Sunday, November 29, 2009

when it's important to be an adult

Acting teachers famously emphasize the importance of "play" for actors, and rightfully so. The give and take of doing a scene involves actors "playing" off each other in the manner of jazz improvisation. Ask and answer, receive and respond. And with the advent of the nineties, we learned of the "Inner Child", that part of all of us which hungers for spontaneous, positive, playful, connected interaction with others, which many look for (and find) in acting.

However, there are aspects of an actor's work where the wisdom and insight that come with life experience are called for. Interestingly, this fact can be seen clearly through looking at a way in which adults are at a disadvantage in comparison with children There's a recent Wired Science article that reports on how children fare better in not getting tricked by optical illusions in which there is a misleading context. Consider the following:

In each of the three cases, the orange ball on the right is larger. However, in a study cited in the article, adults were more likely to be deceived by misleading contextual information than young children were.

This unusual triumph of kids over grown-ups suggests that the brain’s capacity to consider the context of visual scenes, and not just focus on parts of scenes, develops slowly, say psychologist Martin Doherty of the University of Stirling in Scotland and his colleagues. Even at age 10, children lack adults’ attunement to visual context, Doherty’s team concludes in a paper published online November 12 in Developmental Science.

As a result, visual context can be experimentally manipulated to distort adults’ perception of objects’ sizes. But Doherty’s group finds that children, especially those younger than 7, show little evidence of altered size perception on a task called the Ebbinghaus illusion.

In other words, the adult's tendency to consider context to make judgments, in this case, works against her. The scientists involved attribute this to the nature of the development of the brain, and they are no doubt right. However, I would also suggest that in general in life, assessing situations and making judgements well depends on an awareness of the importance of context, and acquiring this awareness is a part of the maturation process. Unlike the situation with this example, awareness of the value and importance of context is an enormous asset. I can remember an incident from when I was a child. It was Christmas, and my cousins and their parents had come over for the afternoon and evening. My cousins' parents were less protective than mine, and they had seen the movie Grease! I must have been 8 or 9 at the time, and my two cousins were a year older and a year younger than I was. They told me about the drive-in incident in the movie, which ends with Sandy slamming the door on Danny's "nuts", as my cousins referred to them. I understood what was meant by that, but I had no awareness of how the contexts in which this might be appropriate are limited. Within a short time, I had repeated the story for the whole company, adults and all. My cousins were mortified, which surprised me, and amused, and the adults were not pleased. In this incident, I learned something about in what contexts talk of "nuts" might be appropriate, and contexts where they aren't.

I wrote previously about what a huge role, in working on a scene, that considering the context that is invoked implicitly (not explicitly) plays. There is always some very important part of the scene that is left implicit; otherwise it wouldn't be very interesting writing. But what's the problem? My acting students are adults. They have the requisite understanding of the importance of context that will help them understand what is involved in a scene, what is at stake, and what to do with that information, right? Well, in truth, no. All of us tend to regress in unfamiliar and challenging situations, and for most people, acting, getting up in front of people and pretending to be be someone else, is an unfamiliar and challenging situation. Also, preparing to act a scene is another unfamiliar and challenging situation. Challenging for different reasons, but challenging nonetheless. In these situations, in my experience, actors often lose their hard-won sensitivity to context that they have acquired from their years living their life, and they cling to a hope that what they need to do to act the scene will be handed to them by the writer; that they only need be careful students of what the writer has laid out for them, and they will have everything they need. They seldom are able, of their own initiative, to activate their own sensitivity to context and do the imaginative work necessary to project themselves into that context and see things the way they need to so that the scene comes fully alive.

An example. A play I like to work on in the class a lot is Neal Bell's Cold Sweat. There is a whipsmart, tough woman at the center of it, lots of two person scenes, a range of types of characters for both genders, lots of wit, depth, and passion, what's not to like? There is one scene in which the main character, Alice Franklin, in a moment of crisis, goes alone to a graveyard to visit her father's grave. Her sidekick and close friend, Fay, has followed her secretly, and makes her presence known when the graveyard gates are about to close. When asked to account for how she happens to be there, Fay tells Alice that she followed her there, and when questioned on this, she says "I saw you buying a bottle of rotgut wine, and wondered if you were sad. Are you sad?"

After the students do their scene, I question them on a lot of things. I ask the actor playing Fay why she chose to follow Alice rather than greet her when she saw her buying the wine. The actor is always pulled up short, because this point is not explicitly addressed by the writer. The answer is that somehow, Fay knows that Alice is avoiding her. The whys and the wherefores of that are too complicated for this discussion, and it is also not explicitly addressed in the scene. Many other things are, such as the fact that Alice hasn't written the lecture she is supposed to deliver that night. However, it is contemplating this particular point, that Fay knew that Alice was avoiding her, that can bring the actor playing Fay into consciousness that her problem in the scene is that her friend is pulling away from her, not whether or not Alice writes the lecture. "The scene is about the relationship, not about the plot" is a mantra in the class. The lecture is part of the plot, and the plot is always what is foregrounded. The plot is, however, never the key to unlocking the scene for the actor. The key is the relationship, and the relationship is related to many things outside the scene, i.e., the context of the scene.

When we get through the discussion to this point, the actor playing Fay is invariably nodding her head. The "adult" part of her, the part of her with aforementioned sensitivity to context, knows the truth of what I am saying intuitively. The "child" part of her, the part that wanted to avoid the work of imaginatively addressing the context of the scene and work only with what the writer had made explicit in the dialogue, had won the day in her preparation process, though.

In the Alexander technique, the first step in changing a habit is "inhibiting", or obstructing the habitual response. Actors need to develop the ability to inhibit the child-like wish for the plot to be the answer, for the writer to hand them all they need to know on a silver platter. They need to be able to recognize when they are reaching for such "ready-to-hand" answers to fundamental questions about the role, and the need to set those answers aside and see what arises from further introspection and study. Recognizing the need to do this, and the act of doing this, are hallmarks of an actor who brings the wisdom and experience of adulthood to bear on their role.

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