You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time. –Laurie Anderson

History is a story of sentences.–Peter Handke

A sentence is a commitment. Every time we speak a sentence, we link a subject to a verb, and by making that linkage, we mean something. Someone did something. Or will do something. Or should do something. Or whatever. We take a stab. We make an attempt. We essay.

A sentence is something so familiar that we tend to take for granted how foundational it is to our existence, and our ability to interact with others. We tend to think of sentences, if we think of them at all, as a set of rules that have to be conformed to. But there is another way to see them. We can see them as gestures, interventions, claims at authority or wisdom. As a means of directing the attention of others.

I first understood the importance of the sentence to actors watching my friend Jenny Bennett conduct an exercise using Shakespearean text. Jenny had set up two chairs, about 12 feet apart from each other. She had an acting student who had committed a speech to memory sit in one of the chairs, and speak the speech. She then told her to do it again, but this time as soon as the student came to any punctuation mark in the speech, commas, periods, colons, whatever, she should stop speaking, get up and walk quickly to the next chair, sit down in that chair, and resume speaking until she reached the next punctuation of any kind, at which point she should stop, rise, and cross back to the first chair, rinse, repeat. It was important, if I recall correctly, that the student get up until she had stopped speaking, and not resume speaking until her butt was in the seat.

It was fascinating to watch. The fact that the student was forced to stop speaking and exert herself physically at each punctuation mark seemed to have the affect of “reining in” the speeding mind of the actor, and when she sat and resumed speaking each time, she was remarkably centered and committed.

But what came next was even more interesting. When the student had completed the speech following these instructions, Jenny asked the student to repeat the speech, this time stopping to move between the chairs only at the periods, not at commas or any other punctuation. What was remarkable was that the student brought the new intimacy with the various elements of the sentence purchased in the previous run-through of the speech to bear on this second exploration, but this time, because she was moving through the sentence to the period without inhibition, those newly-vivid individual elements were placed intelligibly in relation to each other as the sentence was uttered as a whole, and suddenly the sentence was undeniably, irresistibly alive, both in the delivery of the words and also in the way those words animated the body of the actor. The experience made a big impression on me.

Flash forward six or seven years. I was working as a teaching assistant to Evan Yionoulis at the Yale Summer School Acting Program. (Evan is on the faculty at the Yale School of Drama and chaired the program their for five years.) Evan was teaching the students about what we call playing action. To do that, she was having a pair of them stand, again about 12 feet apart from each other, and say their lines from their scene to each other, and as they said the lines, they were to toss a playground ball on the last word of each sentence to their partner. Evan was adamant that the ball be tossed on the last word, not on some operative word in the middle of the sentence, not just before the last word, and not just after it. On the last word.

Again, it was striking. Having to throw the ball on the last word deterred the students from backing off of the commitment they were making in their sentences. They had to stay engaged through the whole thing. It also helped them with what we call “releasing” the language, which means propelling the words through space to have a desired effect on their recipient. And once again, the exercise threw into relief the way in which the sentence is the basic building block for the actor.

In working with the ball exercise in class over the years, I have come to see how incredibly revelatory it is about where an actor is with their work. Some people extend their arms just enough to release the ball and get it to the partner, and then pull the arms back, rather than following through and truly releasing the ball. This indicated a discomfort with fully extending to the partner. Others would throw the ball an instant after they had said the last word, which betrayed a desire to separate the act of releasing from the act of speaking. Some would take a step as they threw, but they would lock their hips as they did so. This had the effect of “freezing out” the lower half of the body from the act of throwing, and they would do they same when they spoke a line. Others would insert arbitrary pauses in the middle of the sentence, which indicated a need to obstruct the release. Others would resist taking a step when they threw, not wanting to risk balance, to allow themselves to fall towards the partner.

It was working with this exercise over the years that I came to see the sentence as a gesture, almost in the sense of Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture. A gesture has a completeness and an integrity, and so does a sentence. That’s what the period signifies. The importance of the sentence as a basic unit for the actor was also illuminated in work Evan did with the students on poems that they chose to prepare as monologues. Evan taught them to “run to the full stop”, the full stop being the period. With poetry, there are all kinds of enticements to break up the flow of the sentence: dense imagery, the end of the verse line, and punctuation. When an actor was falling prey to those enticements, and Evan would remind them to run to the full stop, they would suddenly produce great clarity and luminousness, because running to the full stop meant that they had to keep the full import of the sentence in view as they spoke it. They had to treat it as a complete thing. Running to the full stop doesn’t mean rushing; it was imperative that the words containing imagery were specifically imaged, but at the same time, the actor had to prove that they grasped the way all those words hung together as a whole.

A sentence, like acting itself, is simultaneously assertive and receptive: it commits to a meaning, and asks for a response.

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