Friday, February 19, 2010

why we particularize

In A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen defines particularization as follows:

...particularization: the making of each event, each person, and each place down to the smallest physical object as particular as possible, exploring these things in detail to discover in which way they are relevant to the character, in which way they are perceived, in which way they further or hinder the character's needs, and consequently, how they will condition "your" behavior.

By becoming familiar, in a painstaking manner, with the particularities of each person, place and thing encountered in the course of a role, the actor creates the possibility of being influenced by these particularities in the course of acting. Being influenced by said particularities is the source of the much-sought-after specificity in an actor's performance. Too many actors believe that specificity arises by making precise decisions about how they will say a line, how they will gesture when they speak, how they will walk across the room. But making decisions in this manner is a coldly analytical exercise that has nothing to do with spontaneity or authenticity: the actor stands "outside" and evaluatively shapes or crafts each moment of the role, hoping this will mean that her work will be deemed "specific."

Sadly, no. Specific work arises from several sources, but an important one is a clear perception of the world in which the character being played lives, more precisely, of the people, places and things that make up that world. By encountering or "bumping up against" these particularized people, places and things, the actor's speech, gestures, behavior and experience are conditioned and inflected by them, and the result is specificity in the work.

It's not the most sexy part of being an actor. Studying the objects that you handle in the course of a role, the furniture that you make use of, the clothing that you wear, and the people that you come across to take note of their many physical properties can seem tedious, and can seem to have little to do with the "passion" of the actor. But it is precisely by doing these things that these people, places and things go beyond being mere props or actors and take their place as an element of the imaginary world in which the actor lives. The actor becomes "attuned" to them in a way that they otherwise wouldn't be.

The resulting influence can exert a mysterious, underground influence on an actor. Consider the following experiment in psychology:

In the first experiment 34 participants were divided into 3 groups with each group unconsciously cued into a different state: one 'rude', one 'polite' and one neither. This had to be done in a roundabout way so that the participants didn't suspect they were being manipulated. What the experimenters did was give them a word puzzle to unscramble. To activate the idea of rudeness in one group it contained words like 'bother', 'disturb' and 'bold'. To activate the idea of politeness the next group unscrambled words like 'courteous', 'patiently' and 'behaved'. The third group unscrambled neutral words.

After finishing the unscrambling participants left the room to track down the experimenter but found him deep in conversation with someone, forcing them to wait. The question the researchers wanted to answer was what percentage of people would interrupt if the experimenter kept ignoring them by talking to the other person for 10 minutes.

In the group cued with polite words, just 18% of participants interrupted with the rest waiting for the full 10 minutes while the experimenter continued their conversation. On the other hand, in the group cued with impolite words, fully 64% interrupted the experimenter. The neutral condition fell between the two with 36% interrupting.

This is quite a dramatic effect because participants were unaware of the manipulation yet they faithfully followed the unconscious cues given to them by the experimenters. One group became bold and forthright simply by reading 15 words that activated the concept of impoliteness in their minds, while the other group became meek and patient by reading words about restraint and conformity.

The article I linked to above described the upshot of this and related experiments very well:

What this study demonstrates very neatly is just how sensitive we are to the minutiae of social interactions. Subtle cues from the way other people behave and more generally from the environment can cue automatic unconscious changes in our behaviour. And by the same token signals we send out to others can automatically activate stereotypes in their minds which are then acted out. As much as we might prefer otherwise, sometimes stereotypes can easily influence our behaviour and our conscious mind seems to have no say.

Got that? Our mind can absorb clues that it isn't even aware that we are absorbing, and this can influence our behavior. In the same way, by making the choice to consciously and deliberately expose ourselves to the properties of the people, places and things that make up the imaginary world in which we are endeavoring to live, we invite our unconscious to respond and adjust our own behavior accordingly, without our being particularly aware of it. Nothing could be further from the calculations of the actor who measures out every gesture and inflection to make it "specific." Specific it may be, but it is also dead. And "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances" is the name of the game, as the man said.

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