The Integrated Acting Process: An Essay

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"What is acting?"

A flippant reply--oddly apt--would be whatever works when you’re doing it.  This is the irritating nature of art forms as opposed to, say, the procedural exactitude of computer science. Actually, good acting is quite exact, in the sense that it is precise as opposed to approximate. But the exactitude includes a plethora of intuitive and unconscious elements. And although these elements and their effects are precise, they have little to do with rules and regulations one can learn from a manual. 

    For years, I used to lie on my back on the floor learning to send my breath into my feet or my forehead, or whichever offending part of my body was currently impeding the ‘flow’ --whatever that was. Knowing that something called ‘flow’ existed because I was able to experience it once in a while, didn’t mean I could call it up at the drop of a hat or even after hours of intense focus on my body. I would remain supine for hours, frequently falling asleep, then wake and feel guilty about wasting so much time. But nothing pulled me the way this elusive idea of ‘flow’ did. Like an adult walking repeatedly down a road looking for a raspberry patch remembered from childhood, not only for the delicious fruit itself, but because her mother always praised her for bringing home a basket full to make a tart.             

    Many years later having conquered one level of flow, I was sitting on a crowded bus, meditating--no longer any need for a floor and silence--simply asking for whatever came up, I thought of my early childhood home. I’m three and a half, near my mother although I can’t see her. I’ve never been able to remember my mother’s actual presence. I generally--note the dangerous word ‘generally’--understood this to mean that her death when I was four had left me traumatized. No rocket science here. But on that bus, my body convulsed with emotion because it had ‘recognized’--my body, not my mind--that place where my ‘flow’ had been interrupted. All that supine floor play has proved itself necessary - the ‘flow’ is released finally. After that, I’ve been nearly overwhelmed by feeling a sort of gushing empathy that I keep trying to balance with the need to be safe. Before that moment this precise awareness would come and go depending on mood, too dangerous to my equilibrium for a permanent place in my consciousness. Actors often, if not always, struggle with this balance. For what I call ‘flow’ is the integrating element of the entire Acting Process; first its discovery and then its use in connecting various disparate elements within the actors’ spectrum has been the focus of my whole career. I make claims for its efficacy only in the area of acting, any ancillary benefits or disadvantages are on an individual basis. 

     I never push my students as they move deeper into this work - well, maybe a nudge now and then - because no one can judge their readiness. Only their own systems know how much they can handle at any given moment. I shall never remember my mother’s actual presence. Once I tried under hypnosis but immediately stopped, knowing it was too much. In a sense, I only remember my mother through the ‘flow’ in my body.  Starting to write this article, overwhelmed by the responsibility involved in writing about a lifetime of work concerning an acting process that seamlessly connects the great teachings, all stemming from Stanislavski, I was particularly drawn to The Grotowski Sourcebook, the last great book that influenced my work, having studied Strasberg’s Method, a combined class of Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler’s techniques and having had something of an acting career, myself. 

    Through the intervention of André Gregory and Jacques Chwat, close friends and collaborators of Grotowski, I had the supreme good fortune to be invited to Poland in 1980 to attend a workshop called ‘Theatre of Sources’ lead by Grotowski, himself, who defined the source as "that which had been given from the start and was therefore common to all people” (1997: 218). (And as I was looking for the spelling of Brzezinka where the workshop took place, I remembered an ‘action’ we did there on a sunny morning in a meadow with yellow butterflies making elliptical journeys through the grass at the edge of the mushroom-filled forest. We were‘searching for something’, that is what the action was called.  And I realize it is what I am doing now as I show how I came to integrate several acting methods into a comprehensive flow instead of darting back and forth and falling into the holes in between. I’m right back where I started in that forest, except now I am reminded to imitate the butterflies in the joy and freedom of their movement rather than the earnest, gawky girl I was then, trying desperately to understand in my head while my body jerked itself hither and yon, obsessed with ‘looking’. 

    Good actors generally try not to talk about their work with the uninitiated and argue endlessly with each other about its provenance. Stanislavski--whom I think of as the Einstein of the thespian art--was the first to codify a process by which acting could be split into comprehensible elements, a discovery for actors, akin to splitting the atom for physicists. Thus he energized the acting world, starting with exhaustive research into a memory process--he was, after all, a contemporary of Freud’s--which he made available to actors through his directing and teaching.  In his first book, An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski describes the fruit of his labors to one of his students: “That type of memory which makes you relive the sensations you once felt... when your friend died is what we call emotion memory… Just as your visual memory can reconstruct an inner image of some forgotten thing, place or person, your ‘emotion memory’ can bring back feelings you have already experienced. They may seem to be beyond recall, when suddenly a suggestion, a thought a familiar object will bring them back in full force”. 

    The idea for emotion memory had taken root when Stanislavski was enthralled by the work of the Italian theatre director and actress, Eleonora Duse. In her insightful biography of this great actress, Helen Sheehy tells us, "(Duse’s) influence on Stanislavski was incalculable….What Stanislavski yearned to replicate in the acting of Duse… was a physical freedom, in the lack of all strain. (Her) body was at… the inner demand of her will” (Sheehy: 109-10) Placing importance on how the physical being permeates every aspect of the work was to have an increasingly strong effect on Stanislavsky’s legacy is morphed through the latter Twentieth Century and into the new millennium.

    After establishing himself in Russia, Stanislavski brought his work to Western Europe and the United States where both his teaching and direction of his Moscow Art Theatre were very popular. In The New Word he met three of the Four Horsemen of the apocalyptic new acting order--well, three horsemen and one horsewoman. We all know them, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler, who directly received his blessing with the caveat: “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.” And then there’s the fourth smasher of tradition, perhaps the one most radically affected by the discoveries of Stanislavski and whose own work departed most radically from his teachings--the incomparable iconoclast, the man with the butterflies in the meadow, Jerzy Grotowski.

     In his preface to A Dream of Passion Lee Strasberg states, “Before the discoveries of the great Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, all acting was thought to be either inspirational or external. Now we have a third approach...The Method...a continuation of and an addition to Stanislavski’s system in Russia” (Strasberg: 5). If one thinks of Stanislavski as the father of modern acting, Strasberg, Meisner, Adler and Grotowski become the sons and daughter. They all, at various times, gave credit to Stanislavski, who, in turn gave them his blessing--all except Grotowski, who was only five when Stanislavski died. However, the ‘children’ began quarreling, although Meisner and Adler seemed to tolerate each other.  I personally heard this anecdote, although it is a staple of acting class lore, in a Meisner class taught by my wonderfully wise and beloved teacher, Mordecai Lawner. He had been Meisner’s assistant at one time and told it with great relish. Apparently Meisner and Adler, already at odds with Strasberg’s Method Acting, had ostensibly made a trip to Paris to meet with Stanislavsky, perhaps by invitation.  There, they voiced their concerns over ‘emotional memory’ and received his blessing to part separate themselves from Strasberg’s ‘Method.’ Thus armed, they returned to America and went their own ways. Viewing videos of Meisner and Adler recently, one can see that despite their careful comments on Strasberg’s Method, their leave-taking had not been an amiable one. 

    My first encounter with Method Acting--I’d heard of it, of course--came after I had already graduated from The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where I was an indifferent student although I tried awfully hard. Perhaps the operative word is ‘awful’. There I was treated with sometimes benevolent and often not so benevolent indifference. My mother had been a movie star with a successful career in the English theatre. She had worked with the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Noel Coward, playing leading roles in both classical and contemporary plays in London’s West End, as well as in several silent films. She was soon transported to Broadway and Hollywood, where she starred in a number of major films. 

    RADA must have expected me to be a chip off the old block. Sorry to disappoint. They did admit that Americans found it hard to follow the British system of acting which, at that time, depended almost entirely on learning accents--they were very good at that-- and making what we call in the business ‘character adjustments’. The term is self-explanatory. Americans found these ‘adjustments’ particularly difficult because America was already establishing a basis in the emphatically inner naturalism of Method Acting in the late 1960s and 1970s. Also RADA could draw upon a far broader cast of well-defined local types going at least all the way back to Shakespeare and beyond. Alas, however, in those days as far as acting techniques were concerned, it reached no further forward than the Dark Ages of ‘realism’, which usually meant interpreting the text at face value.

    My first test--yes, first term scenes, performed for the teachers only, were called ‘tests’--was an experience in exquisite humiliation. As I attempted to communicate with my younger sister, Irina, in the first scene in Chekhov's The Three Sisters, I distinctly remember wondering obsessively about the appearance of the exercise books my character, Olga, the school-teacher, was correcting while she talked about their father who had died exactly a year before. I just couldn’t get past those pesky exercise books to any ‘important things’ --like how Olga felt about her father or the stark difference in the weather as opposed to the previous year, and why the big deal about ‘going to Moscow’ --or any of the other myriad details that created this extraordinarily deft introductory scene to one of the greatest of modern plays. 

    Hugh Cruttwell, the principal of RADA, was particularly disgusted with my performance and was quite voluble about it. I had no illusions about why they had allowed me to enter their hallowed walls. It was on the basis that RADA would mine the acting gold buried within the base metal of my singularly pedestrian audition. Under their expert tutelage they expected I would become my mother’s daughter. In spite of everyone’s efforts this situation never really improved. I was able to achieve some slightly more impressive characterisations, but nothing extraordinary. Fortunately, in those days I lived in the fantasy that ‘something would miraculously happen’ that would turn me into the actress that both Cruttwell and I so deeply desired me to be. That never really happened. But I did eventually become a valid acting teacher, when after many, many years of exhausting trial and error, I finally understood what was so far beyond my grasp during that miserable time at RADA. Art is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult for non-artists to grasp how many, many years of searching, first in the wrong places and then, for the few that make it that far, into the pursuit of meaningful technique, before the Sahara of non-comprehension sprouts some greenery.    

    To be fair, while I was at RADA, Cruttwell invited Charles Marowitz to direct a piece of improvisational theatre with the students. Marowitz was a rising star of experimental theatre, having recently directed the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1964 Theatre of Cruelty season in tandem with Peter Brook,  Although I was already an avid fan of Peter Brook’s-- having been absolutely ravaged by his production of Marat/Sade - I had no idea, along with the other students, who Marowitz was. And, as for our other teachers, well, the hostility was so thick you’d have needed an axe to chop through it. I loved the Marowitz experience. Later, when I became deeply involved with Gregory’s work, during the period when he was preparing to shoot My Dinner With André and I speed walked back and forth to his elegant apartment on Central Park West every morning to help him memorize his lines, I embraced physical actions to the point where I frequently went into trance. However, when I encountered Marowitz at RADA I was desperately shy and he was so disgusted with the RADA attitude that he adopted a ferocious irony toward the mostly unwilling students and I was too timid to break through.

     After five years in Europe, I returned to America, where I was exposed to Stanislavski, read An Actor Prepares, and knew in my heart that ‘emotion memory,’  renamed by Strasberg ‘sense memory’ was probably a pretty cool thing. I took a few classes from a kindly Method teacher, based at Syracuse University, whose name escapes me after all these years. We’d bring in a monologue, sit on chairs, close our eyes, think of something in our past that related to the problem of the character we were working on, and then we went through all our senses in relation to the memory. We all did our best and nothing happened--the same dead miserable feeling I’d had at RADA when I played Olga in The Three Sisters and all the other performances that had gone awry. However, a few years after my return, a seed was planted for the flowering that was to come. And it did not happen in any of my acting classes or during preparation for performances.

     One afternoon, I was sitting on a bench in Riverside Park reading Strasberg’s A Dream of Passion and got into conversation with a fellow actress, who introduced me to Buddhism. My boyfriend--who many years later turned into my third husband and was/is a visual artist/actor--built a cedar box to house my Bhuddist scroll or Gohonzon. Every day I completed the little blue book containing a holy text, which I did not understand and learned to pronounce phonetically from the transliteration beneath the Chinese symbols. This was followed by strictly twenty minutes of Na-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, of which I had no comprehension either, at the time. My actress friend had explained one thing to me, however, which turned out to be very significant. She told me that I should chant for what ‘I wanted’. Not quite sure where she got that from, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I tried to think of sensible things like ‘a great career’ or for ‘my cat to get better’ rather than the cashmere sweater I actually craved. But then one day it occurred to me that what I really needed to ask for was finding out what I actually wanted. That awareness began everything in art that followed. For the first time I had come up with a profound thought that originated in myself, that had not been suggested by anyone else. But I must point out that even though I was engaged in a religious practice, this was a life conversion that helped me find the artist in myself, not necessarily the believer.

    Shortly after, I re-read A Dream of Passion and realized that I’d like to audition for The Actors’ Studio. I tried another Method Acting class taught by a Casting Director whose approach I found very confusing. At home, I would go through some attempts to relax my body and then root around hoping to find something sad from my life that would put me into ‘an emotional state.’ It was hopeless. I was so nervous in the class that I couldn’t even remember my lines. I never actually got to audition because my acting partner, who also happened to be my first husband, broke his finger in a cab door on the way there. 

     Another decade passed, early 1970s into the mid 1980s, a period during which I stored much useful information, and had begun to teach my own classes in colleges and schools. But I was still swimming around in great personal and professional confusion, unaware that I was awaiting the second great step that would propel me toward discovering the way in which I could integrate the four acting systems that were individually so intriguing, but had a way of falling apart when they ran into each other. I had experienced the Grotowski work, both in NYC and Poland, and had studied two other magnificent acting techniques--which I will discuss in a moment. Our greatest discoveries don’t fall into sequentially neat patterns. There is much stored information, that seeks the moment when it can be brought into consciousness. 

     My father, a wonderfully kind, scholarly, but personally very complicated man included me in the knowledge he gained from his wide and unconventional research. Since I was not a scholar, he had to sugarcoat his esoteric teachings. I seldom understood any of his wisdom at the time I experienced it. For example, he was a great follower of Carl Jung, while simultaneously diving into astrology and doing charts for everyone we knew. He read mathematical treatises for fun. I believe he found a way to connect Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, the a-causal connection of two or more psycho-physic phenomena, with his simultaneous pursuit of the I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes. Every day he would give me a reading from the I Ching, based on a throwing of the coins and an astrological calculation related to the reading, and I would attempt to understand what lesson it was teaching. I never succeeded, as I was unable to penetrate the world of the archaic images and foreign situations being described.  At first my father tried to dispel my ignorance with his well-meaning but very intellectual explanations, and every time I would stubbornly insist on doing it by myself--even though I always failed. Soon the attempts at explanations stopped, but he went right on watching me throw the coins and giving me readings on a regular basis for many years.   And since I took these readings very seriously, they were able to do me a great service, which only became clear after my father had departed this earth. It was the very fact that I did not understand them and was therefore unable to draw them into my limited sphere of rationalisation that something of their wisdom was able to systematically draw me away from the rigid Puritanical Protestant ethic from which my father had suffered and in no way suited my free spirit. My father lived with me throughout my first two marriages and well into my third. His patient willingness not to force explanations on me, but rather teach by indirection allowed me to store for later use the golden threads from a very different sphere of knowledge--one that had filtered through the screen of my non-comprehension. 

    In the mid 1980s I became re-acquainted with a former boyfriend from my brief sojourn at Columbia University. We had both been connected to Columbia Players,  where my great claim to fame was playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had gone on to do graduate work at Yale and then risen quickly in Academia and was the Head of the English Department at C.W. Post Long Island University. There were no openings for acting instructors but he asked if I could teach Voice and Speech. I said “Absolutely, no problem!” And so he gave me a job. Well, of course, I had never taught either subject. But at RADA I was fortunate enough to have studied with the incomparable Elizabeth Pursey for Speech, and have always used her system, eventually adapting it to the American vowels. The Voice instruction at RADA had not worked for me.  In fact I was always losing my voice when I performedlong roles on stage, especially Shakespeare. It was time to find another system. So I asked around and was given Kristin Linklater’s name. I bought her book, practiced the voice exercises and found them inspirational. My own voice started to open up, and I’d found a system I could teach! 

    Around this time I played a very distraught character in a play called Greek Fire at Theatre for the New City. Not only was the character emotionally inaccessible but I was required to make a sound that Greek women make at funerals, a kind of high-pitched trill called ululation. The Linklater ‘opening up’ had grave limitations in this regard and I lost my voice in the attempt. And probably my marriage along with it, as somehow my husband, who was Greek, could not seem to forgive my physiological inability to give the dead proper respect. 

    But I was progressing towards my second great discovery, which had a connection to the Grotowski workshops in the late 1970s. The difference was that previously I had worked in trance, and the ‘physical actions’ which had brought out great sound and depth of feeling were absent when I had to apply them consciously to a specific text. Eventually, taking Linklater to the next level, I began to notice that breathing could create an alchemical reaction throughout my body, connecting ‘emotion memory’ to ‘physical action’.  I was well on my way to discovering a new way into ‘emotional preparation’ and seizing upon the necessary element that had eluded me. Not having this knowledge had definitely prevented me from finding fulfillment in my own acting, as well as limiting the help I could give talented students to realize their full potential.

     When my second marriage ended, I spent a lot of time on my floor breathing, sobbing, and feeling how my breath could suck tension out of my body and release it on the out breath. I had a very interesting student at this time, a young man from Trinidad, who had maintained his Trinidadian accent, in spite of living many years in America. Using the breath like a vacuum cleaner for tension, he was able to achieve Standard American speech which he needed to convincingly portray the character of Prospero in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even though he was still in his early 20s. Now he holds a very responsible position as the Weather Anchor of Trinidad and people stop him on the street for his autograph!  This deep body/breath work would allow me to adapt to the needs of an influx of students from all over the world that were filling my classes in the late 1980s and early 1990s-- the challenge that would take my concept of Method work into the new millennium. 

    Strasberg was definitely the genius that brought this work forth from the Stanislavsky System, but hopefully my shift in Method methodology was adapting it to a later era when scripts began to present a much wider range of characters and issues. The heyday of 'white bread’ was over—and hopefully will remain so in spite of Trump’s intentions to bring back the ‘good old days’ of white supremacy in America--and Theatre, TV and Film welcomed a new range of subjects/characters and very specific modifications in training for their actors were required. But before I go too deeply into this, I would like to return to the late 1970s and the two years I spent learning from the late, much lamented Mordecai Lawner, one of Sanford Meisner’s star pupils. He was in the same league as the redoubtable Bill Esper. 

    There was something else about Lawner’s teaching--we always called him Morty-- that made him a particularly good teacher for a student like me. I needed a strong container for the work I did. My background was steeped in highly structured plays, all the ones my father took me to see from when I was a young child. At Bertolt Brecht’s 1954 production of The Three Penny Opera at the Off-Broadway Theatre de Lys I had to sit on my father’s lap in order to see the stage. Then in the 1960's when I was living in Paris--still very young but oh-so-grown-up—I saw stunning early productions of Beckett and Ionesco, produced and acted by Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud at their Théâtre de l'Odéon. Shortly after, during my RADA years while living with my father in Notting Hill Gate and being oh-so-British, I was constantly exposed to a heady mix of top-of-the-line oldies, Laurence Olivier in Othello followed by Oedipus, adapted by Ted Hughes starring John Gielgud, and the absolutely latest thing, Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the all male As You Like It starring Ronald Pickup as Viola, at the National Theatre. A culturally thirsty young American I eagerly consumed such theatrical riches. 

    As for my ‘career’ at RADA’s Vanbrugh Theatre, only one role redeemed my abysmal tenure at the school, the part of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest. RADA was excellent at teaching ‘character adjustments,’ accents fractionally adjusted to class and region, fencing perfection of parry/thrust, upping and lowering mannerisms depending on which class your character hailed from. Classical acting depends on ‘character adjustments’ and naturally the British pride themselves on their ability in this area. But our director had thrown in something else, which I glommed onto for dear life, the use of ‘subtext’. And this latter application--albeit in a very crude form-- along with the character work gave me an opportunity to shine as Miss Prism. Subtext works like this: “Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary we all carry about with us (2.57)”, spoken by Miss Prism to her youthful charge Cecily,  can possess at least two subtexts. It can mean, “ Memory makes a diary a total waste of time”, or “Memory is the only thing that justifies my whole life”. I had a lovely time making people laugh while I made up subtexts and hid behind the facade of an elderly spinster.

    Which brings me back to Morty and his Meisner class--except that it was much more than a Meisner class because it included in-depth work on subtext, actually the purview of Stella Adler, although Morty had added it to his Meisner curriculum. Otherwise, I would have been adrift in the Meisner work, which is based primarily on improvisations employing ‘objectives’ and ‘activities’ within a framework of something called a ‘Knock at the Door’ exercise.  The actor with the ‘objective’ knocks, wanting to be let in so he can get something from the other character, who tries to keep him out because he is involved in an ‘activity’. Eventually the latter allows the one with the ‘objective’ to enter, but remains immersed in his ‘activity’ while the other tries to pry him loose so he can attain his’ objective’. Conflict is essential to all acting and this brilliant exercise forces the actors to stay in that uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying condition in nearly every moment of their entire performance. There is an enormous latitude in this exercise, actually, and I would have been lost without the addition of ‘subtext’ and something called ‘actions’, which divide the scene into the ways in which actors with the ‘objective’ go about trying to get what they want. Stella Adler was primarily responsible for the exploration of subtext and actions, as well as creating the history of the character and researching the entire script. Since I didn’t have the opportunity to study the Adler methods, per se, I am very grateful to Morty for including them in his excellent Meisner class, for they are essential. 

    So why has there been such difficulty in fitting together Strasberg’s Method Acting, Meisner’s Knock-at-the-Door partner improvisations, Stella Adler’s exploration of actions, subtext and history of the character exploration, and Grotowski’s research in physical actions and uses of the voice. For many years, I attempted to teach them in separate classes. Students were confused. Why couldn’t they just use one method, the one they liked best. It is true that if one goes far enough with one system or another, the others tend to show up along the way. But that’s a hit-or-miss way of doing it and very frustrating. As my teaching progressed, the need to unify all these splendid techniques became increasingly obvious.  Why should actors give up something they had gained from one discipline in order to benefit from another? 

     Over all the years I have been teaching The Integrated Process, multicultural New York City has been a consistent force, a steadily expanding experience of bringing together people from all over the world. My classes have included men and women, sometimes children from India, Japan, China, Iran, Poland, Russia, South Africa, France, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Israel, Germany, Spain, Italy, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti, Brazil, Columbia, Chile, Greece, Mexico, Guatemala, New Zealand, Australia and counting. Students have had to leap over chasms separating their experience of life from that of their fellow actors. And the material they have worked on from different eras in which attitudes toward all possible issues such as class, ethnicity, sex, gender, politics, religion, etc. often created seemingly impossible barriers to mutual comprehension and communication. 

    To take one example from so many, thirty years ago there was a basic issue that frequently separatedblack from white students and that was religion. You couldn’t expect a black actor to have the same attitudes toward a faith-based role as a white actor. Even if they had both been brought up in equally religious families, their practice of religion had radically different historical and social meanings. This was actually my first clue that there had to be a ‘unifying’ factor to teaching acting, but it remained an impenetrable head-scratcher for many years. How could these differences be transcended?

    The need for an integrated system became paramount in the modern multi-cultural context that had its inception in the creative uproar of the 1960s. In the 1950s, Strasberg, Meisner and Adler were hard at work separating and systematizing various strands of the Stanislavsky’ ‘firmament’  to fit the America of their time. But as time went on, a mighty struggle developed between Strasberg’s ‘inwardness’ and the Meisner/Adler concerns with ‘character conflict in-the-moment’ and in-depth exploration of the text and how it is structured. My students found one school of thought suited them better than another and fell into the holes in between, and often ended up making a choice that narrowed the scope of their work. 

    This problem had always concerned me greatly and I havecontinually sought a way out of my students’ dilemma by taking the characters they are working on and running them through my own body/mind system. One day, I sensed that there must be a basic underlying truth connecting all elements of the ‘entire acting process’ andif one went deeply enough into any single approach it would eventually traverse the others. However, for mostit would be too laborious and time-consuming to do it in this manner. There had to be a more direct means to find the ‘source’ or ‘tap-root’ that feeds this nexus.      And then, not too long ago, I find myself working with an actress who had been cast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. She has a lovely quality but lacks the ‘courage’ to play Juliet, so, as I often do, I take her acting problem into my own body, starting with focus on breathing. From that a question arises, “When have I been courageous?” Instead of thinking, I keep focused on what my body is feeling. I am instantly overwhelmed by sadness, sobbing ensues, and with tears streaming, I am gazing at my mother’s chair, sensing her presence but without being able to see her face. In that moment, I know ‘through my body’ that I survived her death by forgetting her. My body believes that this is how Juliet arrives at loving Romeo. But this doesn’t make any sense! Instead of giving up--which I have done for years when I can’t figure out the answers to my intuitive questions--I now become aware that I should leave my body open to another question. Another seeming anomaly appears— an image of the first time I saw my third husband, standing at the top of a flight of stairs. 

    This ongoing process required more and more questions bringing images with each one, until the thought, as if appearing from nowhere, floated into my mind that ‘forgetting’ my mother wasn’t indeed ‘forgetting’ at all. The answer was so simple really, it was the fact of allowing a memory of crippling pain--my mother’s death-- to be first awakened and then alleviated by the first sight of what would be, in my case, ‘true love’. Sounds like Sleeping Beauty. Jung would have loved it. Juliet only needs one night in the moonlight to grasp what it has taken me many decades to achieve--well, it is a play, after all. She has to leave her cruel, petty-minded family in the dust in order to grasp ‘true love’. This indeed demands courage! No matter that the situation I had to leave bore no outer resemblance to Juliet’s - only that the thing I had to get away from in my early childhood drove me toward the thing I desired most. And that is axiomatic to my teaching: The need to get away from something in early childhood drives us toward a particular goal. Hence the problem of finding an objective for your character is solved. I have never had a student who did not have a similar basic trajectory: in other words, using the negative pole to drive oneself toward the positive pole; Once found it can be applied to all characters in all times and places. My student struggling to play Juliet was not helped by this information, alas, because she was not ready psychologically to endure the devastation that would, in her case and/or at that time in her life, accompany the experience of the ‘negative pole’. It is a difficult road--and consciousness of the ‘positive pole’, although it is something to be desired, always carries problems of its own by forcing us to recognize old patterns. The actor must have the strength not only to face this challenge but move forward with the pain of greater empathy towards herself and the world as it unfolds from this knowledge.

    Although I grasped what the ‘glue’ might be that binds the character’s journey to the actor’s, there’s always another mountain to climb. How could the different systems be formed into an integrated process so all actors from multifarious backgrounds could play all characters? Before writing this essay, I had not actually put it into words, although the parts were clearly delineated in my head. I found my thoughts turning again and again to Grotowski who had traveled widely - China, India, Haiti, Western Europe, Mexico, and the Americas experiencing diverse theatre, performance and ritual practices that had survived despite the mostly destructive effects of modern civilization on ancient or indigenous cultures. The very fibre of his being was steeped in the exploration of the sources of the deeply human, defying temporal and geographical differences, and all of his work until the end of his life was devoted to practical and experimental activities leading towards what precedes difference and goes beyond what is individual and transient. It was natural for me to turn to Grotowski when it became clear that actors had to find connections beyond their own personal history across seemingly insurmountable barriers of cultural, economic and personal differences.  How could an actor relate to characters whose lives were in every way completely alien, even abhorrent, to their own. 

     As I have already mentioned, I was very fortunate, in the 1970s tobe invited to work with Grotowski in the Theatre of Sources. I now recalled an extraordinary experience during one of our practices at the Theatre of Sources that became particularly relevant to my understanding of the power and possibilities of Grotowski for the integrative theatre process:  I remembered being gently woken up from a deep, exhausted sleepby a whisper from one of the guides at three in the morning. Out we went into the cold, wet forest. It was raining hard. There were four of us with two guides, I was the only woman. They were running. I couldn’t keep up so one carried me on his back until we reached a massive oak. It was so dark one could only make out its outline. The men started shimmying up the trunk, another action in which I could not possibly participate. The kindly guide whispered in my ear that it was fine if I just put my arms around the tree, before disappearing into the branches above.  I did as I was told and after a few moments of shivering and feeling sorry for myself, I had a life alteringperception which brought two very contrasting experiences together.  My first thought, “This is the most nonsensical thing I have ever done,” was followed almost instantly by a seemingly complete non sequitur “except for the holocaust.” I often repeated the thoughts out loud to myself. I knew they were significant but it has taken me years to understand just what the old tree had given me.  Embracing the tree, in Grotowski’s context, was to reach the deepest source of artistic expression in an essential, pre-reflective human consciousness and its connectionto living nature. This is what it meant to commit to being an artist.  But what was its relation to something as antithetical as the holocaust, the very worst manifestation of the human capacity for evil.  

    Stanislavski, the great innovator in the teaching of acting-- like Chekhov, the most influential of modern playwrights -- was working in Russia during a time of social violence and disintegration where human beings demonstrated extreme depravity and immorality.  Similarly Grotowskiwas performing and energetically developing his artin his native Poland at a time of social horror doubled: the German invasion and holocaust during World War II, followed by the systematic cruelty inflicted by the Soviet communist regime.  A common experience of the collapse of civilization hadcatalyzed the work of both Stanislavski and Grotowski . Grotowski owns this affiliation, in the manner of a good son building on some things and letting go of others: “Do you want me to say I have transcended him? I have too much respect for Stanislavsky to say this. I considered him once to be my father” (Grotowski: 1997, 252)  

     He did try to transcend, however, the differences that were setting people against each other, finding an essence that transcends all manner of differences between people everywhere, a conscience rather than a moral code which is determined by society.  And, in words quoted by Serge Ouaknine in hisobituary for Grotwoski : 

“Par la force même de sa curiosité et son désir d'aller à la rencontre d'une espèce d'ontogenèse de la race humaine, entre le terrestre et l'invisible, il aboutit, dans les rencontres et expériences de ses dernières années à une forme de syncrétisme interculturel, un passage à l'autre de chaque ‘doer’ (chaque ‘actant’), aux sources plurielles les plus fondamentales de la voix et du geste. Non plus une mise en espace des corps pour l'oeil… mais une interpolation des voix, comme si les voix, et elles seules, pouvaient rejoindre cette universalité de l'être dont il avait soif” (Ouaknine, 1999). (“Through the very strength of his curiosity and his desire to encounter a kind of ontogenesis of the human race between the terrestrial and the invisible he attained, in the encounters and experiences of his last years, a form of intercultural syncretism, a way to the other of each "doer" ("actant"), to the plural and most fundamental sources of voice and gesture. No longer a spatial staging of bodies to be gazed at...but an interpellation  of voices, as if voices-- and they alone-- could return to that universality of being that he craved”.) This essence belongs to our deepest nature as human beings, although most of us have lost touch with it.  Grotowski’s art, and the art I have committed to as a teacher, director and writer, is a search for such joyous connectedness to nature and to each other.  

     In our contemporary world where mayhem reigns and religious, ethnic and ideological differences are used to justify atrocities and destruction on an apocalyptic scale, acting, as taught by Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, Adler and Grotowski can play a vital and salutary role in crossing social and political boundaries through identification with others on the deepest levels, no matter how alien. Grotowski used to call actors ‘doers’ and Meisner described acting as ‘doing the doing’. I hope that the Integrative Process I teach, which emphasizes the bringing together of all aspects of our humanity— mind, emotion, body and connectedness to the natural world-- contributes to the urgent task of getting the ‘doers’ to ‘do the doing’ which, from ancient rituals to contemporary experimentation has been--and must continue to be--the cathartic and transformativepurpose of theatre in its essence. 

 

-Caroline Thomas, Total Theatre Lab Director

 

 

Works cited:

Grotowski, Jerzy (1997), “The Theatre of Sources” in The Grotowski Sourcebook, ed. by

Richard Schechner and Lisa Wolford. London and New York: Routledge.

Ouaknine, Serge(1999), “pour mémoire”: ClickNet. 

Strasberg, Lee (1987), A Dream of Passion. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.

Sheehy, Helen (2003), Eleonora Duse, A Biography. New York: Alfred A.Knopf 

Stanislavsky, Constantin (1937) An Actor Prepares. London: Geoffrey Bles.