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“a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”

In the preface to her outstanding new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, head of the acting program at Juilliard, mentions her teacher at the Yale School of Drama, David Hammond, and credits him with providing “a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”. So what is this notion of stimuli that is so life-changing? She doesn’t outright define stimuli, but it becomes clear from her discussions of them that she is talking about sensory matter that the character “bumps up” against: things the character can see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Over the course of the book, she provides examples based on work on a short play by John Patrick Shanley called A Lonely Impulse of Delight. The play is about two friends, Walter and Jim, visiting Central Park Lake at two in the morning, because one friend has something he wants to show the other. In discussing how the actor playing Walter, who is expecting his mermaid lover at any moment, might plant stimuli in the scene environment, she writes the following:

Scene work at Andrew Wood Acting Studio #6


Some stimuli in Walter’s romantic, middle of the night park might be: the gentle rustle of leaves in the wind (sound and sensation), a bright white or harvest-orange moon, fireflies, cooing birds, the distant glow of city lights, the lapping of water on the sandy shore or rocky outcroppings, the smell of honeysuckle, the dappled moonlight on the water and through the leaves of trees, the gentle croaking of frogs.

So here we see that stimuli (or triggers) are sensory stuff that the actor playing Walter might “bump up” against or encounter prior to or during the course of the play. The potential stimuli that Walter’s friend Jim, who is resistant to being in the park at that hour, might find are quite different:

Jim’s park might include: scary shadows, the sound of sirens racing down Fifth Avenue or up Central Park West, mysterious rustlings in the bushes, the buzzing of mosquitos, occasional raised voices from deeper in the park—are they shrieks of joy or terror?—the smell of urine, barking dogs, the hoot of an owl, the howl of a . . . not sure what, the squish of the muddy bank, an abundance of goose and occasional dog droppings dotting the patchy grass, treacherously slippery boulders, broken glass under a flickering street lamp, abandoned litter washing up on the shore—cigarette butts, deli wrappers, coffee cups, an old syringe.

These two examples make it clear what Yionoulis has in mind when she speaks of stimuli: sensory input that the actor can “bump up” against in the course of playing the scene. The physical environment of the scene should be “loaded” with stimuli, but stimuli are to be found in the character’s past history as well, as I discussed in my post on personalization and as Yionoulis describes in her book. In fact, the actor’s homework, according to Yionoulis, is practically solely concerned with identifying stimuli that the character has experienced or might experience along her journey:

In the analysis phase of the work, your job is to identify stimuli and triggers in the world of the play that have affected or might affect your character. You’ll imaginatively “bump up” against stimuli from your character’s past during your personalization process and encounter others from their present during the action of the play itself. At that time, your response to each stimulus will lead you to the next point in your character’s path…Part of your homework—which continues into rehearsal—is to make objects in the world of the play—and, by extension, all the circumstances of your character’s life— specific and resonant. You want to uncover—and plant—potent stimuli.

The sequence of stimuli that the actor encounters across the arc of the play is called the path. Much of the path will be made up of the lines of the other actor/characters, but that is not the only source of stimuli or triggers, as Yionoulis has demonstrated. So what about stimuli and the path is life-changing for Yionoulis? Yionoulis says at one point that stimuli work “in and on the body”. The senses involve our nervous system and in that sense our body, and by identifying stimuli that have affected or may affect the character, we are imprinting ourselves in a physical manner with the stuff that makes up the character’s reality. And that, I think, can be life-changing.

“a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”2024-02-19T03:44:25-08:00

What Are You Listening FOR?

In the excellent new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting by Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, Evan explores at length the concept of the underlying objective. I also teach this concept in my acting classes at Andrew Wood Acting Studio. It’s a sophisticated way of understanding the character’s motivation, and it’s quite challenging for students to learn.

She defines it as follows:

a longing for something the character can’t survive without because it proceeds from a deep void or gaping hollow in their lives. We call the quest to fulfill this need the character’s underlying objective.

In contrast to the underlying objective, she defines plot objectives:

Plot objectives are so called because they are connected to and may have fulfillment in the plot or sequence of events of the play.

I like to say that plot objectives can be thought of as plans that the character has to get the underlying objective met.

Understanding the relationship between the underlying objective and plot objectives is a significant undertaking, and I recommend reading the full chapter in Evan’s book to begin to understand this. But I wanted to call attention to two things from her discussion. First, the title of this post, which is also the title of the chapter on objectives from Evan’s book: “What will you listen FOR?” It’s a commonplace that acting involves listening, but one of the reasons that learning to work with the underlying objective is worthwhile is the way in which having an underlying objective sharpens the actor’s understanding of what she is listening for in a scene. If I know that I am listening for security from my partner, that will sharpen my apprehension what he is sending my way. I won’t just be listening to him, I will be listening FOR a particular kind of energy from him, an energy that gives me a sense of security.

What Are You Listening FOR

And this brings us to the justification for the underlying objective apparatus that Evan gives us. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to just pursue plot objectives and call it a day? Plot objectives are much easier to identify than the underlying objective. What makes learning to operate with an underlying objective worthwhile:

Many actors—and teachers of acting—speak of objectives solely in terms of plot. While plot objectives inarguably give the actor something to pursue that is concrete and doable—that’s why they’re helpful and necessary—without an
underlying purpose, the actor isn’t compelled to engage in the deeper listening that makes the character human.

An underlying objective compels us to engage in the deeper listening that makes the character human. That makes it sound worthwhile, no? But to be honest, I think she undersells it a little. An actor who has embodied an underlying need compels our attention through their vulnerability, in fact, through their visceral vulnerability. When an actor has embodied an underlying need, we understand in some mysterious way, at the level of our nervous system, that they are undertaking something worth watching.

Keep in mind that it’s a long road from being able to identify an underlying objective to being able to embody one, but as a wise man once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

What Are You Listening FOR?2024-02-20T03:16:12-08:00
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