Mindfulness and Acting
Is what actors do parallel to nonjudgmental awareness of the self?
Posted Feb 05, 2015
What is acting?
This is the question my co-teacher, Annie Levy, a director, scholar, and teacher of theatre asked our class "Emotions in Psychology and Theatre" on day 1. The answers, from a classroom of undergraduate students with varying levels of acting experience were "being", "doing," "pretending," and "behaving truthfully". Except none of these can possibly be completely true. Actors have to learn lines. They have to think about their light and their audience. And while they might be behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances, or "being", actors cannot behave completely with truth, otherwise no one would ever stage a murder scene for fear of being actually murdered. Cognitively, there's more going on.
This is by no means an easy question to answer: scholars of acting have been trying to answer it since acting was something people began to talk about. And every theorist, actor and scholar has a different question. (I've already written about it a bit here.)
At the same time our semester began with this question, a colleague, Dr. Steven Brown from McMaster University, and director of the NeuroArts lab, emailed me with a similar question: At a cognitive level, what are actors doing? And is it somehow similar to what we all do as we play different roles in our every day lives? For sure, we are all different at work and at home; in front of parents as compared to romantic partners; in public and in private.
We know that, for example, when a person produces a gesture in dance, they are moving their body, and the audience is reading that gesture. Likewise, in acting, there are gestures and facial expressions, all of which can be produced with minimal psychological effort, and read by audience members. But what of the internal? Obviously, acting is not just hitting the right physical position and moving the correct facial muscles. So what else is going on?
One possibility is "presence" or the philosophical concept of existing consciously. The idea of different "presences" in every day life has been explored, and it may be that actors are simply doing this in a performative context. Another possibility is some combination of emotion regulation and executive function: you (or actors) decide what is appropriate given a certain set of circumstances, and then you mold which parts of your personality and emotions you express, which you hold back, etc.
However, another interesting concept is that acting is a form of mindfulness. In mindfulness, one does not pass judgment, but instead simply observes what is happening physically and emotionally. As thoughts or emotions come, the individual sees them, recognizes them, but then lets them pass by, without making a big story out of them.
While theatre requires a big story (or at least some objective), that is not actually up to the actor in the moment of performance. For the moment of performance, mindfulness may be the key to what actors are "doing", becuase what they are "doing" is "being".
Or, perhaps 80% of their selves are. The other 20% is remembering lines, finding light, and facing the audience. Or as Spencer Tracy said "just learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture". Michael Chekhov, the famous teacher of acting (and one of Stanislavsky's protégés) helped to develop the idea that an actor must give himself over to the part while retaining some sense of the imaginary status of his or her circumstances on stage (to give yourself over 100% to the imaginary world would be dangerous). One way this technique has evolved is through the shorthand frequently used to describe what an actor is doing on stage (borrowed from the Pareto Law): the idea of an actor always being "80/20," that is an actor must be 80% fully committed in character, and 20% aware of the pretense of the situation.
Perhaps then within the 80% activeness, actors are, cognitively, being mindful-- aware of what is happening around them, their physical senses, the emotions that are coming, and the thoughts and words passing through them in service of a character. At the same time, they must also be nonjudgmental, as it is not up to the actor in the moment of performance to create more cognitively than what they are supposed to be doing on stage. In the rehearsal room, of course, the actor should spend as much time as possible in exploration, but in performance, mindfulness to the exact moment of the performance may be what we mean when we say an actor is "being" onstage. While actors do not necessarily use the language of mindful awareness or nonjudgmental awareness, a conversation between these two fields could be useful.
In this vien, could the difference between a good actor and a bad one be how mindful they are? How aware they are of themselves in the moment of performance? Perhaps better actors can better be nonjudgmental of their physical and emotional states when portraying a character, and can let those states pass through onto the stage. The more aware an actor can be of what various emotions feel and look like, perhaps the more likely they can portray those emotions effectively on stage. Some combination of this type of mindful awareness and large amounts of rehearsal and prepartion of the pragmatics of acting and creating theatre may underlie acting. Or, perhaps the preparation is what is needed into order to get into the mindfulness in the moment of performance.
Mindfulness has become a major topic of psychological research. Practicing mindful meditation has been tied to more emotional stability, quality of life, ease, and other positive outcomes. Yet actors are popularly assumed to hold the opposite of those qualities. An empirical question, then, could be whether individuals who are experts in mindfulness, indviduals who have meditated extensively, control and regulate their emotions in similar ways to actors. Is the approach to emotions in the actual performance of acting similar to the approach to emotions in mindfulness? I think we can safely assume techniques of emotion regulation in rehearsal, with ideas of sense memory, or the physical manifestation of an emotion leading to its hormonal and physiological correlates (see: power posing) are not similar to mindful meditation in nature. Yet the actual moment of performance, particularly for performers who repeat a characters night after night, might be a type of mindful meditation, and one in need of more empirical exploration.