the hara! the hara!

I recently received an inquiry from someone in London who wanted to know more about underlying objective. He had read some of the stuff on the blog, and wanted to know more. I didn’t have a lot more to offer him than what can already by found on the blog, because underlying objective is a concept that really becomes meaningful in the context of working on a scene, and there is only so much that can be said about it outside of such a context.

However, I did make some recommendations. Part of the purpose of underlying objective is to awaken a vitality that lives in the belly, that is visceral. And that can be approached through physical training as well as through the analytical tools we work with at Mother of Invention. One of the recommendations I made was Zen meditation practice. The reason for that is that Zen students are urged to focus their awareness on a region of the body called the hara, which is the area between the belly and the groin. I found an excellent discussion of this online that quotes the late Philip Kapleau’s book The Three Pillars of Zen. It’s a great passage, so I am going to present the whole thing here as well, with some important passages highlighted:

Hara literally denotes the stomach and abdomen and the functions of digestion, absorption, and elimination connected with them. But it has parallel psychic and spiritual significance. According to Hindu and Buddhist yogic systems, there are a number of psychic centers in the body through which vital cosmic force or energy flows. Of the two such centers embraced within the hara, one is associated with the solar plexus, whose system of nerves governs the digestive processes and organs of elimination. Hara is thus a wellspring of vital psychic energies. Harada-roshi, one of the most celebrated Zen masters of his day, in urging his disciples to concentrate their mind’s eye (i.e., the attention, the summation point of the total being) in their hara, would declare: “You must realize”—i.e., make real—”that the center of the universe is the pit of your belly!

To facilitate his experience of this fundamental truth, the Zen novice is instructed to focus his mind constantly at the bottom of his hara (specifically, between the navel and the pelvis) and to radiate all mental and bodily activities from that region. With the body-mind’s equilibrium centered in the hara, gradually a seat of consciousness, a focus of vital energy, is established there which influences the entire organism.

That consciousness is by no means confined to the brain is shown by Lama Govinda, who writes as follows: “While, according to Western conceptions, the brain is the exclusive seat of consciousness, yogic experience shows that our brain-consciousness is only one among a number of possible forms of consciousness, and that these, according to their function and nature, can be localized or centered in various organs of the body. These ‘organs,’ which collect, transform, and distribute the forces flowing through them, are called cakras, or centers of force. From them radiate secondary streams of psychic force, comparable to the spokes of a wheel, the ribs of an umbrella, or the petals of a lotus. In other words, these cakras are the points in which psychic forces and bodily functions merge into each other or penetrate each other. They are the focal points in which cosmic and psychic energies crystallize into bodily qualities, and in which bodily qualities are dissolved or transmuted again into psychic forces.

Settling the body’s center of gravity below the navel, that is, establishing a center of consciousness in the hara, automatically relaxes tensions arising from the habitual hunching of the shoulders, straining of the neck, and squeezing in of the stomach. As this rigidity disappears, an enhanced vitality and new sense of freedom are experienced throughout the body and mind, which are felt more and more to be a unity.

Zazen (meditation) has clearly demonstrated that with the mind’s eye centered in the hara the proliferation of random ideas is diminished and the attainment of one-pointedness accelerated, since a plethora of blood from the head is drawn down to the abdomen, “cooling” the brain and soothing the autonomic nervous system. This in turn leads to a greater degree of mental and emotional stability. One who functions from his hara, therefore, is not easily disturbed. He is, moreover, able to act quickly and decisively in an emergency owing to the fact that his mind, anchored in his hara, does not waver.

With the mind in the hara, narrow and egocentric thinking is superseded by a broadness of outlook and a magnanimity of spirit.This is because thinking from the vital hara center, being free of mediation by the limited discursive intellect, is spontaneous and all embracing. Perception from the hara tends toward integration and unity rather than division and fragmentation. In short, it is thinking which sees things steadily and whole.

The figure of the Buddha seated on his lotus throne—serene, stable, all-knowing and all-encompassing, radiating boundless light and compassion—is the foremost example of hara expressed through perfect enlightenment. Rodin’s “Thinker,” on the other hand, a solitary figure “lost” in thought and contorted in body, remote and isolated from his Self, typifies the opposite state.

The meditation posture itself, with the spine resting on the sitbones, planted like a stake in the ground, and the thighs stretched open, helps with this process of moving the center of consciousness to the abdomen.

In our time, people love to talk about body and mind being one, but that is often as far as they take it. However, if that’s true, training the body is also training the mind. And for the actor, Zen training is great training to have.

the hara! the hara!2018-02-26T21:49:18-08:00

not everybody made the list this year, Michael Fassbender

You know, this list.

Mr. Fassbender has been getting raves for his performance in Shame. I saw it tonight fully expecting add him to my list. But, it turns out, his performance was…not great. There were certainly things to admire about it. He knows how to exploit his personal vulnerability to seduce people, and that’s not nothing. But there were a lot of holes. Consider the moment after (not a spoiler!) his boss gets off the video phone call with his son. This is a climactic moment in the film. Notice Fassbender’s physicality in this moment. It’s awkward and stiff, and not because the moment is awkward and stiff. He has no idea, as an actor, what to do with his body.

And that’s the thing about Fassbender: when he does act, it’s pretty much completely from the neck up. If he does become viscerally activated, it’s in a tight close-up when he knows no one is looking at his body, and he relaxes.

Consider the “big” moment near the end of the movie in the rain. He tries really hard, but that’s all we get. We are not there with him, experiencing what he is experiencing. We are on the outside looking in, because he isn’t really in it himself. He’s supposed to be convulsing, but he isn’t really convulsing, so it doesn’t work.

Also, he’s not that good at dialogue. There is a long scene in a restaurant, when he’s on a date, and his partner in that scene acts circles around him. She’s going on the list.

Mr. Fassbender deserves props for the difficult, painful situations he explores in the movie, and for the moments when he does pull it off. He’s talented. But he needs to read Uta Hagen’s chapter on Animation in A Challenge for the Actor. And fire his acting coach.

not everybody made the list this year, Michael Fassbender2018-02-26T21:49:30-08:00

danger artists

Actors are danger artists.

No one wants to go and watch actors that can’t experience danger, and experience it in a way that we can experience that danger with them.

As animals, we have an instinctive, preconscious understanding that other animals activate their pelvic core when they sense danger. The pelvic core is a constellation of muscles that goes from the lower thighs to the abdominals, and is intimately connected with basic fight-or-flight functions like locomotion, stability (needed for fighting), strength, and appetite. While many people live their lives with little or no core consciousness or activation, actors always need to have a wakefulness in this region. Otherwise, they are sending a signal to the audience that nothing dangerous or significant is about to happen.

That’s why we place such a high premium on articulating an underlying objective in the class. An underlying objective is a positive need that lives in the gut or belly, and prompts us to engage with the world to meet this need. Everything an actor does should issue from this need, just as all movement should include at least a modicum of core awareness or activation.

There are many acting approaches out there that emphasize the importance of give-and-take with the partner, that as actors, we are always trying to affect others and are being affected by them. But too many of these techniques take this give-and-take as the be-all and end-all. If all of the impulses that the actor receives are being processed in a more superficial region than the core (often the intercostal muscles, which help the ribs move in concert with the lungs), and therefore all outgoing impulses originate in this more superficial region as well, then an actor can offer us a very “believable”, and even “honest” performance that clearly presents the arc of a character, but we remain uninvolved. Our sympathy might aroused, but not our empathy. There will be no danger. The danger will not be televised, because there isn’t any.

The give-and-take with the other actors and with the environment is very important, but the neuromuscular center underwriting that activity is at least as important. A give-and-take where there is no core engagement and no danger can only be described, ultimately, in one way: boring.

danger artists2018-02-26T21:49:43-08:00

El Duende and underlying objective

I was making the best of a Sunday night, trawling around what is quickly becoming one of my favorite websites, I was reading this essay, which is quite good, by the way, about what keeps writers writing (or any artist creating art). And I came across a term I had never encountered before, in the context of a quote from Garcia Lorca: “The true fight is with the duende”.

Curious, I consulted the oracle of Palo Alto, which sent me to the Wikipedia. What I found was electrifying. The whole article is worth a read, and is quite short, but here are some highlights:

The meaning of duende as in tener duende (having duende) is a rarely-explained concept in Spanish art, particularly flamenco, having to do with emotion, expression and authenticity. In fact, tener duende can be loosely translated as having soul.

El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to music. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. Folk music in general, especially flamenco, tends to embody an authenticity that comes from a people whose culture is enriched by diaspora and hardship; vox populi, the human condition of joys and sorrows.

According to Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende”, at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca’s lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity, to God-given grace and charm (what Spaniards call “angel”), and to the classical, artistic norms dictated by the muse. Not that the artist simply surrenders to the duende; he or she has to battle it skillfully, “on the rim of the well”, in “hand-to-hand combat”. To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort. It is, in Lorca’s words, “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience… the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.” The critic Brook Zern has written, of a performance of someone with duende, “it dilates the mind’s eye, so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable… There is a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal…”.


Lorca writes: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

“Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.” (i.e. emotional ‘blackness’)

“This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya.”

“The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”

“All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.” [1]– García Lorca, Play and Theory of the Duende

Reading this article started to stir up my bodily humors: adrenaline, bile and testosterone in equal parts. This duende seems to be a great description of what we attempt to bring to our work in class by articulating an underlying objective for the character. There are so many great things in the piece above, but particularly appropriate to the class is the thing about duende “creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort.” In the first class of the ten weeks, I always point to a passage from the first chapter of Boleslavsky’s book, where Boleslavsky informs the actor that their work must be such that those watching must “know and feel immediately” that what the actor is doing is more important than whatever the spectator was preoccupied with in the moment before the actor began. It seems that for this recognition to be immediate, it must be pre-cognitive: it must speak to the intuitions and instincts of the spectator.

If duende is so elusive and norm-defying, why do we try to get at it with technique? Well, the truth is that I can make a few points about what an underlying objective is or isn’t, but at a certain point, the actor has to move beyond the rules and, by fusing herself to the role, wrench the answer from deep within. She is almost required to become a poet for a moment, or at least to touch the poetic spirit the writer has imbued the work with. Yes, it’s frustrating, but if it were merely a matter of a few simple rules, I guarantee the duende would never appear. Articulating an underlying objective does not guarantee the appearance of duende; indeed, it is clear that nothing ever could. But it creates a condition of receptiveness; the actor makes herself into a vessel and waits to be filled.

Not bad for a Sunday night, n’est-ce pas?

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

El Duende and underlying objective2018-02-26T21:50:47-08:00

David Foster Wallace on “puff words”

In class, we spend a lot of time learning to talk about who we are as the role, what we are pursuing, etc. And I strive to instill in my students an understanding of how important it is to speak about the scene in an immediate, direct, visceral way. That’s why I like this so much:

(If you just see a bunch of HTML below, then click the headline above to go to my blog and watch the video)

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
David Foster Wallace on “puff words”2018-02-26T21:50:50-08:00
Go to Top