Sunday, July 04, 2010

until you've walked a mile in his shoes

"Never judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." So the Native American proverb goes. Ever wonder why it's the shoes? Why not "until you've walked a mile wearing his hat?" or "until you've walked a mile wearing his jacket?" But no. It's the shoes. The layer of protection between us and the ground we walk on. I would argue that it is because it is the through the shoes that we are connected to the ground that the shoes take pride of place in the proverb.

We take our ambulatory capacity, that is, our ability to walk, very much for granted. Our ability to change where we stand at will, quite literally, is one thing that separates us and all the other animals from plants. With that ability comes the ability to approach someone for sex, or to attack them, or to just seek a little companionable society. The ability to change our spatial relationships at will is a fundamental feature of all human society. Because of this feature, for example, we can define certain property as ours, and have others evicted from it if we choose. They don't have the right to stand on our property if we don't allow it.

All human relationships come with some notion of how physical space will be occupied together. The famous Seinfeld episode about the "close talker" exemplifies this vividly. A mother and child enter in an embrace that obliterates the space between them readily, but two grown men who are not related to each other may do so only seldom. So where we physically stand in relation to others is inextricably bound up with the nature of our relationship to them

"Until you've walked a mile in his shoes" might be parsed "until you have moved in and out of the various (physical) relationships with others that he typically undertakes." Or, until you have stood in relationship to others in the way that he has. While the last sentence can be understood metaphorically (closeness in the sense of emotional closeness, by the way it is no accident that we use this spatial metaphor to analogize our connections to others), it can also be understood physically, for the reason that I have already articulated: our ties with other people include agreements or contracts, if you will, about how we will occupy space together: what is too close, what is not close enough, under what circumstances these parameters change, etc.

The Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, whose actor training techniques have enjoyed a vogue in the last decade in this country bordering on the cultish, recognized the primacy of the feet as defining the actor's relationship to the ground and, therefore, to the space around her. His fundamental exercise involves rigorously stomping the ground by isolating the muscles of the legs and abdomen, to "awaken" the lower body of the actor. However, the importance of placement in space is well-understood within the Stanislavsky tradition as well. In A Challenge for the Actor Uta Hagen discusses the concept of "destination" in her chapter entitled "animation". "The reason for movement is destination" she proclaims. The simplest possible gloss of this is that when we move, we have reason to (i.e. not because the script or the director says we move at that point.) Or: when we move, we are going somewhere. Or It is the fact that the beginning of this impulse to move involves a psycho-physical orienting of ourselves towards where we are going and what arrival in that place promises us that gives this somewhere its importance for us as actors. This idea was dramatized in a superb manner in the movie Donnie Darko by the ectoplasmic streams that Donny starts to see emanating from the chests of those around him, as I have written previously.

In the approach that I teach, we search for a need for the actor to embody and pursue in a scene, which then prompts her to seek certain outcomes that promise to gratify this single need, both in immediate and in long-term ways. What it is essential to keep in mind is that these outcomes nearly always involve changes in the physical proximity to other characters or to things. As actors, we are very focused on what we are saying, our lines, and the temptation is to think of where we are standing or sitting or lying down in the scene as "the place where we say these particular lines." So while we put a lot thought into understanding the relationship between what we are saying and what we need, it's easy to forget to consider the relationship between where we are standing (or sitting, or lying down...) and what we need. The failure to come to this can devolve into actors devolving into very animated talking heads. In real conversations, we have a particular physical outcome in view, and if that outcome involves movement, then we prepare ourselves physically for that movement, or to respond to some expected or feared movement. The awareness of the destination of the expected movement invites a partial orientation toward the destination in question, even as we may continue to interact with another character, and be partially oriented towards him or her.

Consider, as we did two days ago, Blanche's first appearance inStreetcar. I (Blanche) have to ask the two strangers on the steps for information about my sister and for assistance accessing the house, but after my long journey from Laurel lugging a trunk with everything I own in the world, the destination of the Stella's apartment, where I might hope to catch a few moments alone to have a few quick drinks to relieve my stress and anxiety and compose myself, is very "hot". So hot that Williams makes it clear that once I access the apartment, I cannot avoid offending Eunice in hustling her back out of the apartment. So in the scene with the two women, once it becomes clear where Stella lives, I will be physically preparing to go there, even as continue to engage with them. This is the real importance of the concept of destination: even as we engage in dialogue, our bodies must remain alive to the movement that the situation may call for, either because a window of opportunity opens, or some threat or danger makes itself manifest that we need to act to squash.

I can remember one of my mentors at the Yale School of Drama, Evan Yionoulis, talking about whether certain actors she had encountered "had destination." It's now clear to me that what she meant was not only that the when they moved, they knew where they were going, but also that as they spoke, they were physically alive to the possible movements which could at any time become necessary given the situation (necessity being the mother of invention, don't forget!)

For an actor to "have destination", she needs to understand these things. This is the cognitive side of "having destination": she needs to be mentally alert to the physical ramifications of the development of the scene. However, there is a physical side to this as well. To truly "have destination", impulse needs to be free to flow from the Pilates core of the actor, where the need lives, down through the hips and all the way down into the legs to the feet. Well, that's easy, right? Not so fast. When we are acting, we are aware of being watched and judged, and therefore, tension can be introduced into our bodies because of this awareness. We can easily carry this tension in our legs, and, even more probably, in our hips. There is so much shame in our society around the things we do with our hips (have sex and rid ourselves of bodily waste) that tension in this area is extremely common. An Aexander technique teacher I encountered told me of a student of hers who proclaimed "Life is a butt-clenching experience!" There are few more humiliating scenarios than one involving incontinence. Tension in the pelvis are well-nigh universal. Such tensions obstruct constipate, if you will) the flow of need-driven "energy" into the legs. Without this energy, the actor's lower body ca easily check out. Tension in the various joins of the legs can compound this problem. The actor can develop a tendency to grip the floor with the feet, which can lead to becoming rooted to the spot and making movement require more effort than it would if the actor were poised to move.

Ultimately, we want to play both ends against the middle. We want the cognitive awareness of the possibilities for movement to merge with habituated physical freedom in the pelvis and legs, so that the distinction between body and mind virtually disappears. I tell students often that acting is a body-mind trick. It's a particular combination of physical and mental engagement on the one hand, and physical and mental receptiveness and relaxation on the other.

Talk about walking a fine line. And in someone else's shoes, to boot (heh!). It's no mean feat (sorry, I can't stop!), but one worth striving for.

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