A Book Review of
Toward a General Theory of Acting:
Cognitive Science and Performance
by John Lutterbie.
It was a very pretty set of feet. That should be understood at the outset.
The toes were nicely pedicured. The shape of the foot was comely. There was a light tan to the smooth skin of the foot – and in a day before popular use of tanning booths or the newest spray-tan technology.
When I was an undergraduate, I was asked to read An Actor Prepares by Stanislavsky. Dutifully, I did so. In the book Stanislavsky's fictional director spoke about attractive actresses who show off their pretty hands and their pretty feet. When I read about someone showing off their feet, I was left puzzled. Who showed off their feet? And how were the feet to be seen by an audience?
So, it took me by surprise some years later when I was watching an audition. The actress slipped off her shoes and threw herself onto a couch on the stage and placed her feet center stage.
To this day I have no idea as to whether this young woman did this through an intentional desire ("Dammit, I'm going to show those people my feet!"), or whether this young woman was so accustomed to showing off herself in various ways that she didn't think about it at all.
And in that moment I entered into the special insanity of anyone who wants to enter the lists of those who write about acting. Stanislavsky always stands behind you and looks over your shoulder. (He was a tall man.) He stands there and says, "Whatever you think about acting, I probably already thought about and wrote about it in some way, and I did it pretty well." Then he smiles peacefully under his moustaches and adds, "And writing about acting is damnably hard."
So we should always acknowledge the courage of the folks who make an honest attempt to say something about acting that endeavors to be comprehensive and intelligible. These writers deserve respect.
One of the chief problems of writing about acting is that language isn't good for everything. We know this from our everyday experience. We rely very much on words and language to accomplish many things. But language doesn't help us with everything.
For example, more than half of the act of communication is listening. And a great deal of successful communication relies upon non-verbal cues. The half-smile and the glint and the eye transform the serious statement into the hilarious joke. That's why we invented emoticons. We need additional cues to understand the language we speak.
The written word is even more problematic than the spoken word in communicating certain things. For example, five things happen simultaneously. If we looked at a picture, we can see that the dog catches the ball as the wife kisses her husband and the daughter gives her father a squeeze while the champagne gets sprayed and the cake falls on the floor. In the way we think and use language, we make up words that suggest to the reader to try and imagine the simultaneity of the events. Nevertheless, why did I end with the cake? There will have to be some linearity to the explication of events.
Thus language doesn't always help us. It certainly doesn't help in explaining acting.
First, while we have a reasonably easy facility in knowing what acting is as we witness the behavior, we have a greater challenge in using language to give full definition to what we witness. It's a kind of performance in front of others. Once you get into the weeds, it gets weedier.
Take the old saw, "Talk, walk, and don't bump into the furniture." Most people do this in their living rooms each night. But we wouldn't mistake their behavior for acting. Likewise, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy would comment about the ease of acting – just look at Rin Tin Tin, he's a huge star. Or the child Shirley Temple who could smile, dance, cry, and carry on. We can say that's a performance, but is it acting?
And that's just for starters.
The next challenge for the writer comes when we start to consider actor training. There's the matter of livelihoods involved. Is the student acquiring the appropriate training? Are the teachers and coaches teaching the appropriate techniques and/or approaches?
The middle of 20th century of American theatre history is fraught with the conflict between Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg as to the "right" approach to acting.
Here we enter the on-going Neolithic tribalism. Which tribe is ours, and how do we belong? Also, as humans we seem to have a need for categorization.
Sometimes it's useful to know what is different between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian. And sometimes it's useful to know that the differences between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian are smaller than the differences between the Lutheran and, say, a Wiccan.
Into the fray comes John Lutterbie (Ph.D., University of Washington and Professor at Stony Brook University with appointments in the Departments of Theatre Arts and Art) with his attempt toward bringing all of the various threads of dealing with acting together in a monograph titled Toward a General Theory of Acting: Cognitive Science and Performance. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.)
Some years ago in on-line discussion groups, Bill "Break-a-Leg" Smith from Denver advocated for a distillation of a "general field theory of acting" that would combine the various approaches of the various teachers, coaches, gurus, mandarins, and panjandrums who all contribute to our understanding of acting. That prize hasn't quite been won yet.
A trend of the past 20 years or so has been the development of conversations between science and non-scientific fields to see if fruitful discovery can be made. For example, I was in East Lansing, MI in the mid-1990's when a discussion series began that brought together scientists and religious folks in an effort to see if some way of communicating about questions could be accomplished. The series was brought to fruition with the assistance of a man who had a master's degree in engineering and was also an ordained pastor.
So it's not surprising that we've seen the similar development over the past decade or so a growing trend of monographs hoping to apply science of some kind to the discussion of acting or to theatre generally.
One of the results of these kinds of discussions is an odd document in my possession. A retired science professor re-wrote the Apostle's Creed, used in some Christian Churches as an expression of a set of beliefs, in what he claimed was scientific language.
I suggest that these kinds of attempts suggest a kind of anxiety about epistemology. What do we really know? And how certain can we be about knowing it?
One of the sadder facets of Enlightenment thinking is the notion that epistemology is basically one thing. And that our means of knowing is solely through our material existence. Observable reality is what we can know. Everything else is mere supposition and guesswork.
This basic point of view helped humanity make large achievements in science and technology. Given the many comforts I enjoy, including the computer on which this article is written; I don't claim full membership in the Luddite community. Nevertheless, we have been led down a false path when we don't realize that there are multiple ways of knowing many different kinds of things.
People in the academic game have a hard time with this when rewards come from publication that forwards knowledge, and, by that, what is usually meant some element of science.
One of the essential things a general theory of acting might include is some foundational understanding of what acting is.
As mentioned above, this is not easy.
For example, as mentioned in last month's column, an actor always has to deal with the irrational. At some point in every film and every play there is a leap of irrationality. An audience accepts these "little lies" very willingly. To make acting work, though, the actor has to engage the trust of the audience and the other actors to make this work.
There are people you wouldn't go around the corner with, but the actor needs to take you to a place of irrationality for a couple of hours usually in a room with dim light. That is trust.
Where does trust reside? How does trustworthiness work? These are things we can observe, but seem to slip away from our scientific hands as we try to put them under our microscopes.
Mr. Lutterbie, as a man of the theatre, starts the monograph with a discussion of "The Language of Acting." From there, he moves on to science, favoring cognitive social science and some neuro-science.
In the beginning of his argument the author sets out to establish certain foundational premises. Among these premises is a lamentation about binary thinking – mind/body, emotion/reason, etc. "It is a major contention of this book that such thinking is limiting, even crippling when engaged in the art and craft of acting . . ." (p. 23)
Therefore the reader is allowed to be puzzled when the author begins his recital of modern acting theory with the multiple binaries of Stanislavsky vs Meyerhold and the contrast of an "inside-out" approach to an "outside-in" approach. The former supposedly favored by Stanislavsky, and the latter supposedly favored by Meyerhold.
The author begins by working to suggest that, "It is now generally recognized that Stanislavski's thinking changed from a theory of emotional recall to an interest in physical action." (p 29)
Actually, scholarship in Stanislavsky studies suggests that Stanislavsky's goals and thinking about theatre didn't make such a huge shift.
Here we have the perpetuation of the "truth" of a story.[i] The origin myth of Stanislavskism is that the great man started out only interested in emotional recall, suggesting almost an "Actor's Studio" in the Kremlin. And, then, realizing the foolhardy errors of his misbegotten ways, dealt only with the movement of the actor's bodies.
Like many myths there is one grain of truth in the great barrel of stew of the myth. But myth it is.
Throughout his career, Stanislavsky searched and stood for the Theatre of Experience. He took as his motto again and again Pushkin's Aphorism. Pushkin's Aphorism came from an essay the Russian writer Alexei Pushkin wrote about a Russian national drama in 1808. Pushkin was a Romantic who argued against neo-Classical ideas about verisimilitude. And in the midst of this essay, Pushkin wrote something that translates to something like: "Authenticity of the passions, verisimilitude in the feelings experienced in the proposed circumstances, that is what our intelligence requires of a dramatic author."
The neo-Classicists generally disliked Shakespeare because he didn't follow the neo-Classical rules. Supposedly following the "rules" would make the play good. Pushkin argues, "No. If the passions of the characters, how they seem to behave seems to make sense within the world (proposed circumstances or context) created by the dramatic author – that's what an intelligent person wants."
Generally as actors we look at this phrase mainly as the origin point of Stanislavsky's analytical tool of engaging with the "Given Circumstances." In doing so we deny Stanislavsky and ourselves the larger point that Pushkin made.
As a poet, Pushkin realized that all stories are irrational. Working to tell them in one location with the one plot taking place within one day doesn't help. For want of another way of saying it, "If it feels right to the audience within the context you create, that's all we need to make an intelligent reading of the story."
So throughout his career Stanislavsky advocated the Theatre of Experiencing. While still having to use language within the 19th century culturation of his semantic universe, he continually worked as holistically as he could to have content in the form. What do I mean by that?
Stanislavsky had seen enough (as most of us have) actors providing the form of a performance without much content. Certainly Stanislavsky's work with Leopold Sulerzhitsky and learning about yoga seems to have provided Stanislavsky with a way to think about form and content.
One of the challenges to some is to mistake the official Soviet materialist-approved "Method of Physical Actions" as the sole end of Stanislavsky's working career. Sharon Carnicke devotes the meat of a chapter in her book about Stanislavsky on how Russian writers of the period and Stanislavsky in particular dealt with Soviet censorship and language manipulation.[ii] Likewise Bella Merlin notes the tricky nature of translation of Stanislavsky's ideas about 'spirit,' 'spirituality, and 'soul' given the problems such terms posed to official Soviet materialist culture.[iii] A telling story is from late in Stanislavsky's life when he remarks that an object of importance is showing the soul of the new people. A Party watcher comments that "soul" is just a figure of speech and has no meaning. Stanislavsky replies that if the young man can come up with an equivalent word, Stanislavsky would happily use that word instead of "soul," leaving the young man flummoxed.[iv]
It is true that the young people Stanislavsky worked with in the 1930's had had a different life than the young people Stanislavsky worked with in 1898. Vsevolod Meyerhold, playing Treplev in the Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull opposite Stanislavsky's portrayal of Trigorin, was only about 10 years younger than Stanislavsky. Meyerhold grew up in a fairly sleepy provincial town and was able to come to Moscow to study law in an era in which leading thinkers thought the world was too civilized for war.
Stanislavsky's young folks working in the late years on Bulgakov's Moliere play or on Dead Souls, had been born in the 20th century. As children they had witnessed the failure of their country in the war with Japan and ensuing little revolution of 1905. They'd lived through the Great War, the Revolution, the Civil War, acute poverty, depravation, disease and famine. Today we might guess that these folks had some level of PTSD. The surprising thing is that within that context how stable Stanislavsky's work was.
As for Meyerhold, the interpreter of his work needs to disentangle Meyerhold the artist from Meyerhold the polemicist. As a writer Meyerhold was prone to agitation and argumentation. This is not to say that Meyerhold was disingenuous in his writing. Rather, to an extent, his pen could get away from him.
In any case Meyerhold and Stanislavsky remained collegial over many years, contrasting (for example) with either man's relationship with Nemirovich-Danchenko. In 1904 Stanislavsky called on Meyerhold to start the first real experimental laboratory theatre. And the work of that group in 1905 reflects a slightly different Meyerhold than the polemicist.[v] In the mid 1920's, Stanislavsky remarking on Meyerhold's production of Ermann's farce The Mandate said, "Meyerhold has achieved in this act what I have dreamed of."[vi] Finally, looking at reports of Meyerhold's rehearsal practice, we note someone who isn't far afield from "Stanislavskian" practice.[vii]
What does this have to do with Lutterbie's book? First, the author argues against "binary" thinking, but uses it as a kind of short-hand. Then the author plays loose with material that is known to make a superfluous point. This use of material raises questions about use of material with which the reader is unfamiliar.
The author writes, "One among the myriad reasons that theatre fails is that we do not have an adequate understanding of how acting works. . ." (p 22) the author suggests this is dangerous. Is our understanding of how acting works helped by perpetuating myth over nuanced understanding of history?
There are real issues concerning the actor and emotions. In real life, if you meet someone with whom you fall passionately in love and lust, those feelings can last for several weeks (months? years?) with real electrical tingles at the touch of the beloved. Note the problem of the young woman who must play Juliet. She doesn't have several weeks. She has the two hour traffic of our stage to dash in and out a whole gamut of emotion for the benefit of an audience.
The clearest example of this problem, for me, attaches to the young woman who plays Nina in The Seagull. At the end of Act III, Nina is on a high having decided to go to Moscow and become and actress and having kissed her idol Trigorin for the first time. In about 15 minutes of off-stage time (2 years in the world of the play), this young woman has to find a place where she has been pregnant and watched her child die and be plagued with hunger and homelessness. In real life, there's nothing worse, we're told, than the death of your own child. And we might assume that such a tragedy is even worse for the mother of the child. And yet the young woman who plays Nina has only about 10-15 minutes to get from top-of-the-world to death-of-her-child.
How does an actor do that?
We can talk about techniques, etc. We can talk about the training necessary to effect these kinds of performances. But what does cognitive science say about what the actor actually feels in performance? We don't know.
The author moves from a discussion of acting theory to dynamic systems theory. In applying dynamic systems theory to theatre, Lutterbie uses examples of production "problems" (a missing prop, an actor taken ill during performance, etc) to suggest the disturbances or perturbations that provoke the processes of dynamic systems theory. (p 92) In doing so, the author leaves alone the attendant issue of the "normal" production.
In a short run, many actors work on nerves and adrenaline. It is only over time that other problems arise. For example, I have a friend who played in The Mousetrap in a dinner theatre eight shows a week for the better part of a year. Within a week or two of opening, my friend got bored. Yes, the odd missing prop provided excitement. But the majority of performance time proceeded unhindered by any change show after show.
Cognitive science seems to be beginning to investigate the process of habit formation. And most actors with even a little experience know the difficulty of making even small variations of a line reading that has become habit. The pause used to mean something, but now has simply become an habitual rest in the midst of the speech. The cross left almost occurs without any impetus at all, simply through habit.
These issues should also be addressed in a general theory of acting.
Lutterbie also makes some odd claims in the book. For example, he suggests that Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire and Elizabeth in The Crucible could not be played the same way. (p 95) It is unclear why this should be so. Both characters are women who are careful about how others see them as sexual beings and who have suffered some emotional abuse.
Lutterbie writes, "In a dynamic system, performing a role is never as simple as pushing a button to play out an action. That is one of the differences between making movies and performing live." (p. 99) For the actor making the movie, there is no push-button performing either. Repeated takes for the camera poses equivalent challenges for the movie actor as multiple performances do for the stage actor.
The remainder of the book is taken up with discussions of technique, improvisation, scoring, and performance.
Why do some people seem more creative than others? How does imagination work relative to the falsehoods of the actor's work? What are the effects of stage violence and/or stage affection on the emotional state of the actor? What does "being in character" even mean?
These are questions to be addressed by a general field theory of acting, but not addressed in the book. The issues in the book that are addressed sum up to the notion that a performance on the stage is part of a dynamic system.
That's true. The third grade school pageant and the 3, 238th performance of Phantom of the Opera on Broadway are both dynamic and not static.
In the fictional world of Stanislavsky's books, Stanislavsky compliments and critiques various actors for their work in a demonstration. After a critique of people who use the stage to show off their hands and feet, one of the fictional students asks the fictional director why he complimented an actress who showed off her feet. His reply,
"She has pretty feet."
[i] For a full discussion of the consequences of story and epistemology see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, NY: Fortress Press, 1992, pp 32-42.
[ii] Sharon Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus: An Acting Master for the 21st Century (2nd ed.), NY: Routledge, Chap 6.
[iii] Bella Merlin, "Where's the Spirit Gone? The Complexities of Translation and the Nuances of Terminology in 'An Actor's Work' and An Actor's Work," in Stanislavsky Studies Vol 1 at: http://stanislavskistudies.org/wp-content/uploads/Bella_Merlin_Stanislavski_Studies_1.pdf
[iv] Carnicke, p 101.
[v] The full story is in Kathryn M. Syssoyeva, "Meyerhold and Stanislavsky at Povarskaia Street: Art, Money, Politics and the Birth of Laboratory Theatre," unpublished dissertation, Stanford, 2009.
[vi] Konstantine Rudnitsky, Meyerhold the Director, Ann Arbor: Ardis Books, 1981, p. 377.
[vii] Paul Schnidt, Meyerhold at Work, Austin, U Texas Press, 1980, Chap 4.