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receive, reorganize, return

I like to hang out in Samuel French and browse through books on acting, just to see if there is some revelatory insight or exercise that might be useful to me. I love the methodology that I teach, but it’s good to keep things fresh, you know? I have to say, on most of these excursions I come up empty; there are, alas, a lot of mediocre books on acting around. However, I recently came across this book, and have found it to be rather good. It’s not the “inspirational” book on acting, with a lot of important concepts presented but little that can be practically leveraged, nor is it an “inspiration”-in-the-form-of-a-how-to-book, which often tries to address concepts and practice and does neither effectively. It really is laid out like a textbook, and that was something I had to get past. My best teachers never taught acting or directing from textbooks, and both of those practices are art forms after all, so I have a prejudice against attempts to present the material in that form. Nevertheless, I think, after spending a little time looking through it, that Acting Through Exercises has a lot to offer. It explains a lot of conceptual stuff in a very concrete way, and provides exercises actors can do in pairs to explore these concepts. I can’t vouch for everything in the book, and I saw some particular concepts explained in a less than optimal way, but on the whole I thought the level of clarity about acting was above average, and the exercises nicely help to place the concepts presented in context.

One discussion I though was interesting involved what the book called the “three R’s” that form the title of this post: receive, reorganize, return. These three R’s attempt to describe the three processes involved in an actor’s engagement with a partner in a scene. Continuously, the actor has to receive what the partner is sending, in terms of language, tone and nonverbal behavior, to reorganize what has been received to attempt to transform what was received into useful feedback for the partner (or, more precisely, the character the partner is playing), then return the output of the reorganization process.

That actors need to receive and return is pretty uncontroversial, I think. Most approaches to acting would seek to promote these things. It’s in the reorganization part that the various approaches differentiate themselves. What is really happening inside the actor as stuff is received from the partner? In the approach that I teach, the actor is always measuring two things simultaneously in the reorganizing moment: is the partner giving me a piece of what I need from my relationship with the partner right now, in this moment, and am I making progress towards the outcome that I want (or plot objective, which is our term of art). These two things are always related to each other, tightly coupled, but also always distinct. To put it another way, we are always monitoring unfolding events with our gut and with our mind simultaneously (cf. this earlier post about the “second brain” in the gut) and conjointly (the mind and gut interact with each other), but also, the two monitorings always remain partially independent of each other.

When I see a student working on a scene who is not receiving from her partner, I will often ask the pair to do the scene again, but before delivering each line, rephrase the partner’s line as a question, and then say their line. So if Joe’s line is “I’m going to the store.” and Edna’s line is “Bring me some cigarettes and a bottle of wine,” then doing the exercise, if Joe says the first line, then Edna will say “You’re going to the store? Bring me some cigarettes and a bottle of wine.” Then Joe would answer says “Bring you some cigarettes and a bottle of wine?…” and then he would append his next line from the text, and so on. This forces the actor to listen to what the other actor is saying before proceeding with their own line. However, what often happens is that the actor will receive the line from the partner and return the response, but fail to forge a connection between the two, ie simply skip the reorg. Often, I will provide the actor with a sentence to say between the rephrased partner’s line and their own that gives direct voice to what they need in the moment. For example, I might ask Edna to say “I’m crying inside” between the rephrased partner’s line and her own line, each time she speaks. Or we might use her underlying objective, and she might say “I need my

[insert underlying objective here]” between the rephrased partner’s line and her own line, and so on. The point is, the actor needed to deal with the reorg phase, which also forges a connection between what is received and what is returned, that is, it clarifies that moment of what we call the path through the scene.