Sunday, August 08, 2010

rehearsal clothes, "priming", and the land of make-believe

"What the hell are rehearsal clothes?"

This scornful question greeted me once when I was in the midst of an argument dialogue on the message boards of a prominent entertainment industry trade rag. I was attempting to explain why I didn't believe it was necessary or even wise to try to get every student up to work at every class, and I was doing the math on another teacher who made that promise, given the published length of her classes and the number of students per class. (It turned out that each student got about 12.5 minutes of feedback per week, which to my mind is not enough time to roll up your sleeves and really address anything in depth.)

"Rehearsal clothes" figured into the calculation because, to my mind, any scene study class worth its salt will expect students to bring clothes to wear for their scene, i.e. "costumes". And getting into those clothes takes time, unless you want people to sit around in their clothes for the scene for the whole class, which is undesirable for reasons I'll get to below. At the Drama School, in the design department, with legendary costume designers like Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein at the helm, it was the practice to refer to the costumes for shows in which actors were dressed in a contemporary, more or less realistic idiom as "clothes" rather than costumes. A designer was said to be "doing the clothes" for a show or film if the costumes were contemporary, realistic ensembles. That turn of phrase has stayed with me, and I used it in the context on the message board. Hence the confusion and consternation of the person who wrote "What the hell are rehearsal clothes?" (I imagine they must have been picturing something along the lines of uniforms for martial arts classes).

Anyway, I have always insisted that students pick out rehearsal clothes for their scene, and that they bring them to class and change into them. Further, I urged them to do this when they rehearsed outside of class: bring the rehearsal clothes and change into them, do not wear them to class, do not wear them to rehearsal. This had the effect of making life a little more difficult for the less motivated students in the class: they might be inclined to show up in street clothes, and, if their scene permitted, to claim that these were what they were going to wear for the scene. However, with my edict, even if they were wearing street clothes for the scene, they still needed to bring clothes to change into.

But aside from that, why put people out in this way? Why demand that they find special clothes to do their scene, even if the character might dress similarly to the way the actor dressed in everyday life. Well, there are a few reasons for this. First of all, I am a firm believer that the actors greatest enemy, in terms of his/her preparation anyway, is the temptation to ignore some aspect of the character's life or experience, rather than shining the light of awareness on it. I sometimes call this the "get it off my desk" syndrome. There is always pressure from the part of our minds that fears challenge and change to assume that its better to let sleeping dogs lie, not look under that rock, and just assume that some particular aspect of the role does not call for inspection or reflection. Actors have to work hard to counteract this, and developing the awareness of this danger (for that is what it is) and cultivating the habit of examining every conceivable facet of the role takes hard work and dedication.

The clothes worn by the character, or by the "Who-am-I" as we say in the class, are one more instance of this. Clothes make the man, as the maxim goes. What we wear is an important part of our self-presentation, of the way we play the role(s) that we play in the various contexts that we move in and out of. Reflecting on what kind of clothes the character would be wearing, given the situation of the scene, is both good for the scene AND for the actor's developing practice of considering ALL aspects of the role.

But I am getting at something beyond all of this. It has always been my conviction that changing into the clothes for the scene can assume a kind of ceremonial significance: in putting on these clothes, I am now entering another persona in another world. Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, as Sanford Meisner said. It's entering a land of make-believe. And changing into the clothes can become a ritual that speaks to the whole person of the actor, body, nervous system, and mind, and says: "Now we are becoming Blanche DuBois" or whoever.

It turns out that the latest brain science bears me out. As I mentioned in previous posts, I am reading a book called Mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel, which proposes that an understanding of how the brain works can be combined with mindfulness and other mental practices to promote mental health. Last night, I came across the following:

Finally, implicit memory creates something called "priming," in which the brain readies itself to respond in a certain fashion. When his mother arrives home, the boy anticipates a hug. Not only is his internal world primed for receiving that loving gesture, he'll move his arms in anticipation when he hears her car in the driveway. As we get older, priming continues to operate with more complex behaviors. If you've learned to swim, when you get your bathing suit on, your behavioral repertoire for swimming is primed and readied to engage when you jump in the pool.

And when the actor puts on her rehearsal clothes, her whole being primes itself for what is about to happen. This only happens, of course, if the act of doing the scene is repeatedly associated with putting on the clothes: actors who don't wear the rehearsal clothes when the rehearse, only when they perform, will have no such experience.

Note that Dr. Siegel talks about priming in the context of "implicit memory". Briefly, implicit memory is the recall of things in which the act of recalling is not consciously registered. He uses the example of how once we learn to ride a bike, we don't have to remember how to ride the bike each time we do it. We recall it without intention or conscious effort. So with priming, the behavior that happens to prepare for some encounter or activity happens unconsciously. You could say that as the clothes are donned, they speak to the actor's nervous system and prepare it to play the role in question.

The same goes for creating an environment for the scene. Recently, I had a student who was doing a scene in which his character was in a conference room at a hotel in which he had just finished giving a lecture. The student informed me of his intention to go out and purchase a bunch of chairs for Friends and Family Night, and then return them the next day. I gently explained that the environment was to be created for the rehearsal process, so that by setting up the environment every time they rehearsed, gaining familiarity with it and using the setup as a springboard into the land of make believe, they would be getting themselves ready to act. Bringing a bunch of chairs for the performance only was not going to help anyone act, and would probably undermine him and his partner, since it would be introducing a new element on the day of the performance.

When actors act in projects, in films or in theater, they aren't going to be setting up the environment, but they do need to be attuned to it. The practice of creating an environment for a scene and setting up each time they rehearse, allowing that arrangement of rehearsal furniture to become an altogether different place where the actor leads an imaginary life, is a great way of developing the awareness that provides for that kind of attunement when they walk onto a movie set.

Here's a talk that Dan Siegel gave with Goldie Hawn about his work. The first part of the video is Goldie talking, he comes in about halfway through. He gives a good overview of what he's about.

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