is such a phenomenon, we all get to experience the thrill of the kiss, without any of the baggage or risk that may come with it.

When an actor is viscerally activated, in his or her core (visceral means “pertaining to the gut, the belly”, believe it or not), and we watch him, we get viscerally activated as well, thanks to our mirror system. So we experience the actor in a deeper way, and he or show leaves a more lasting impression than otherwise.

The miracle is how do we know this? We can’t see inside the actor’s gut. But I believe that we are exquisitely attuned, through evolution, to recognize this visceral activation, this vulnerability, perhaps because it signals that someone might be about to do something unexpected, something totally out-of-character, perhaps something dangerous. How do we recognize it? Through careful attention to the face, the eyes, and to the voice, and how it is produced, and where in the body it comes from. It’s something we learn to do so well because we were so entirely dependent on our parents as small children, and pleasing them meant everything. So it’s something we do without even being aware, when we do it.

Try it. The next time you consume some acting, whether on TV, at a movie, or even onstage, as you watch the acting, watch yourself, your core, that space behind your navel where you get butterflies in the stomach, and see which actors get in there, and which don’t. It will likely be an eye-opener.

“But where does the emotion come from?”

I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.

As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.

At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.

With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.

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what keen ears are hearing

NPR conducted a poll in which they played two sounds during a broadcast: one was hot water being poured into a glass, and the other was cold water being poured into the same glass.

The results? Eighty percent of the 30,000 respondents guessed correctly on the cold water, and a whopping 91% guessed right on the hot water (I’m a little unclear about how you get one right and not the other, but I didn’t see the original poll). And how were people able to tell the difference?

Cold water is more viscous, or sticky, than hot water. That’s what makes that high pitched ringing, and it’s what tells your brain – this glass of water is cold – before you even take a sip.

The difference is extremely subtle: click the link above and listen, and you’ll see what I mean. And yet a very high percentage of people were able to distinguish between these two sounds.

I think this is very important because if we have this level of sensitivity to sound, it suggests that we are able to discern where in an actor’s body the sound is originating from when she speaks, and likely without even being aware of this discernment. In class, we seek to help actors approach their scene in such a way that their primitive need for connection with others is activated, a need believed by my teachers at the Yale School of Drama and by me, to live in the viscera, the gut, the lower abdomen. Think of the expression that something “was like a kick in the stomach.” That. When an actor’s impulses are originating in this place, something extraordinary happens, as I have written about many times before: speech that originates in the core confers upon the speaking actor a peculiar authority. We, the audience, can sense that the actor is speaking from the depths of her being. And the way we can sense it, for the most part, is that we can hear it. We can hear where the utterance is originating, where it is issuing from.

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“the muscle of the soul”

One of the things that distinguishes the approach that I teach to acting, which I encountered as a directing graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, is the notion of visceral activation. The word “visceral”, I explain to students at their first night of class, comes from the Latin word viscera, meaning “”gut” or “intestines”. The idea is that the lower abdomen is the seat of our very primitve need to thrive and flourish, that is, for well-being. Thriving and flourishing, it turns out, are intimately linked to a sense of belonging, of connection to others. By attempting to bring the need that is housed in that area to bear on every moment of a performance, we strive for maximum vulnerability, authority, and presence as an actor.

I have written about this quite a bit, including here and here and here and here. So when I came across this piece, by Yoga teacher Danielle Prohom Olson , on a muscle in the abdominal core called the Psoas, I got very excited. Olson had recently discovered the work of a teacher named Liz Koch, who teaches what she calls Core Awareness.

According to Koch, the Psoas is far more than a core stabilizing muscle; it is an organ of perception composed of bio-intelligent tissue and “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.”

Yes! Our elemental desire to flourish! That is exactly what the work that we do at Mother of Invention, which centers on getting in touch with an underlying objective, our need to flourish, is all about. And it means that all discussions of motivation come down to a basic, visceral, positive need to flourish! Everyone is trying to grow, expand, and thrive, by living connected, dynamic, full lives. To be able to do this, everyone has to enter relationship with others, to be connected. So everyone is vulnerable, viscerally vulnerable, because of this need for connection.

Also, the Psoas is “bio-intelligent tissue!” The Psoas is not just a muscle, it receives and processes information as well. This is consistent with this earlier blog post I wrote about brain research indicating the the gut processes information in a way that is similar to the brain, that in fact the gut can be thought of as a “second brain.” This is hugely important, because as actors, we have to learn to “receive with the gut” or “receive with the need”; that the measuring of what we are receiving from our world and our scene partners happens not in the head but in the gut!

And what is the Psoas?

The Psoas muscle (pronounced so-as) is the deepest muscle of the human body affecting our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning.

Growing out of both sides of the spine, the psoas spans laterally from the 12th thoracic vertebrae (T12) to each of the 5 lumbar vertebrae. From there it flows down through the abdominal core, the pelvis, to attach to the top of the femur (thigh) bone.

But wait! There’s more!

A tight psoas not only creates structural problems, it constricts the organs, puts pressure on nerves, interferes with the movement of fluids, and impairs diaphragmatic breathing.

Koch believes the first step in cultivating a healthy psoas is to release unnecessary tension. But “to work with the psoas is not to try to control the muscle, but to cultivate the awareness necessary for sensing its messages. This involves making a conscious choice to become somatically aware.”

A relaxed psoas is the mark of play and creative expression. Instead of the contracted psoas, ready to run or fight, the relaxed and released psoas is ready instead to lengthen and open, to dance. In many yoga poses (like tree) the thighs can’t fully rotate outward unless the psoas releases. A released psoas allows the front of the thighs to lengthen and the leg to move independently from the pelvis, enhancing and deepening the lift of the entire torso and heart.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

The relaxed Psoas is ready to lengthen and open, to thrive, to experience meaningful connection that is the basis of our contentment. In class, we always look for a name for the visceral need, the underlying objective, that is positive. The actor must always understand herself to be reaching out in a scene for something worth having, even when she the scene requires that she hurl a thunderbolt at someone. We may use the core strength of the Psoas to hurl the thunderbolt, but we need to always return to the condition of openness to what our world has to offer.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

Koch writes “The psoas, by conducting energy, grounds us to the earth, just as a grounding wire prevents shocks and eliminates static on a radio. Freed and grounded, the spine can awaken”…“ As gravitational flows transfer weight through bones, tissue, and muscle, into the earth, the earth rebounds, flowing back up the legs and spine, energizing, coordinating and animating posture, movement and expression. It is an uninterrupted conversation between self, earth, and cosmos.”

The Psoas is the muscle of the soul. What did Stanislavsky say? Acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” See how it all comes together?

I am really excited to learn through Olson about Koch’s work. Seems like I am going to have learn something about grantwriting in the near future, so I can go on one of these Core Awareness retreats. And Koch is based in Santa Cruz. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to convince her co-teach with me at Mother of Invention one day. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, watch this space!

the energy garden

Readers of my blog and those familiar with my teaching know that I place the highest emphasis on the visceral activation of the actor: if the actor can somehow involve the muscles and nerves in the lower abdomen, the so-called Pilates core, in her work, then her work will shine, pretty much no matter what. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you know others are watching, as they always are for actors, and when you have lines to say and other things to keep an eye on.

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered a wonderful discussion of the primacy of the lower abdomen in the book Zen Training Methods and Philosophy by Katsuki Sekida. We are reading excerpts from the book in my new advanced class, and this is one of them. This chapter is an absolutely extraordinary explication of the importance of this region for any endeavor.

Why is this region, called the tanden or “energy garden”, so important? Well, one reason is that the muscles in the lower abdomen control the breathing apparatus. By engaging these muscles, the pressure is placed on the diaphragm, which drives inhalation and exhalation. As Sekida puts it:

In according such importance to the tanden we do not question that it is the brain that thinks, plans, and gives orders; but what carries out the directions of the brain is, in the first place, the abdominal muscle structure, together with the diaphragm. If they do not go to work, no scheme is translated into action. You cannot produce a piece of music by simply staring at the score. When the respiratory muscles set to work, mental—or spiritual—power is put into action.

Even if you are breathing shallowly, into your chest, you cannot do it without some engagement from the muscles in the lower abdomen. Without them, nothing happens. Now consider the words “respiration”, “inspiration” and “spirit”. The common root speaks for itself. Respiration is re-spiriting yourself. Without the abdominal muscles, that would never happen.

Or as Sekida starkly restates:

Our contention, then, is that controlled respiration generates spiritual power, and that attention, which is actually spiritual power, can never be exercised without tension in the tanden. Some detailed examples may serve to explain this idea further.

He goes on to explain how in a variety of disciplines of performance, from circus to calligraphy to cartography to tea ceremony to sumo wrestling, the abdominal respiratory muscles of the tanden play an absolutely essential role. He even discusses American football:

Now let us stop and think of the players’ posture just before their dash, and consider how they are breathing, and what part of the body is particularly tensed at the moment of darting forward. The breath, of course, will be stopped, arms and legs tensed. But how about the abdomen? In reality, you cannot dart forward if strength is not thrown into the abdomen. Even if you throw your entire body against your opponent, if the center of gravity is not fixed in the lower abdomen, and the hips and buttocks are not supporting the center of gravity from below, you will undoubtedly suffer a severe fall. All Americans must know that the momentary collision is not merely the percussion of two bodies: it is a combat between spiritual powers.

A combat between spiritual powers. A more fitting description of the drama could hardly be found, and indeed, the great drama critic Richard Gilman loved to quote Henry James’ discussion of Ibsen, in whose work he saw “the ego against the ego, the soul against the soul”.

So all of this, I think, helps to explain why I place the emphasis that I do on visceral activation in the training of the actor. Much of what actors do is talk, which seems to be an activity of the one of the extremities: the jaw. It can be done with minimal involvement of the tanden. But if that is how it is done, everyone watching instinctively understands that nothing important is happening, and they are likely to remember that they have a scratch in their throat and start coughing, or take out their smart phones and start tweeting about how bored they are, or, worse still, get up and leave.

Sekida’s focus is on the engagement of the abdominal muscles, but that is only half the story: the receptive nerves in the tanden are vital as well. In the pit of our stomachs, we measure our standing with our world, especially with our social world. The actor needs this apparatus as much as he needs the muscles. When both the active and receptive principles are active in the core, and not merely in the solar plexus, or the throat, or in the face, then the actor is living FULLY under imaginary circumstances. It’s rare enough that anyone who witnesses it feels they are experiencing a miracle. And, in fact they are: they are seeing the actor conduct and distribute spiritual energy through their cores. Our society needs this now, sad to say, more than ever.

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