(Originally posted September 12th 2011)

On Saturday I went to the Media Lab at MIT. I walked through the shops and looked at water-saws that can cut through 2 inches of steel. And 3d printers that can carve alarmingly intricate details. Then we went through the various labs. They were an elevator ride up. Each and every project was remarkable – not only in its execution, but more so in their potential applications, particularly (I thought) in live performance. The Tangible Media Lab was particularly exciting. But then again, so were the giant interactive chandeliers that can be played like harps. And the robots (so many robots…). And the ping pong table with projected fish that follow the ball as you play.

What kept nagging at me, though, was how different this was from most of what I have been working around over the past 15 years or so. And I’ve been working in ‘higher’ education for the past 15 years. What I am used to seeing is students and teachers in rooms that are a little bit ‘ragtag’, wrestling intellectually with something. Even in acting classes (where the greatest ‘sin’ is being “too much in your head”), actors are pretending they are being watched by an audience. They recite the lines and make the moves. But they aren’t onstage at all, most of the time. This isn’t an uncommon model – the ‘studio’ is something you see in Music, Architecture and Art. But somehow those three disciplines all still end up making something. When you go to an Acting studio, however, rarely is something being ‘made’. Actors are exercising their craft, but what is being ‘prototyped’? As painful as some plays can be to go and see, they are at least a prototype that has been realized. In the classroom, student actors can bring in some work they’ve worked on, only to be discredited because their work isn’t like something else the instructor liked better. And that is always unseen by the student.

The first thing our guide at the Media Lab (ML) told us was that the philosophy in the ML is “make it, and then we’ll talk about it”. Fabrication is critical. Because the process of fabricating something actually changes the idea you started with. To discuss ideas prior to fabrication is to alter what isnt even there yet. And can quickly kill the idea before it has had a fighting chance. So the architecture of the new ML building is in itself revealing : the shops are all on the ground floor. The Labs are built on top of them. It’s like no matter how great the idea, you always bring it back to the foundation level : how do you make it? In drama schools I see lots of one polarity or the other – we’re either all franticallymaking a show happen, or we are all sitting around theorizing how theater ‘should’ be and what the business ‘should’ look like. The ML seems to have an interesting antidote to that, by forcibly committing the polarities of ideation and fabrication to work out their differences on each and every project, and each level of every project.

So today I thought I’d try and make a tenuous leap from the structure of the ML building, to the value of polarities in the process/product of an actor. Here we go:

To be hugely reductive for a second, there tends to be two major ‘camps’ that student actors fall into. The first is the ‘structured’ actor. They are thoughtful, careful, deliberate and reflective. They write notes in scripts. They learn their lines early in the process, remember their staging perfectly and always say ‘yes’ to their director. They can struggle with finding honesty and clarity moment-to-moment, but can be hugely successful in threading together the arc of a character.

The second kind of actor, however, is the ‘present’ actor. They are instinctive, intuitive and vague. They are quick to respond, and equally as quick to drop a choice that doesnt work. They sense their way through a role, rather than think their way through it. They can produce fantastic moments, but can struggle with consistency.

Every time I sit down to work on a syllabus for an acting class, or prepare to direct a student production, these two archetypal polarities of student actor loom in my mind. How can I help them? The first problem I have, though, is that they are defined as the opposites of eachother. Because if we mean it when we say that we can actually ‘teach’ acting (something I’m not going into with this post), surely structure can influence presence? And then presence (or at least the appreciation for thevalue of presence) can influence structure. Case-in-point, text analysis for the actor. The foundation level of every acting school is not a workshop with CNC routers and 3d printers. It’s not even the theater itself. It is the Stanislavsky system of textual analysis. It is Objectives, Beats and Actions. Rightly or wrongly, a process to analyze a script is the basis for an acting program.

A cry I have made before (but will make again today) is why don’t actors use text analysis as an ‘acting’ tool, only a ‘technical’ one? In other words, why is text analysis only used a structural tool? Too many actors treat text analysis only as an intellectual process. Let’s use the ML metaphor again – text analysis needs to go to the ground floor, and not just hangout in the 3rd floor labs…. By doing that, an actor guarantees that they will remain disconnected from the full availability their potential promises. If acting school was more like the ML, actors would be required to follow an hour of text analysis with an hour of physical/vocal follow-through. Namely, spend an hour manifesting your text analysis into choices you can actually play. If you insist on treating text analysis as an intellectual process, couple it to the ‘workshop’ of physical and vocal choices that stem from it and ultimately carry your performance.

There is also a counter-cry to make : why don’t actors use performance as a ‘technical’ tool? The paragraph above tends to affect the ‘structure’ actors more. ‘Present’ actors tend to avoid text analysis all together, or they alter it to fit their own process (to coin a term form the TV show Community, they ’emotolize’, rather than analyze). Instead, ‘present’ actors get up and make it happen. But that is a bit like staying in the workshop at the ML without any plans. Performing is a process that warrants as much analysis as the text from which it springs. Performers need to be comfortable with both. Because the opposite of the inate process of the student actor (either ‘structural’ or ‘present’) is needed to develop and grow that student actor into a compelling performer.

Great characters are usually defined by how they change. To resonate with an audience, a character often has to change. Occasionally a one-note antagonist is called for. Though even they are confronted with the chance to change, and don’t. Indicating the character is at least aware that change is an option. If a student actor insists on removing their own polarity from their process, how can they embrace the character’s polarity? All too often, the answer is to mold the character (subconsciously) into a version of the student actor, whether that is appropriate for the character or not. The ‘present’ actor playing Hamlet makes him haughty and visceral, while the ‘structural’ actor makes Hamlet deliberate and sensitive. Rather than both. The ability to change is the defining element for both the actor and the character they are playing. Polarity has to be forcibly engaged by the actor to fully realize their own ability.

The whole process of acting is, in itself, a ridiculous polarity. We bang on and on about ‘truthful’ choices, all while living in a completely artificial world (fake clothes, sets, words and lighting). As Marc Maron points out, our business is about pursuing honesty whilst willfully sustaining the delusion that this business is ‘reality’. If you are going to sustain yourself through a career in acting, you must maintain the delusion that your work stands out from everybody elses and your process is ‘better’. But is it? Really?

My whole understanding of acting developed the day I read the introduction to “Theater of the Oppressed” by Augusto Boal. In it, he argues that to play Iago well, you cannot only explore how you despise Othello. You must do the opposite – Iago must understand how he loves Othello. How he admires and respects him. That gives you the fuel to sustain the awful things he does to Othello. I experienced this personally working on Romeo. Out of desperation with a director who bludgeoned me daily in notes for not believing I was in love with Juliet. So, to spite the director, I erased all of my text analysis and replaced it with all the reasons I hated Juliet. By the time I was ready to go onstage, I was a seething mass of negativity, just waiting to reject Juliet and write myself into the history books as the most disinterested Romeo of all time. But when Juliet walked onstage, all of that resentment instantly turned to admiration. The polarity forcibly engaged itself. After all, that’s what we do in life – we tend not to try and fall in love. We insist that we are not in love, and dream up reasons why we cannot ever really be in love with anyone

The opposite is the key for an actor’s entrance to the inner life of the character. To be a hero, you need to find their villain. To be a criminal, you must understand the character’s deeply held ethics. To love, you must find the character’s apathy. And to hate, you must find the character’s ability to empathize. Further more, each character you play must have consistency and plasticity, sensualityand an intellect, conscious direction and intuition. And a real biggie : every character has what they are aware of, but also what they are not aware of. I saved this one for last, because playing a role is a very personal experience. We defend characters we play as we would defend ourselves. But should we? Everybody has the capacity to fail and be unaware. And yet, those moments are the most endearing and moving for an audience. By allowing your character to fail, to reveal ignorance rather than assurance, is the moment the audience can connect most deeply with you. If all you do is succeed as a character, you are effectively writing a facebook page for your character. And that isnt who they really are…

So the lesson for me from the ML is simple yet difficult to realize : keep your work contentious. Invite polarities into your process and practice. When you are stuck, get in the elevator and either go up to the studio and rethink your plans, or head down to the workshop and make something.


“When you ask people about connection, they will tell you about disconnection”  – Brené Brown