THR 501 106 – Basic Technique I
November 24, 2015
A Dream of Passion – Assignment 3
We live in a culture that too often shuns raw, unadulterated, organic experiences between humans. Propriety is inculcated from the earliest ages so as to produce well-adjusted members of society. So when it comes time to express ourselves to one another as acclimated adults, the art of listening and responding with full, truthful creative license is often stripped from our transactions. Strasberg states, “The problem of expression has been treated as a purely mechanical process involving the voice, speech, rhetoric, rather than as a means of sharing one’s individual way of experiencing. Only artists have managed to break through this vicious wall by using their special sensitivity and particular skill in communicating their experiences.” Breaking through this vicious wall is no easy task and requires tremendous dedication and diligence to “the work” as an actor. As artists of communication, we transform our bodies into highly-sensitized instruments, specially tuned to vibrate on a frequency that our culture has reserved for the stage. It is this tuning process that ensures a relaxed state of being that allows for freedom of natural expression.
“I don’t have tension,” were my exact words the second time we ever tried the relaxation exercise in class. To which Corinne countered, “Everyone has tension.” And as Strasberg himself puts it, “While ridding the body of tension completely is an impossibility, the actor must learn to control it so that it does not inhibit his willful commands to his body.” It would be a full two and a half months into the semester when I’d realize how true Corinne’s words were. The next ten weeks were spent struggling to hone in on the source of this mental tensity utilizing a combination of regular relaxation/sensory exercises, meditation, counseling and even fasting. It turned out that my first mental block was my own pride/ego contributing to my resistance to the exercises. Having finally arrived at the acknowledgement and identification of my mental tension, I can begin to break down my resistance to “the work,” that which became my greatest liability to artistic freedom. With this breakthrough, the real work to remove the interferences to the pathways to concentration, relaxation and affective memory can actually begin.
At first my belief was that my tension was not so much physical but rather mental; I believed myself to have a fairly proficient command over the use of my muscles/body, being a saxophonist, on-stage spoken word poet, singer and freestyle dancer since my early teenage years. But as I learned over time, mental tension serves to betray concealed involuntary muscle tension, sabotaging any of my conscious efforts to relax my entire instrument. The arrangement of my hidden pockets of tension unwittingly created a constriction which necessarily precluded true artistic inspiration from entering my psyche. Strasberg states, “What Stanislavski sought was to find those conditions under which inspiration was most likely to enter into the actor’s soul, and to learn how to recreate those conditions for each performance.” On the most fundamental level for the creative work for an actor, Stanislavski and Strasberg stressed the underlying need for concentration on the stage, the precursor of which is a fully relaxed state.
In developing “The Method,” Strasberg created the Relaxation Exercise to help actors identify undesirable muscular tension, including the neck (the dominant area of hidden tension) and the face (where mental tension is manifested). This can be corroborated with Stanislavski:
Movements on the stage that are absolutely free and unimpaired — i.e. movements without tension — that is the first thing a student-actor has to master. Having concentrated your thoughts on a definite problem and your attention on a definite group of muscles, you have to acquire the ability to move about in such a way that it should seem as though all your energy has been concentrated on those muscles.
Stanislavski designates tension as an “occupational disease” for an actor (Strasberg calls tension the actor’s greatest enemy) which invariably precludes the actor from his/her unconscious reality and hence prevents him/her from being able to truly focus on the task, or the object of attention; more often than not, this leads to mechanical acting replete with indications and demonstrations, an unequivocally perilous state for an actor. “What makes the human being of supreme excellence is a kind of balance between calculation and warmth. Whether on stage or in ordinary life, the man who displays more than he feels affects ridicule rather than sympathy.” Therefore, on the long road to mastering concentration, it is necessary to diligently practice relaxation and sensory exercises to coax out our affective memory for which to paint our canvas with. The goal is to develop an inveterate ability to have a real, emotional, private experience in public (private in the sense that the actor is so fully enveloped in his/her circumstances that there aren’t any ancillary thoughts in the performer’s mind). “The real problem and mystery in acting is that the actor must be able ‘but in a fiction, in a dream of passion, to force his soul to his own conceit.’” Stanislavski states:
All you must remember is that the actions you have worked out are not simply external. They are based on inner feelings; they are reinforced by your belief in them. Inside of you, parallel to the line of physical actions, you have an unbroken line of emotions verging on the subconscious. You cannot follow the line of external action sincerely and directly and not have the corresponding emotions.
Next, Strasberg’s Sensory Exercise with an imaginary object serves to underscore the gravity of physical actions and every sensation germane to the object. “Part of the actor’s dilemma, therefore, is how to create truth from imaginary objects.” These imaginary objects — the tangible realities of daily life (e.g. making your favorite drink, putting on your shoes, experiencing a sharp smell/taste, taking a shower/bath, basking in sunshine, fighting driving rain/hail in a storm or engrossing in a favorite piece of jewelry) — teaches the actor to recreate the presence of actual objects, noting all the physical and sensual characteristics (how does it feel on your skin? what is the pressure like? what is the temperature? do you like the sun? etc.), and to truly commune with the entire experience with the object. Otherwise, without having the full sense memory of an object or task, it would be impossible to convey that experience accurately to someone else on stage. In Stanislavski’s words, “If you want to exchange your thoughts and feelings with someone you must offer something you have experienced yourself.”
Stanislavski imparts to his students that for an actor to be able to carry out a task believably in a performance is to also have control over his/her will, imagination, concentration and energy under imaginary circumstances. It is only possible to reach this state when we have successfully reached the boundaries of our subconscious through the requisite sense memory exercises. “There is no sharply drawn line between conscious and subconscious experience. Our consciousness often indicates the direction in which our subconscious continues to work. Therefore, the fundamental objective of our psycho-technique is to put us in a creative state in which our subconscious will function naturally.” The actor’s life on stage should naturally be parallel to that of the character in a play; whatever the character thinks, the actor should think and whatever the character experiences, the actor truly experiences. The actor’s experience should drive within him an inner justification and truthful motivation. “Whatever the actor does is modified not only by his intention, but by the nature and intensity of what is actually happening to him.” Hence, the goal for the actor on stage would consequently be to free himself by saturating the consciousness with a deep concentration on the object/task and his physical and emotional response to the object; to be completely absorbed in the circumstances that he would not have time to worry about being self-conscious in front of his audience.
Among the myriad improvisation exercises Corinne has taken us through in Basic Technique I, from walking to the chair as various ages, to the private phone call, to the town hall meeting to personal storytelling, etc., the one that stood out for me was the Halloween exercise where the whole class dropped into character for a full three hours. The preparation for playing the role of Elvis, which actually started several days before researching Elvis’ life, not only required me to understand his disposition and life circumstances, but also to concentrate on several objects that I endowed as relics from his own life; i.e. the rented royal blue rhinestone jumpsuit, royal blue-tinted sparkling sunglasses and the American flag neckscarf were, in my imagination, objects that Elvis once wore and performed with himself. I first sought to concentrate on the physical aspects of the character, working with the props and wardrobe. I inspected them closely, noting how the fabric felt on my skin, neck down to my ankles, and how hot and uncomfortable it made me feel moving around in it; how the sunglasses sat on my face and how it would slip down my face as I’d whip my head left to right and back, mimicking Elvis’ dance moves. I repeatedly took them on and off with quick then smooth adjustments of my hair as I thought Elvis would have. Then I concentrated deeply on the neckscarf and what the American flag must have meant for Elvis, him being an American through and through. For at least three hours before class, my mind was fully engrossed in these objects that would make me feel like Elvis — the man, the all-American performer, the singer, the dancer, the legend. Then after fully committing my mind to the objects, I began to widen my circle of concentrated thought to Elvis’ commitment to his art, his kind, loving heart, the fast-life, the fame, the women and the ostentatious lifestyle which ended up being a fatal trap for him. And finally, acting as Elvis reincarnate, I imagined what it would be like to be granted a second chance at life by the grace of God. I let my thoughts sink into my own memories as the younger version of me, living a fast and reckless lifestyle of local fame, money and influence, albeit on a much smaller scale in New York City’s underground dance music scene. I allowed my personal memories to slip back into my consciousness and forgot all about the rhinestone jumpsuit I had on and American flag neckscarf in my hand — that is, until Corinne asked me about it. When that question came, my attention was once more reverted back to the object that grounded me as the all-American performer who had magnificent dreams to stir up the pot and revolutionize American music and culture. It was a moment that I would never forget — how I could finally find myself on stage in a seeming out-of-body-experience without a thought of nervousness or the reality that there were other spectators around watching my one-on-one conversation with Corinne. That afternoon felt like I a vacation from my own mind, routinely riddled with hidden tension; recalling that experience reminds me that acting is the only real kind of work for me.