Math and the Actor

(Originally posted September 14th, 2011)

Amongst my reading over this past week, I was particularly struck by this article in WIRED. The title pissed people off, and that immediately warmed me to it. As I read more into it, the more I nodded my head in enthusiastic (and borderline spastic) agreement. The parallels to what I do seemed intuitive and immediate.

So I thought for my next blog post I’d plough similar territory, but focussing more on the importance and relevance of math for the actor. I know the original article uses the ‘Artist’ word. It is a word I distrust, especially when talking about supposed artists who are in training. ‘Artist’ is now so overused, I fear it has become a parody of itself. And an actor declaring themselves to be an ‘Artist’ is something I won’t ever get comfortable with. Let someone else call you that (just don’t believe them). Get on and do your work. There is no shame in being a ‘craftswoman’ rather than an ‘Artist’.

Last year I remember sitting in my car listening to director Peter Weir speak to this point. He talked of the master potters in Japan who don’t sign their work. Their argument is that they can only claim responsibility for their work’s ‘craft’. If ‘art’ is inserted into the conversation, they say that they just happened to be have been touched by the divine on that particular day, for that particular piece. But what ‘touched’ them to make their craft become art is separate and elusive from them. The ‘craft’, however, they can always rely on.

So ‘Artist’ aside, what does math have to do with actors, especially training actors? I just left a 14 year run of training exclusively at ‘conservatory’ drama schools. In each iteration of ‘conservatory’, the faculty seemed (with only a few exceptions) emphatic that students needed fewer “distractions” from their discipline. Math was usually characterized as the antipathy of performance. Instead, it was often reserved only for the ‘technical’ or ‘business’ minded. After all, perfomers should be ‘Artists’, and reject base elements embraced by the non-artistic. Their argument went something like this :

“Our students enter school focused and driven on their chosen discipline. The business demands the highest possible level of craftsmanship [they usually say ‘artistry’, but you get my meaning], and we in this school cannot provide that professional level of training unless we have the students for as much time as is humanly possible. That way, our students leave as artists and leaders in the field.”

Needless to say, I disagree with this characterization on just about every level. I will not use this post to passionately defend the merits of a ‘liberal arts’ education. Check this out, instead (she is far more eloquent than I). Let me outline my counter-argument :

1 – ‘Focus’ and ‘drive’ to perform is not the secret sauce that makes a professional. Do you know how many people want to act? Do you know how many kids dream of performing? The difference between someone who is a professional performer and someone who is not cannot be solely put down to how driven they are in college. In fact, many performers didn’t need college at all to honor their ‘focus’ or ‘drive’ to become a professional. And many wannabe professionals are dying (sometimes literally) to be performing right now, were trained in a highly focused ‘conservatory’ school. The fact that they are not working cannot be down to the fact that while at college, their program wasn’t focused enough on acting. Perhaps it’s the opposite – if their program had involved disciplines outside of acting, performers would have more to offer in an audition.

2 – The business does not demand the highest possible level of craftsmanship. The business is vast. And much of it actually doesn’t demand high levels of craftsmanship at all. Instead ‘competence’, ‘willingness to adapt’, ‘a great energy’ and sometimes ‘a really great look’ seem to serve you just fine. Because the business is about collaboratively making something, it is not there to pay homage to an actor’s skill. As Marc Maron recently put it “This business is not a Meritocracy – get over yourself”. The business wants more than ‘craft’. It wants ‘interesting’, ‘crazy’, ‘weird’, ‘sexy’, ‘quirky’, ‘weird’, ‘funny’, ‘obedient’, ‘vacuous’, ‘mesmerizing’, ‘understated’… the list goes on and on. Sometimes craft will get a performer to a few of those. But many times it isn’t necessary, or there isn’t the time to spend on real craft. I don’t think this fact should be celebrated. But to deny it is to make ourselves willfully ignorant in a business that you cannot afford to be ignorant within.

3 – You can train actors their specific craft  in LESS time than four years. That doesnt mean you’ll work, though, I grant you that. An actor needs experience with their craft to learn how to ‘wield’ it. However, let us also be open about how actors train : many times the process is experiential, and not craft-driven at all. You get up, try some choices (often very safe choices) and wait for notes from the teacher/director. If your choices are not off-the-wall, you get painfully few notes (and by ‘notes’ I mean ‘instruction’). The actors who are ‘struggling’, however, get the vast majority of the notes.

Let me clarify here what I mean by ‘struggling’. I am not talking about ability, so much as process. All student actors struggle, irregardless of ‘ability’. And, if we assume there is some truth to what I’ve written above, it is difficult to state empirically that one actor is ‘good’ and another is ‘bad’. Even if you could, they might both work and do well in the business. So to ‘struggle’ in an acting class usually speaks more to the student’s process rather than their skill. This kind of struggling actor watches the behaviors of the students who receive the most amount of attention from the instructor. That may not even be positive attention, just ‘attention’. The struggling actor then infers how they can replicate those behaviors and receive their own share of attention from the instructor. This is problematic in many ways, but I’ll just mention two of them. Firstly, student actors who are copying other student actors don’t look more like the characters they are trying to portray. They look like student actors. Secondly, imitating behavior from students inside a class can result in ego-centric behavior that prevents others in the class from having their own ‘shot’. These behaviors are time hungry – tantrums, sulking, poor preparation, emotionally charged rants, self righteousness, etc etc.

This is a gross generalization, so I understand if you are writhing already. But this refrain is all too common in acting classes : actors with these behaviors get the lion’s share of the “instruction” in a class. The actors who use their craft well, or work hard at establishing their craft, will be supported and encouraged by the instructor. But they are not really ‘instructed’ very much. The actual nuts and bolts of the craft is only outlined, usually through handouts, a reading list and maybe some exercises. An that can surely happen faster than four years. What I think gets in the way is the ‘taste’ of the instructor. Which is hardly surprising, as acting is like any other art and subject to taste. But just using the word ‘craft’ implies the instructor is imparting something that can transcend taste. ‘Craft’ is more structural, and therefore can be utilized by the actor as they need to, and as the taste of their collaborators differ. So the actual ‘craft’ of acting needs an absence of taste on the instructors part, or as close to an absence of taste as the instructor is capable of.

4 – You cannot ‘decide’ to become the training ground for future leaders in this business. Because it’s the future. And the people teaching (myself among them) are from the past. The business will change unpredictably, like our species does. It is a deluded teacher who says with authority that they know that it is their particular expertise that defines “future leadership”. 

Returning to the Japanese potters I mentioned earlier, to call your students ‘leaders’ is to assume you can touch them with the divine each and every time. And that sounds like hubris to me. Instead, let’s keep doing what we do, and if it becomes ‘art’ and ‘leads the way’ for others in our field, that is special. Not the result of the curriculum.

And what do we even mean by ‘leader’? Is ‘the Rock’ a ‘leader’ in the industry because Fast Fivegrossed close to $600m? Or Rosie Huntington-Whitely because Transformers 3 grossed over $1b? How about if you are the body for apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Or what if you never went to acting school and favored playing guitar in local bands instead (like Johnny Depp)? What if you’re a martial arts master who found your way into movies – does that not make Jackie Chan a leader in the acting world? And who is the ‘leader’ in The Fighter : the former child actor (who didnt go to drama school) or the former high school drop-out (who also didnt go to drama school)? Or does this word word ‘leader’ really just mean “an actor who acting professors like“? Leader-schmeader….

So let’s go back to math.

Math is a core skill. Acting is also a core skill, though I’ll use another post to argue that point. Math is certainly relevant for every business (the word ‘business’ implies the need for numbers). Actors are no exception, as it is show business. But acting as a process also involves mathematics. Actors are constantly using probability, fractions, proportion, logic, chaos, distributions, game theory, relativity, etc etc. And our scripts deal predominantly with concepts like ‘zero’ (have you read Beckett recently?) and ‘infinity’. Vectors and Trigonometry dictate velocity and accuracy for actors as they work in the movement studio. In my second year of teaching, a mathematics professor spent three months in my class formalizing the actors’ ability to judge positioning in space as a function of trigonometry within their brains. Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite built an entire rehearsal methodology on mathematical equations while workshopping a new script based on the life of mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H Hardy (A Disappearing Number). An these are just thesimplest examples. Because math is as vast as a language : it is a different way of seeing and relating to the world. I recently ran across this great quote from actor Eric Banna:

“I’m not interested in ‘me’ when I’m playing a character. I’m interested in you; how you see the world”(interview for Meet the Filmmaker)

An actor’s primary responsibility is reach out of themselves and into somebody else. And if mathematics is a way of seeing the world, surely that would be a valuable way to make that leap? Not to mention that because mathematics is a part of many other disciplines, it is a kind of ‘universal language’ to access human experience.

The Greeks put their actors in masks to demand that the performers access something other than themselves. How could an average Athenian singer/dancer/actor (yes, all Greek Tragedians were ‘triple threats’) ever ‘personalize’ the character of Oedipus or Medea? Life was certainly tough in 5th century BC Athens, but they weren’t all murdering their fathers and sleeping with their mothers. Instead, by putting on the mask, they would hide themselves and invite characters in with broader experience than the performers themselves. At the core of acting is the skill to look at the world through the eyes of someone else, and that means not exclusively as an actor, but also as a mathematician, an accountant, an engineer.

Finally, it seems almost silly to have to argue the point that in a business so saturated with computers and technology (built with mathematics, incidentally), a deeper understanding of mathematics facilitates a greater command of the technology that saturates the business. Imagine a world where actors code their own apps with access to their showreels (edited by themselves), headshot and resume. Imagine a world where actors understand basic computer animation, and so can better collaborate with colleagues in the Motion Capture department, or rendering department. Imagine a world where actors do their own CGI for personal projects.

yeah, you’re right – that’s already happening. But not with actors who missed out on math.