We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. –Tao Te Ching
I have written on several occastions about Josh Waitzkin’s remarkable book The Art of Learning, in which he chronicles his journeys to becoming an international chess player as a child and to winning a world championship in a martial art. I include the book in the reading list for my class, and my students have found it extremely inspiring and instructive.
One phrase that he uses several times in the book, but doesn’t expand upon, is what he calls “filling negative space”. We know this principle in the pronouncement of Western science that “nature abhors a vacuum”: matter tends to move into space that is not already occupied. I have studied T’ai-Chi, and though no teacher of mine ever used the phrase “filling negative space”, I immediately knew what he meant. T’ai-Chi involves following a series of slow, choreographed movements. In part because of the slowness, as you do the movements, you begin to be aware of how what you have just done conditions what you can do next. For example, if you have shifted your weight onto the right foot, then the next shift of weight will be to the left. Perhaps it won’t come right away, perhaps the form requires that you stay perched on your right foot for a while as you wave hands like clouds or return to mountain camp, but eventually, there will be a shift in your weight, and it will be from the right foot to the left foot. Similarly, if some movement requires you to fully extend your arm out towards your right side, then the next time you move that arm, there will be some movement away from the right, towards the left. You may bend your elbow and bring your forearm back towards you, but in that case, the forearm is moving leftward. You may simultaneously sweep the forearm down towards your groin, but you are still moving part of that rightwardly extended arm partly to the left. This is not a rule of T’ai-Chi, it is a fact of our being. As you do T’ai-Chi and move through the form, you begin to “feel” the possible movements before you make them. They have a reality, even though the movements have not happened yet. They exist, but in the realm of the possible.
In acting class, we work with objectives. In my acting class, we work with two kinds of objectives. To keep this discussion as jargon-free as possible, let’s call them needs and outcomes. A need is something that lives inside of us, an appetite, a hunger, a fire. An outcome is something that we try to bring about in order to get that need met. When we act, and we “look with the need”, that is, allow the need to direct our receiving of the world around us, we are confronted with a gap between How It Is and How It Could Be. How It Could Be is the outcome that will give us what we need, that will satisfy us. Once the vision of How It Could Be comes to us, then, after an instant, arising out our intuition and our need is What We Must Do Next. What We Must Do Next is an attempt to close the gap between How It Is and How It Could Be.
I realize I am waxing a little mystical, which isn’t my my usual style. I like to keep things very practical and concrete, as much as possible. But we are, after all, talking about art, and art is not going to yield its secrets up in a Power Point presentation. So I am inventing some terms here to try to express something about what acting can be, at its most pleasurable, something that we aren’t very well equipped to put into words.
There is something enormously pleasurable about filling negative space. In the moment that we do, we experience the possible and the actual coming together in ourselves. We experience a kind of harmoniousness, a fit with our world that is by no means a constant in human existence. We are answering How It Is. Add to that that the How It Is in question is a set of imaginary circumstances, an unreal situation, that is becoming momentarily real by virtue of our answering those imaginary circumstances, and the whole thing becomes pretty psychedelic. As Stanislavsky wrote, acting is using technique to give birth to the human soul. Bringing forth something, where there is nothing. The best trip I know.
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