Friday, August 06, 2010

in defense of the third degree

I have been reading this book that came highly recommended to me called Mindsight The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel J Siegel. It was discussed in a book I recently finished and have discussed on this blog at length. The person who recommended Mindsight to me had not read that book, so it was a little bit of a Jungian synchronicity moment, if if you believe in that sort of thing.

Mindsight is all about the proposition that awareness about how the parts of the brain interact can actually impact mental health. It's brain science meets I'm OK You're OK. Ok that was kind of glib, but it gives you the idea. And so far it has been interesting, notwithstanding the fact that it can't seem to make up its mind (heh!) about whether it is making a serious intellectual argument or popularizing brain science, mindfulness and other stuff. But anyway, I came across something quite striking as I was reading it the other day. I'll just lay it on you:

Research has revealed that the best predictor of the security of our children's attachment to us is our ability to narrate the story of our own childhood in a coherent fashion.

You want your kids to be able to securely attach to you because, from both a neurological and a psychological point of view, their ability to form attachments in the future is going to be heavily shaped, limited, and conditioned by the success of these initial formative attachments (Read about attachment theory here).

So let's recap that: the best predictor of the ability of children to form these all-important bonds with their parents is the ability of said parents to narrate the story of their own childhoods.

Not what you would call an obvious or intuitive connection.

What struck me about this was that this ability to narrate a life is what my teachers at Yale, and in their footsteps, I, use as a way to take the measure of an actor's preparation and their readiness to walk in the shoes of the character or "Who-am-I" the actor was attempting to portray.

During the three semesters that I was a TA to Evan Yionoulis, who chaired the acting program at the Yale School of Drama for five years, I watched Evan elicit narrations from actors by posing questions to them that they were to answer in the first person. It was part interrogation and part Socratic dialogue. These questions were about the past, present or the future of the character. At the very minimum, these questions were intended to probe the actor's mastery of the given circumstances of the scene. "So why did the second of your two daughters turn you out?" "Who did the person behind the curtain who you stabbed turn out to be?" etc. A firm grasp of the circumstances is essential to anything further. Often actors take such knowledge for granted, only to discover, awkwardly, that their command of these basic facts is lacking when they are standing in front of the class being questioned by a teacher.

But it's not only the facts that Evan wanted to hear about. She wanted to hear about how the actor had surveyed those facts and arranged them into a narrative that heated up the scene. It's the difference between "And I discovered I had killed Polonius" and "And I discovered that the man I killed was Polonius, the father of the woman I love and the trusted advisor of my late father." Actors were expected not just to grasp the facts, but to be able to talk about them in ways that articulated their importance, and injected urgency into the situation.

And then there was the fanning of the flames, the term for the supplementing of what the writer provides by the actor to enhance the interest and urgency of the scene, and provide greater fullness and specificity to the life the actor is leading in the scene. Actors were taught that they should not just arbitrarily add details to their background, but details that make the scene more compelling.

Actors were also expected to be able to talk about the potential future of the character. They were expected to be able to say without hesitation what they would most like to see happen in a given situation and what they would least like to see happen.

Finally, it was important that the actor have personalized all of this: found ways to make the people, places and things that make up the world of the character carry the weight for the actor that the story called for. So the actor needed to be able not simply to recite the facts in the first person, but to talk about those facts as if they were the facts of their own life. Not that the question and answer process was supposed to be a performance, only that when the actors address subjects important to the character in the first person, the weight of the topics discussed should have been palpable in the actor's narration.

The ability to speak about these things with fluency attests to the time and thought an actor has put into the situation and priorities of the character. It's a lot more difficult than it sounds. It's the process that I use in class when students show their scenes for the first time, and the first pair that gets up has the hardest time. At the end of the night that the first pair show a scene during a ten week cycle, other students invariably express relief that they got to see the process once before having to go through it. They leave class knowing that they have a lot of work to do.

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