Stopping

(Originally posted September 14th 2011)

 

The image above is a levitating lightbulb that is being powered wirelessly. Quieten your curiosity from thinking about the implications of wireless power for a moment and really ‘take in’ this piece: It works through what is absent (wires, lamp to support the bulb) as much as what is present.

It was made by Jeff Lieberman. He’s an artist, engineer, roboticist, thinker, writer, performer, musician… Remarkable talent. We were talking yesterday, and after about 45 minutes of talking about technology in live performance the conversation moved in a very different direction. On top of Jeff’s many skills and talents, he is passionate about meditation and stillness. Not as a ‘hobby’, but as a centre and foundation for all of his work. The sometimes deeply troubling process of separating yourself from your ego that one must confront in meditation is also a process, he argues, that creates inventive, playful and exciting artists.

Spoiler alert : I completely agree.

But how you get to that meditative state is really mysterious. And how could you work while in it? How much of this state could an audience ‘take’ before disregarding the work as ‘zombie-like’? Jeff is a thoughtful, wise and compelling guy, so I needed to listen a little more carefully. Perhaps I was confusing meditation with Czikszentmihalyi‘s theory of Flow? Art making is traditionally associated with ‘angst’ and ‘ennui’ – two very ego-centric emotions that Flow can banish. That makes sense to me as an actor, because ‘Flow’ sounds like the dream state to be in when working. Rarely, however, is that the state rehearsal ends up being. Instead, rehearsal is usually plagued by frustration and agitation.

But Meditation brings up agitation, too. Successfully maintaining a meditative state confronts you with your own emotional attachments to things, which you must then jettison, no matter what frustration may ensue. This could also be a description of the process I associate with acting : being confronted with your own emotional attachment to things (fame, being loved by the crowd, being better than everybody else, having more lines, etc), which you then must jettison, no matter what frustration may ensue. Frustration, therefore, is not the enemy to the meditative state. It is purely a manifestation of your own self. You made that frustration all by yourself, and so you can also get rid of it. “Just keep breathing” advises the mystics (which is also something you will hear a lot in an acting class).

This intrigues me, because I’m still alarmed at how quickly I will avoid frustration in favor of ‘feeling better’. Students I work with will do the same, and seem particularly resentful when I insist that frustration is not to be avoided, but confronted. It is difficult, but is often the only way to transcend your current ability and gain new skills in acting. But what is interesting, is that frequently you must confront your frustration by stopping doing something.

Much is made of how much hard work you need to put into becoming an actor. No argument from me on that point. But there is an equally as important ‘partner’ to that hard work, and that is stillness, calm and stopping. To stop is to invite in all the things your work is attempting to disarm. Stopping, therefore, is always frustrating and empowering. Because the sooner you disarm your own frustration with a project, the more you can work at it and enjoy working at it. This might seem a bit esoteric to you, and you aren’t alone. There is hardly any consistent body of respected research that supports stillness or meditative focus for an actor. But the few who have tried it, have been responsible for some remarkable developments.

The three that jump to mind are the director/designer Robert Wilson, the discipline of the Alexander Technique (still ridiculed and marginalized by much of the mainstream drama community) andTadashi Suzuki. Robert Wilson’s work has always played with speed and tempo. His exercise of taking 30 minutes to walk across an average-sized room can be profoundly unsettling to an actor/dancer. They are focused on maintaing momentum at a very slow speed, which is alarming to the body and consequently the mind. Though, that tension begins to allow the actor/dancer to access a deeper focus, commitment and attention to their work. The Alexander Technique’s emphasis on posture, openness and breath draws criticism for being little more than “learning how to stand up straight”. But that criticism often sounds centered in a deep-rooted discomfort with simplicity of the work. Instead of ‘strengthening’, the Alexander technique requires ‘lengthening’, and that must happen on a neurological level as well as a muscular one.

Finally there is Tadashi Suzuki. His work formalizing a way to routinely confront your body with its’ breaking point once again demands a partial meditative state to execute it. The technique demands the apparently impossible, and so frees your mind and body to explore the unknown. Again, this may sound esoteric, but there is a rising tide of thinkers, educators and artists who are rushing to embrace this way of approaching performance. What would performance look like if performers eschewed their egos and finally become the ‘Artist’ they so desperately insist that they are? Is this possible in a business consumed with the establishment  of the performer as a ‘brand’ (ie ‘ego’)? And what kind of lure is this idea of ego-less performer to younger would-be artists? You ask a school full of kids today what they want to be, and the answer is direct and yet directionless “I want to be famous.” Not howthey want to be famous. Just “famous”. What is that answer other than an ego crying to be loved by as many people as possible? And we wonder why so many famous performers become addicts?

Im not going to attach a religious belief to this meditative performing state. Though Im sure many can, and will. Live performance has been aligned with ‘the holy’ across civilizations and culture for thousands of years. This was largely due to the physical state necessary to perfom. The goal was to to free yourself from your ego and instead access the universal. Performers could become priestesses, shamans and portals. Performance in the past 400 years, though, has increasingly emphasized the value of ego in a performer. This ‘holy’ aspect to performers has been embraced by some notable luminaries of the stage in the past 100 years : Antonin ArtaudJerzy GrotowskiPeter Brook are the first three that come to my male, caucasian, euro-centric mind. And these three are also invoked time and time again in drama schools across the world. And yet, the performers who emerge from those schools are not engaging with the challenge presented by those artists. Who is really committing themselves to work and who is committing themselves to their ego?

The retort has been made that with camera-based media now saturating the globe, performance and performers need to better ‘suit’ that media. And therefore, performers need to be focused on their ‘close-up’, so-to-speak. And while I agree performance must embrace the camera and its’ demands, I don’t think that means we are in an age of ego-celebration. In fact, cameras frequently demand the absence of ego in order to work most effectively. A few years ago I was talking with Paul Debevecabout actors. He has developed a high-capacity ‘light stage’ that can record thousands of lighting angles on the human body. He then stores that data and ‘wraps’ those lighting effects around a digital character. It means an actor can be filmed in a studio, but inserted into a location shot but be lit like they are outside with the other elements in the shot. He and his team were one of the groups involved in the oscar-winning digital work for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. I asked him what the most valuable skill was for an actor to have. “Stillness”, he said, without even blinking an eye.

Still, reserved and understated performances evoke tremendous emotion in their viewers. And often contrary emotions. Cameras are certainly insistent in demanding understatement from actors. But camera-based projects also have large teams of collaborators to make it finally ‘work’, and so ‘simple’ skills for performers become increasingly important. Like hitting your mark, saying your lines the way they’re written (and meaning them), finding your light, raising you hand to a precise point in space, repeating exactly your movements from the last take… These skills all require a deeply ego-free and focused mind. You cannot ‘feel’ your way through that process so much as you must ‘sense’ your way through it.

My challenge to you, then, is to subtract your ego from your work. I warn you, it hurts. I’m still working on this myself. Jeff Lieberman had a suggestion: talk about your ego like it is another person in the room. “Oh, you want me to do that? My ego is going to hate that…” Eventually you can let go of needing to honor your ego with constant emotional facilitation, because you start to feel like a cross between your ego’s personal assistant and its’ fluffer… So let go of it, and find the ‘zone’ where work is difficult and exhilarating at the same time. Explore stopping and invite in what you are working so hard to find from other people.

Jeff’s suggestion reminded me a bit of the advice of Tony winner Mark Rylance. In 2005 he came to the school I was teaching at, and he begun to talk about using ‘gravity’ as an actor. Some of my colleagues began to bristle and relegate his advice as the unfortunate but inevitable ‘weirdness’ of a respected performer. But Mr Rylance persisted. When you watch a play, he argued, usually the first thing you notice is how much and how loudly the actors are talking. “If we weren’t in a theater and heard people talking like that, we’d assume there was danger coming. Or that those people were crazy. Our bodies, therefore, respond to the actors’ frenetic sounds in the same way they would respond to danger.” This tension between knowing you are in a theater but sensing there is danger makes for a fidgeting and confused audience member. Instead, Rylance argued, actors can do the opposite and stop. Be still. Breathe with the audience. Acknowledge their state as they watch you. He called this ‘gravity’, because rather than pushing out energy, the actor  is challenged to invite energy into them.

“I’m cunning enough now to know that ‘simple’ can carry the day” – Sir Alec Guinness