Four Elements - A New Theory for the Theater
hen we go to the theater we want what happens onstage to be a matter of life and death. Some will argue that this is wrong: that what we want most of all is to be entertained, to be taken OUT of the realm of our day-to-day existences and transported to some other, better, or at least, more aesthetically pleasing place. But I would argue that, despite what we may think we want from our entertainments, what we really need – and by that I mean the theatrical experience that best entertains us – is actually the one in which the stakes are enormously high; a matter of life and death, in fact. When those stakes are not sufficiently high, we often lose interest. We change the channel.
Theater makers know this intuitively. As directors we implore actors to raise the stakes. As actors we search for deep connections to our characters, making their concerns our concerns, trying hard to generate a sense of heightened importance. Often we find ourselves employing the language of analogy and metaphor. We use the technique of substitution; swapping out the actor standing right in front of us for an imaginary other – a parent, a lover – so that we might believe more fully in what we’re doing. We employ the magic if made famous by Stanislavski: what if I were the prince of Denmark? What if I were a high school science teacher dying of cancer who goes into the meth trade?
Exercises that stimulate the imagination can help us find pathways into a character, but they also reinforce the notion that the characters we portray are other, fundamentally different from ourselves, and portraying them requires some kind of technical bridge. But aren’t the most elemental fears, needs, and motivations of our characters also our most elemental fears, needs, and motivations? This book explores how we might begin to deepen that understanding and so bring a sense of life-and-death urgency to everything we create or interpret.
A little more than 20 years ago I made a discovery that changed my approach to theater. For almost 20 years before that, first as an actor, then as a director, I had been obsessed with the question of how we do this acting thing. How can we do it well? How can we do it better? Like so many young actors, I read the great books by the master teachers: Stanislavski, Sandy Meisner, Bobby Lewis, Stella Adler, and Uta Hagen, and even studied with a few of them. I also attended the performances and delved into the writings of the more experimental wing of the American and world theater: Peter Brook, Richard Foreman, Jerzy Grotowski, Antonin Artaud, Mabou Mines, and others. I performed on, off, and off-off Broadway and toured with improvisational comedy companies. I directed at the West Bank Café, Ensemble Studio Theatre, the Circle Rep Lab and at regional theaters around the country. Eventually I landed at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater where I served as artistic director for 25 years. Processing all these influences and experiences, and working with actors who themselves had trained in various schools and disciplines, I began to notice four big ideas cropping up in various forms and in various combinations. They go by different names, but I have come to call them shape, action, transaction, and surrender.
The most ancient traditions, and what we think of as more conventional, so-called “classical” approaches, have relied mostly on shape: the external, physical manifestations of character. Contemporary schools and techniques have added other elements: the Actors Studio, for instance, has always focused on the authentic expression of emotion – what I call surrender. Teachers at The Neighborhood Playhouse, with their emphasis on deep listening and reliance on the repetition exercise, have made transaction the focus. Across a wide array of schools and disciplines we find reference to motivation and intention, and choosing actions that might accomplish those objectives. It is also impossible not to notice that the many schools and camps, relying on one or more of these elements, are often in conflict with one another. A classical actor might be dismissive of Stanislavski; the Neighborhood Playhouse people challenge the acolytes of the Actors Studio, and vice versa. Everyone puts down Broadway. So I got very excited when I stumbled on a set of ideas that seemed to offer the possibility of tying it all together. They came, not from the world of theater, but rather from philosophy and psychology, which routinely asks questions about what motivates human behavior.
My eureka moment came while, as a grad student at the ART Institute, I was directing The Killer, one of Eugene Ionesco’s more difficult (and rarely produced) plays. The main character, Berenger, is an ordinary man living a banal life. One day he takes the wrong train and finds a hidden "radiant city." He is met by the Architect of the city who welcomes him warmly and shows him around. It’s an amazing place, everything the world Berenger left behind is not: clean, spacious, filled with light and air and friendly people. A charming young woman appears, Dany, the Architect’s assistant. Berenger is instantly smitten and declares that they are engaged. But then things begin to turn sour. We hear the sound of breaking glass and a muffled scream. The Architect reluctantly discloses that there is a problem in the radiant city: a killer is at large, striking randomly and without cause. Berenger’s initial feelings of euphoria are replaced by dread:
…Oh dear, and I’d already felt I’d taken hold in these surroundings! Now all the brilliance they offer is dead…. I can feel the darkness spreading inside me again! … I feel shattered, stunned… My tiredness has come on again… There’s no point in living! What’s the good of it all, what’s the good if it only brings us to this? Stop it, you must stop it Superintendent.
Another scream is heard. Word arrives: Dany is dead. Horrified, grief stricken, Berenger is infused with purpose. He embarks on a mission to avenge Dany’s death. But the inhabitants of the radiant city are strangely apathetic and want Berenger to abandon his quest. The killer has always been there. Leave it alone.
Berenger reminded me of Bernhard Goetz, the New York City straphanger so afraid of being mugged that he shot several would-be assailants in self-defense – or so he claimed. The core of the play seemed to be Berenger's misplaced attempt to personify the evil that was in society. If he could only identify, locate, and punish the killer, the radiant city would become a safe place for good people to live. A perfectly reasonable analysis. Then it hit me that what Berenger feared most was not just a killer but his own mortality. His true nemesis was the fact of death itself.
It was at this point that I serendipitously came upon a New York Science Times article by Daniel Goleman describing a series of experiments testing the late Ernest Becker’s "sweeping theory that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life." In his 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, Becker argued that cultural worldviews exist primarily to buffer us from awareness of death. Those deep attachments that we have to nations, political parties, ethnic identities, and even sports teams, function primarily to buffer us from awareness of death. This goes a long way to explain why, when those worldviews are challenged, we are moved to defend them so fiercely, even to the point of annihilating the “other.”
This notion, that worldview protects us from the fear of death, was the working hypothesis being tested by experimental social psychologist Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues. In their study entitled Tales From The Crypt: On The Role Of Death In Life, published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, they recounted how
… we developed a simple paradigm in which people are asked to think about their own death—what we will henceforth refer to asmortality salience—and then to make judgments about others who either violate or uphold important aspects of their cultural worldviews.
A group of 22 municipal court judges in Tucson Arizona who volunteered for the study were given questionnaires in which half of them were asked to write a short essay describing their feelings surrounding their own deaths; “what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” The other half of the judges served as the control group and were not given this questionnaire. According to the Times article
The judges were then asked to set bond for a prostitute based on a case brief describing the circumstances of her arrest. Those who did not reflect on death before setting the bond recommended, on average, that it be $50. But the average bond was $455 among those who had been thinking about their own death.
That’s a factor of almost ten to one. I hurried to my local bookstore (this is pre-Amazon) to locate a copy of The Denial of Death. In its opening paragraph I read
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.
Becker goes on to argue that the fear of death coupled with a fear of life – overwhelming when perceived in its fullness – demands that we devise coping strategies for both denying our mortality and narrowing down the immensity of life. These strategies manifest in what he called the causa sui project; an identity that each person adopts or creates in order to feel that life is purposeful. Without the causa sui (the cause of oneself) we have only the raw truth of existence: the universe is infinitely more powerful, beautiful, and meaningful than we are, and, furthermore, we will soon die. The causa sui is a vital lie that we construct to provide some illusion of purpose in a random and oblivious universe.
My head exploded.
In the theater we are constantly interrogating the intentions of our characters. “What’s my motivation?” – an eye-roll-inducing cliché – is also a real question that must be asked and answered each time we create or interpret the actions of a character. If, as Becker suggested, awareness and fear of mortality are the bottom layer in the sediment of human motivation, theater makers might mine that awareness and allow it to function more consciously in our process. Here’s how we might begin to connect the dots:
- Throughout our lives we are in the process of creating and inhabiting an identity that takes a specific shape heavily influenced by the culture we inhabit. This self-created identity, our causa sui project, takes the form of a heroic narrative, the story we tell ourselves and others about who we are. The narrative is heroic because, like the mythic heroes whose deeds outlive them, it provides us with a sense of symbolic immortality, shielding us from the paralyzing fact of death. In theatrical terms, shape embodies “outside-in” approaches both historical and contemporary in its emphasis on costume, language, period, and gesture. It’s how we dance and move, what we drive, what we wear, and what we believe. It is what we look like on the outside, but it’s also how we see ourselves on the inside.
- Action is what we do after we figure out what we want. Motivation, intention, objective, all of these common theatrical terms come together when we decide on and execute an action. Once we establish the importance of the identity defining, death-denying shape we have assumed, its construction and defense can be understood to be the underpinning of every action that we take, onstage and off.
- Transactions with other people are our means of knowing when we’ve accomplished our action. It is essential to our sense of well-being that the actions we take are reinforced and validated in the transactions we enter into with the people with whom we come into contact both onstage and off. We find this element emphasized in the repetition exercises of Sanford Meisner and in the second circle of Patsy Rodenburg.
- When events cause identity to break down and the psychological armor can no longer shield us from our mortality – our vulnerability – the deep emotions we have been holding back are released in an act of surrender. Surrender is what we feel and how we allow ourselves to feel. Authentic emotional release is the holy grail for many theatrical techniques, especially those preached by Lee Strasberg and others who continued along the path paved by Stanislavski. It has also been central to the work of postmodernists such as Jerzy Grotowski and Lee Breuer. Surrender arrives when the primary action of constructing an identity fails, when the shape shatters and we peel away the psychological armor that shape provides.
What happens onstage must be a matter of life and death because everything we do in life, every action that we take, is in support of the heroic narrative, the story of ourselves that imbues our actions with a sense of meaning, purpose, and, yes, immortality. The notion that fictional characters and real people share this fundamental mechanism of motivation and self-creation is at the center of everything I will be talking about in these pages.
This is a book about acting but it is also about human beings in life and in literature. It includes a historical survey of approaches to the art and craft of acting, but it also offers my own synthesis of those many approaches, grounded in some very powerful ideas drawn from philosophy, psychology, social science, and even theology. Part of the reason it has taken me so long to bring this project to fruition is because I have struggled to arrive at the proper sequence to present these disparate concepts. Should I begin with the psychology and risk losing the theater audience which is, after all, its main target? Or should I dive right into the history of acting theories? Ultimately I decided to begin with the larger philosophical and psychological concepts because, without that foundation, what follows would not make much sense. In Part Two I survey the myriad approaches to the art and craft of the actor, from Aristotle to Stanislavski and beyond. Some approaches have generated large catalogues of important elements – Stanislavski’s “system” has about 40 – others are quite narrowly focused and resolve to only one or two elements. In Part Three I offer my own broad theory for the theater, a synthesis drawn from these many approaches, in four stand-alone chapters that explore, in some depth, the four elements: shape, action, transaction, and surrender.
Part Four tests a number of plays, spanning a range of genres and periods, against these ideas. If The Existential Actor coheres as a broad theory for the theater, it should help us make sense of any plays we might approach.
For now, I offer the following thumbnail by way of example:
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s shape is that of the all-American super-salesman. His entire sense of himself as a heroic figure is bound up in that identity. Every action he takes in the course of the play is in the service of defending that life choice. The rightness of that shape, the success or failure of his actions, is reflected back to him in the transactions he has with his wife, his sons, his boss, his brother, his neighbor. As the failure of his choices becomes clear, the psychological armor he has built up all his life begins to crumble, and there is an emotional release – a surrender – that variously takes the form of anger, tears, manic laughter, and disorientation. The actors portraying Willy, Biff, Linda – indeed any of the plays characters – might begin the process of creating a character and building a role by first exploring their own causa sui project.
I have chosen the four elements, shape, action, transaction, and surrender, with care because, while each of them is central to the psychological mechanisms of character creation, each one also embodies core principles that have been explored and utilized by theater theorists and practitioners as diverse as Aristotle, Grotowski, Stanislavski, Brecht, Strasberg, and Meisner.
But the four elements are not intended to be solely a bundle of techniques for actors. They also function as a dramaturgical lens through which anyone interested in exploring and understanding character – writers, directors, readers, lovers of theater – can observe with a fresh perspective how character is formed in the first place and how those creatures of the imagination might be created or interpreted.