My dedication to a life in the theater is unequivocally related to emotion, feeling, and sensation and I suspect I share this “secret cause” with many others in the profession, on both sides of the footlights. And yet emotion and feeling is rarely the subject of our discussions or analysis. Why do we discuss feeling in the theater so rarely? Perhaps we shy away because the subject is too dangerous. We are in the business of creating experiences for audiences but we know that feelings and emotions can be easily misused, manipulated, and abused.
I cry easily. In a film a boy runs across a field towards his missing dog and I weep. I burst into tears at advertisements. I get goose bumps from a high jump feat. It is easy in the theater to create a moment on stage where everyone in the audience feels the same thing. But what I find much more interesting and challenging is to stage a moment in which everyone has different associations and feels something different.
I cringe if I hear an actor say, “If I feel it they will feel it.” The notion that the actor and the audience feel the same sensations at the same moment leads to a solipsistic approach to acting and easy dismissal on the part of the audience. A scholar sitting in on a run through of a one-woman show I directed entitled Room, based upon the writings of Virginia Woolf, was overcome with emotion at a particular point in the play. Later he interviewed the actress Ellen Lauren and asked her what she was thinking about during this specific section of the play. Ellen responded, “I was counting.” Due to the intricate choreography and precise musical cues in the scene, Ellen found it necessary to count. The scholar was appalled. He could not believe that what swept him away so thoroughly was a section in which the actor was counting. But in fact, the actor was busy, engaged in setting up the necessary conditions for the audience to respond.
Despite the fact that we theater people share an intense interest and curiosity in the subject of feeling, I nonetheless avoid analyzing the subject directly in the process of a rehearsal. The issue is slippery and complicated and easily misunderstood. The worst way to approach feeling with actors is directly, rather, feeling is a by-product of a precise arrangement of circumstances. A person interested in the phenomenon of a solar eclipse does not look directly at the sun, which is far too dangerous for the eyes. She or he gazes to the side or looks at the reflection upon a piece of cardboard in order to experience the sun’s eclipse. But the point of the sideways gaze is not the cardboard, but rather it is the interest in the sun. In a similar sense, in a rehearsal, instead of discussing feeling, I tend to concentrate on precise details and technical points. But not because I am so fascinated by these issues but rather I am attempting to set up the circumstances in which feeling can occur. I do not try to control the uncontrollable or to manipulate feeling or emotion to occur at a particular moment. Attempting to manufacture emotion and feeling directly can lead to facile theater and an experience that is forgotten upon its conclusion. Complex and memorable feelings in the theater are a glorious byproduct of a very precise work on form, psychology and timing.
To be in the presence of actors is a constant thrill to me. Actors are required to be incredibly alive and sensitive to the slight variations in the environment and to the vicissitudes, moods, signals and minute alterations of those around them. To be in the room with humans functioning at this highest level of wakefulness, awareness and courageousness is both sexy and thrilling. I experience a contact high from these extraordinary beings. To be in the presence of someone who is actually noticing, not faking or feigning, but truly noticing, is a remarkable occasion. As Martha Graham often said, “the body does not lie.” An actor noticing a beeper going off in the back of the theater or responding to a fellow actor’s sudden change in tempo, all the while maintaining the forward momentum of the play engages the audience in this very balancing act on a moment to moment basis. In the instant that we all are sharing, the actors and the audience, this responsiveness is real, visceral and can change the temperature of a room full of observers.
Erin Hurley in her upcoming book entitled Theatre & Feeling distinguishes between feeling that is affect, and feeling that is emotion. What I described just now, the thrill of being in the presence of actors who are radiantly experiencing the present moment falls under affect. Affect means “feeling associated with action.” Our blood rushes faster, our mirror neurons spike new synaptic activity throughout our bodies, adrenalin courses throughout the system and, as an added bonus, we are literally massaged by the actor’s voice. This visceral experience, one of the leading attributes of all encounters with art, is a large part of why we bother to engage with art in the first place. The increased adrenalin resulting from the experience sharpens the mind and focuses the attention.
Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman proposes that we can think of ourselves as two separate beings. He distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the present moment. The remembering self keeps score and creates stories from the experiences of the experiencing self. What we keep from our experiences becomes story. According to Kahneman, there is a difference between the experience and the memory of the experience. We go to the theater both for the direct visceral experience but also for the anticipated memories.
Hurley differentiates emotion from affect by the presence of memory. The mind interprets immediate experience via memories in the form of expectations, previous experience and cultural assumptions. This act of interpretation leads an individual or an audience member to create associations, meaning and conclusions. New memories are added to existing ones. What creates memory? Experience and sensation become memory via emotion. The more emotion that is generated in the heat of the experience, the more likely the memory is to “stick.” Emotion seals memory. The stronger the emotion, the more accessible is the memory. It is my hope to make theater that is both visceral and exciting in the moment (affective), but also creates pathways to new and lasting memories.
It turns out that memory is actually a protein that is formed in the heat of experience. If you think back on formative experiences that you have had in your life, the ones that are accessible are memories formed in the presence of emotion. For me, my initial experience in the theater at the age of fifteen was a highly emotional encounter with what was both unfamiliar and magnetically attractive. This experience led me to choose the theater as a profession. I can remember this experience easily. To access a memory, a particular synaptic path must be created that leads to this protein.
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