Friday, November 29, 2013

MINDFULNESS AND METHOD ACTING

Mindfulness and memory, or rather the act and state of remembering, are inextricably connected. When we practice mindfulness we remember what is present, we remember to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, and we remember in the present moment what has already happened. In other words, mindfulness is all about remembering the present ... that is, 'keeping' the present in mind. Put simply, mindfulness is remembering to be 'here' ... and to stay 'here' ... now.

Mindful awareness is a form of meta-cognition in which there is an awareness of awareness and an attention to intention. What is ‘awareness of awareness’? Well, mindfulness remembers awareness as well as the objects of awareness. When we practise mindfulness we are constantly reminding ourselves, not just to be aware, but also that we are now aware, that is, that we are already aware.

A lifelong student and chronicler of the performing arts, especially the musical theatre as well as the cinema, I have a fascination with so-called ‘method acting.’ Now, I hate that word ‘method,’ as well as the word ‘system’ coined by the progenitor of method acting, Constantin Stanislavski [pictured left]. Some of you will have heard the Zen story that goes like this. A disciple says to the master, ‘I have been four months with you, and you have still given me no method or technique.’ The master says, ‘A method? What on earth would you want a method for?’ The disciple says, ‘To attain inner freedom.’ The master roars with laughter, and then says, ‘You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of the trap called a method.’ Even Stanislavski wrote something similar about acting: ‘Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.’

So, my friends, I have a real aversion to all so-called ‘methods’, ‘systems’ and ‘techniques.’ Mindfulness, which takes meditation (awareness) and applies it to one’s whole day, indeed one’s whole life, has been described as the ‘method of no method.’ Now, when it comes to method acting, I have always sensed that attempts to substitute a ‘real-life’ emotion for that required in a particular scene has a strong element of artificiality about it, and even borders on the mechanical. Yet some of the world’s greatest actors have taken full advantage of the ‘method.’ To what extent their greatness is attributable to their use of the ‘method’ is perhaps a matter for further reflection and study. Many great actors have proudly confessed that they used no method at all.

Method acting is a number of things, one of which is that it is an eclectic but fairly systematic collection of techniques designed to assist the actor to ‘become,’ and even ‘live’ the character they’re playing. One such technique is sense memory, in which the actor remembers (recalls) by the five senses the sensory (that is, physical) impressions surrounding some emotional event experienced by the actor in their own life. This is largely done by concentrating on the various stimuli associated with the sensory impressions. Then there’s affective memory (otherwise known as ‘emotional memory’ and ‘emotional recall’), in which the actor calls on the memory of details from a situation with similar emotional import to the one the actor is being called upon to act out. The actor searches their memory for some parallel event before proceeding to create its ‘reliving.’ (This may or may not be therapeutically good for you. At the risk of being provocative, I don't think it did any good for Marilyn Monroe, and may even have harmed her. Method acting is not for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for those with deep and unresolved psychiatric problems. That's my considered view. Take it or leave it.)

‘Acting isn't something you do,’ wrote Lee Strasberg [pictured right], the man who further developed Stanislavski’s system. ‘Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you're going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.’ I think that mindful living is like that. It is not so much something that you do. Rather, it is something that---occurs. Well, it occurs when you are alert, vigilant, open (even open-ended), patient, curious, flexible, interested, receptive (but detached), aware, and aware that you are aware. It is not, however, a matter of concentration (heaven forbid), and the attention required is described as being ‘bare,’ that is, it is just enough attention to ‘wake up’ to the present moment, to ‘stay awake’ (and 'here and now'), and to observe what is taking place---in other words, just enough attention to be able to discern, and remember to stay present in the present moment from one moment to the next, without discriminating or judging. I recall Stanislavski’s definition of ‘talent’ as being ‘nothing but a prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation.’ I like that. That’s bare attention.

Further, the awareness required is something you 'bring', effortlessly, and continuously, to each moment of the day. Awareness is also something 'in' which we 'live', in the sense of living in awareness of the present moment. I am talking about an awareness of all that the present moment 'contains' (thoughts, perceptions, assumptions, tendencies, memories, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc). Something Strasberg said about acting seems pertinent to the practice of mindfulness: ‘To give words meaning, you must first know the reality, the thoughts, sensations and experiences that the words stand for. If you don't understand the meaning of a line and why you say it, you may have missed the key to the scene.’

I mentioned above that awareness of the kind required by mindfulness is not a matter of concentration, at least as that word is ordinarily construed. Rather, it is a matter of being fixed and focused on the action of the present moment---including when remembering in the present moment what has already happened (eg sensory elements of some past emotional event)---without concern that the experience we are remembering (recreating) will appear. This is also the essence of concentration as used in method acting, in that the actor concentrates on the sensory elements of the presently remembered emotional event without concern that the emotion the actor desires to produce will actually appear. As Lee Strasberg pointed out, it is not something you do, but something that happens or occurs. It’s the result of an effortless effort. Note those words.

One of the most famous method actors of all time, James Dean [pictured left], had this to say about acting: ‘An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.’ That’s the essence of living mindfully.


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