May 2010
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Method acting

Yet again an observation from the Seed article - Genevieve Wanucha’s “Emotion’s Alchemy”. (here)

Psychologist Paul Ekman found that voluntary smiles and grimaces produce changes in the autonomic nervous system. His study participants actually began to feel happy or sad or angry after following instructions to set their facial muscles in certain positions. “Psychologically unmotivated and ‘acted’ emotional expressions have the power to cause feeling,” Damasio writes. Enter the actress.

Sheila Donio first attempted to cry onstage as the character “Rizzo” in a stage production of Grease in 2001. She has acted since childhood and settled into professional acting career as a teenager in São Paulo, Brazil. “As I knew I wanted to cry on a specific scene,” she explained, “I started to work on Rizzo’s emotions at home, listening to the song used right before my crying scene. Studying Rizzo’s emotions with that specific soundtrack made my brain connect one thing with the other.” Method acting, techniques devised in the 1930s by Constantin Stanislavski, and later adapted by director Lee Strasberg, emphasize this use of sense memory. Students of this method learn to use personal memories of sensory details to trigger authentic physiological reactions.

Teaching herself, Sheila used this process to tap into the pathways of her brain responsible for the generation of crying. Crying on command became second nature. “Every time I heard that song, I would start to feel her anxieties and frustrations and the buttons for crying would show up in my body, ready to be pressed.” In fact, Sheila’s method of manipulating her body’s physiology is a living demonstration of Damasio’s theory of emotion.

…. “I study how my body reacts when I am crying for real, in real life. It’s all about breathing, for me. I get myself on the highway that leads me to cry. When I do improv theatre, this is how I find my emotions in 30 seconds,” she said. As Sheila adjusts her inhalations and exhalations, her somatosensory cortex detects the body map for crying. Genuine sadness follows the tears. The tears amplify the feelings, triggering sharper emotion, creating a positive feedback loop. What Sheila describes as a “highway,” Damasio thinks of more as a two-way traffic rotary.

2 Responses to “Method acting”

  1. jane brody says:

    While it may seem minor, the idea that Stanislavksi devised the “Method” in 1930, and that it was adapted by Lee Strasberg, is not in reality true. Stanislavski began researching the art of acting even before the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897. He never called what he did a “method” nor did he stay with the idea of sense memory as he continued his investigations. In many ways he repudiated the over dependence on sense memory, and his final work was variously called “the theory of physical action” or Psycho-physical technique. What he says is that an actor must do actions and the emotions will follow. Action in this context means psychologically-based, physicalizable action done to another actor in order to overcome an obstacle within the circumstances of the play. This is perhaps actually closer to Damasio than Sheila’s approach.

    While actors still use sense memory to connect the “given circumstances” with prior experience, the idea that an actor decides in advance what they “should” or “should not” feel means that the actor is not actually in “the moment.” He or she is not living authentically in the given circumstances and responding truthfully. Who can know when or if they are going to cry? And, what Sheila did is not actually sense memory as it is described here. Sense memory is a process wherein one slowly examines a memory from a sensory perspective, how hot or cold was it, what were the colors, textures, smells, etc in the place where the memory was orginally created.

    Finally, Strasberg created his own “thing” using no real contact with Stanislavski except for seeing the performances brought to the US in 1922 by The Moscow Art Theatre. These productions had already been in the repertory for about 15 years and didn’t actually represent the work being done in the Moscow studio at that time. Strasberg was so popular partially because his in- going, emotional work was very suited to film close-ups, and because he had an enormous talent for self-promotion.

    Damasio is still right, no question, but the smiles and the tears, are a part of the communication, not an end in and of themselves.

    JK: Very interesting - thank you. It is great to hear some of the detail and history of these acting techniques.

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