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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Theater Arts professor Ray Munro and his students explore a set of rehearsal exercises developed by Munro to help actors "become" their characters.

Liminal performances: unveiling--the logos, revealing--the mythos

Paper by Raymond Munro
My research report is an attempt to articulate a working process. I am a director. My process is to work with actors and designers to build performances. This process usually includes my reading the play over and over again, along with other works by the playwright, and familiarizing myself with the literature, music, and visual arts of the period. But as Kathleen Raine points out,"The books that poets study may be far different than those scholars think worthy of notice"( Raine xv). The reading that has become most important to me is my reading of the spiritual texts of the western tradition. These texts not only enrich my meditative life, they shape and focus my vision, and also help to clarify my artistic research. In fact, though these texts are concerned with meditation and the spiritual, I find many direct applications to performance and the artistic. Conversely, the performance work I do then helps to elucidate the sometimes opaque meditative texts.

A story is told by Bernie Kaplan the eminent psychologist, of a distraught graduate student who in great anxiety makes his way to Psych services. The clinical psychologist is still at lunch, but his friend, a philosopher, is waiting for him in his office. The student, clearly shaken and thinking this is the therapist, sits down and says, "I don't think I exist." The philosopher, looking at his watch, sees that the shrink won't be back for another twenty minutes, asks the student, "Who doesn't think you exist?"

The student walks out cured.

In the first few moments of their first acting class, I always tell my students, "If you could do what you are doing right now, yes, just that, in front of twenty or two thousand people you would all be great actors." Well, why can't you? This question shapes the course on which the student takes his or her first tentative steps. What is it? Why can't I do what I am doing right now in front of two hundred people? Is it fear or self consciousness? Yes, self-consciousness you will say. But is this self-consciousness or Self un-consciousness?

We have been told since childhood that there is a quality that distinguishes the human being from the animal. Animals clearly have consciousness. They feel pain, express emotion and communicate with each other. But humans don't just have awareness, we are also aware that we are aware. This awareness of our awareness is what makes us human. But how much of our day, what percentage of our day, is spent in that special state, aware that we are aware? In the first example, the student is 'cured' because the question 'who doesn't think you exist?' led to a connection with his higher self, while still being aware of his everyday self. In the second, the student actors only conquer their anxieties, by shifting their attention away from their fear, and focusing completely on the play's reality and their character's situation. This detaching and focusing ability are themselves attributes of the higher self. In both cases, what is needed is a dual consciousness, a watching of the watcher.

Could it be that a great deal of the sin, crime, and plain old pain we inflict on each other is because we are not in that state of awareness? Like children who in their sleep, turn over and bloody the nose of their sibling, we know not what we do.

Acting is unique in its ability to provide a paradigm for this dual consciousness since in its praxis we are always dealing with two egos, the character's and the actor's. The best performances connect the actor's higher self with the character's constructed lower self. The joining of the two is the essence of acting. The ability to do so rests on our dual consciousness, our awareness of our awareness. Before outlining an approach to building liminal performances, we need a brief overview of how we got where we are now.

The middle of the nineteenth century was in some ways the height of intellectual materialism, and the systematic acting training that emerged was the Delsarte System. The Delsarte system was a correspondence course. You sent away for illustrations that showed you how to play LOVE. Cross your hands over your heart and glance upwards. There were other lessons demonstrating ANGER or the gesture for DESIRE. We still see vestiges of this style in bad opera, musicals and dinner theater. If your character had to throw his champagne glass into the fireplace, you would imitate what you observed while watching someone throw a champagne glass into the fireplace. This was the mimesis of the visible. The end of the nineteenth century brought us Freud in modern psychology, and Stanislavsky in modern acting. Stanislavsky's method examined not just the physical actions but also the character's thoughts. Those thoughts that engender the emotions, that move the arm, that throws the glass into the fireplace. By imitating the psychological or soul processes the actor manifests the appropriate, corresponding physical action.

Additionally, the actor must also translate the acting text into his or her own soul forces so that the words and actions may be performed in truth. After you have thrown the glass into the fireplace, let's say you turn around to see your old faithful servant bringing in Aunt Hilde's samovar. Your brilliant line is something like "Ah, Aunt Hilde's samovar!" Now you - your very own self - do not have an Aunt Hilde, or a samovar, much less any servants. But you do have an Aunt Agnes , and she does have a magnificent tea set beloved by everyone, including yourself. And your cousins did used to wait on you when you were you little ( you were so cute). It is these mental images that get you to the imaginal locus, the place you need to be in order to say "Ah, Aunt Hilde's samovar," with truth and integrity. The actor takes the written word, lifts it off the page up to the soul realm, touches it with breath and voice, imbues it with a personal, private warmth of feeling, derived from the translated thoughts and mental pictures. This is the mimesis of the invisible. Stanislavsky introduced the mimesis of the invisible to acting theory as Freud introduced the subconscious to psychological theory. And that is pretty much where we are now. The twentieth century brought us psychological introspection and method acting, but I believe the twenty-first will bring us meditative thinking, and it will further both our psychological health and our artistic renewal.

Using normal consciousness, we are only aware of thought after we have had it. As with the breeze, we see the branches move, but we don't see the wind blow. We are not conscious in the process of getting the thought (Steiner, 34). The next step for humanity and the next step for the acting process, will be becoming awake in the getting of the thought. Doing that means moving beyond the word-bound thought to an awareness in the very process of thinking. When you become alive in the process of thinking, you approach the threshold of the spiritual world. Therefore, there is a shift from the ordinary cognitive or psychological paradigms to spiritual epistemological models. The best books on acting in the twentieth century were written by Jung and Freud. The books on acting we will look to in the new century will be written in the cognitive lineage of spiritual researchers such as Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield and Georg Kühlewind.

One way to build toward this awareness is a simple concentration exercise, where you focus the mind for approximately five minutes on a simple everyday manmade object.1 The less intrinsically interesting the object is the better it is for the exercise. The sooner one comes to the end of everything you can think about the object, to the end of content, the sooner the real exercise can begin.
    This requires pure thinking because the idea, the function, is not the image or a word; and words and pictures should therefore not be present in consciousness during the exercise, yet consciousness must remain awake, only without pictorial or already thought content. For normal consciousness this object of meditation is nothingness, yet it is possible to succeed and to think that, without it becoming a "something," a past thought. In fact, an idea, or a function can only exist in current thinking, never as a past thought. Thinking, therefore must never fall out of its process, as it normally does every instant, even during intensive thinking ( Kühlewind 168).
The practitioner gradually becomes aware of the forces and streams that go to making up his or her cognitive process. He or she also becomes aware of the distractions that keep them from fulfilling the chosen task. Eventually this practice points to and strengthens the connections to the higher self that can keep the mind focused on a pencil, for example. This connecting to the higher self and the performance of the exercises culminates in the identification with, or submission to, the Higher Self, "Not I but Christ in me2 becomes the essence of contemplative practice. But the ability to move from self-consciousness to Self awareness, and to keep the mind on what you choose, is equally as important to performance as it is to meditation. In performance we find the fears and distractions objectified by the audience, the stage and the crews, predetermined blocking, the lines, and the cues. The knowledge of how to develop these techniques is found in manuals of spiritual practice.

The first and last step is to move through the abstracted, dead word on the page to the wordless word behind it, the Logos. Then move back again, to incarnate in the soul, the breath, the voice and body of the actor, the Mythos. One of the techniques I have developed for the creation of liminal performances is called Big Book. This approach encompasses Stanislavsky's psychological insights with the new dimension I am trying to outline here. Practically, what happens is the actor cuts out from the script all the character's lines except his own and pastes them in a large sketch book. The actor writes out his own lines, in his own hand. This process alone engenders a deeper relationship between the actor and the words. Instead of writing out the whole sentence, he or she divides the sentence into separate thoughts, and places those thoughts onto different lines. If there are five different thoughts, there will be five different lines. By dividing the line into separate thoughts the actor never memorizes sentences but a series of thoughts. During performance he or she is thinking thoughts and images in a sequence instead of saying lines in a right order. This example is from Samuel Beckett's Footfalls,(46)

M: A little later, when as though she had never been, it never been, she began to walk.

M: A little later,
when as though
she had never been,
it never been,
she began to walk.

Then, because it really is a Big Book, it has lots of space around each separate thought, the actors can record their impressions, memories, images and personal translations (e.g., Aunt Agnes for Aunt Hilde) for each thought line. These cognitive entities will then inhabit the imaginal locus the actors will speak from when we hear them saying their lines. But we are still on the psychological level.

The next step after the actor has done all the physical and psychological work is the Dissolving Exercise. This exercise provides a bridge from the psychological to the spiritual. It is based on a meditation technique by Georg Kühlewind (175-181). As he explains, when you began to learn to read you were very conscious of every letter. But to understand the word you have to get past the letters. To understand the sentence you need to transcend the single word. This technique then extends that process. Drop the words one by one, while maintaining the meaning of the sentence. Again, from Footfalls (Beckett, 46):

M: What age am I now?
What age I now?
age I now?

Dissolve all the words down to the last one.

I now?
I?



The last word now contains all the other words in the sentence. Drop that word and what you have is the wordless word, the Logos, that from which the first speaker spoke, from which the author wrote, from which the actor must speak, and from which everyone must speak to say something truly new. From that wordless word the actor then fills her soul, her breath, her voice, her body, and she speaks the line. In this way the actor creates the line as she speaks it. The whole movement is like a breath, inhaling to the Logos, exhaling to the Mythos.

M: What age am I now?
INHALE What age I now?
age I now?
LOGOS I now?
I?
I now? MYTHOS
age I now?
What age I now? EXHALE
M: What age am I now?


Another way to recognize and work with this Logos level is with an exercise I call Reverse Mirror. It starts with an exercise called Mirror in which two actors face each other in silence( Spolin 20). As they move they reflect each other from head to toe. After a while, the kinds of movements, their shapes and rhythms, become a form of speaking between the two actors. With my exercise the process is reversed. Instead of the actors moving to communicate, they first become aware of the wordless Word between them, the Logos, and only move when they feel it attenuating. Thus the speaking (moving) signals both the falling out of communication, and the actors attempt to reestablish it.

Does this work change how the audience will experience the play? Will the show look different? One of Stanislavsky's students asked him, if with all their work, would the audience see the difference? Stanislavsky's reply was, probably not, but they will remember it a lot longer.

I am convinced that Stanislavsky was right. The actor's intense inner work does affect the way the audience experiences the piece, though possibly in an indirect way. Every time I do the traditional Emotional Scale exercise with my actors and students, I become persuaded again. In this exercise, the actor sits quietly with eyes closed. He or she constructs an image from their own emotional past or personal mythology, that elicits a corresponding emotion, that is the referenced by a number on a scale from 1 to 10. The actor starts at 5 which is 'neutral' and proceeds downward, 4 'a little bit off' 3 'bad' 2 'very bad' to 1 'the worst'. The actor then makes her way back up to 5 and proceeds to go through the high end of the scale up to 10 ' the best'.Once they have their images and their numbers, the actors practice going up and down the Emotional Scale. It was in my directing them down to the lower numbers -- though the actors were sitting quietly in the chairs, most not showing any emotion - I could feel the temperature in the room change. It was palpable.

We are united in many unseen and unspoken ways. It was the actors' honest engagement with an image alone, not words or gestures, that transformed the atmosphere in the room. This points the theatre not back, but forward to the Sacred. Beyond the word, the gesture, the thought, the image, to the Unseen, the Unspoken, the theatre then can then become a place to heal us in our thinking and speaking. It won't look different from the outside, but it should it stay with you a lot longer. Moment by moment you should sense something. You should sense something unnameable, but undeniable, that clearly has a story. Breathe with it. Con-spire with it.

A Gentle Conspiracy... Inhale Unveiling the Mythos
to reveal the Logos
Exhale Reveiling the Logos
to reveal the Mythos

Notes

1. Though this concentration exercise is common to many spiritual disciplines it was Geog Kühlewind who mined it for all its depth and intricacies. See especially: Stages of Consciousness, Becoming Aware of the Logos, From Normal to Healthy. Return to text.

2. This devotional epigram of St. Paul was renewed by and appears throughout the works of Rudolf Steiner. These sadly and mysteriously ignored works form the basis of the writings of both Barfield and Kühlewind, thus they form the foundation to the spiritual epistemological ideas in this paper. Return to text.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Ends and Odds: Eight New Dramatic Pieces. New York: Grove Press, 1976.

Kühlewind, Georg. From Normal To Healthy. Trans. Michael Lipson Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Lindisfarne Press, 1988.

Raine, Kathleen. Yeats The Initiate: Essays On Certain Themes In The Work of W. B. Yeats. Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1990.

Spolin, Viola. Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Steiner, Rudolf. Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom. Trans. Michael Lipson. Hudson, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1995.

 

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