Tag Archives: Kali Quinn

A brief theory of art, and an analogy to Scientology

Friend-Zoned by Answers and Dating Uncertainty

In these past few weeks, I’ve gone from being scared about the show to being excited about it. In a horribly cruel twist, I think I’ve also come to realize that it’s better to be scared about the show. Oops. During table work I answered some of the greatest questions I had about Astrov, perhaps a function of time and also a function of the proper resources (Where does the profession of Dramaturgy go after Jules?). This was great, as I had been feeling blocked, like I could not petretrate this character or the play’s complexities. But I also realized, for any great search-journey (like that of understanding a character), though we receive a cathartic joy from reaching conclusions, we would be foolish to think our journey complete at the first rest-stop. The real value lies only in pressing forward to the brink of the un-answerable. Thereby arises an interesting conundrum: Though we embark on this search in order to reach cathartic conclusions, we gain the most value by depriving ourselves of cathartic comfort and pushing forward to greater uncertainty. We are not allowed to stop, and must instead empty out a place for new answers, and take on new anxiety to fill them. To recontextualize slightly: For the actor to become comfortable with what he is creating on stage is most often to simultaneously kill it, his drive to understand the character analogous to that character’s drive to achieve his own goals, his uneasiness in the skin of the character analogous to that character’s unstable relationships through conflict, and his inevitable nightly transformational arc. So while I crave to solve technical issues of our production, to answer questions and sort-out confusions about Astrov, and to feel at all adept to live within this complex, ingenius, timeless masterpiece, I will likewise seek to balance these goals with others: to never fool myself into thinking I DO understand it; to never relax into comfortable patterns or tropes that may ossify my work; to continue to question and push boundaries. I’ll remain skeptical of conclusions, of easy-fixes, perhaps even of stable blocking-patterns.

Dictionary Definitions and Abstract Substance

In working with Kali, valuable as I found the work, the objective philosopher in me had to temper my appreciation of it with some (mostly harmless) skepticism. Theatre has always impressed and frustrated me by its complete embrace of subjectivity. You can’t teach theatre out of a book, and you can hardly learn it in a classroom. As an example: I once asked a dear theatre professor what they could recommend I do to best hone and improve my art. The only advice they offered was to march out into the world and have experiences (I later learned that it was equally important to “use” those experiences – all vagueness intended here – lest they sit in our attic collecting dust, but this begins to border on the tangential…). I can admit this knowledge has not stopped me from trying to understand theatre with the objective side of my brain, when appropriate, and as much as Kali’s work proved original and inspiring to me, I couldn’t help but seek the connections and similarities to other “methods” to which I’ve been exposed. Where there are great similarities, I sometimes long (with no hope whatsoever) that people would unify the terms we use to refer to certain common themes or phenomenon in the theater. And, of course, I just as soon realize that a standardization of terms would probably ossify these terms and render them meaningless beyond a simple, trite dictionary definition. In my limited understanding of Scientology, this is how L Ron Hubbard got away with passing off simple, old-hat philosophical and psychological ideas as religion- by renaming important terms and disassociating common concepts (psychoanalysis, the soul, trauma, repression…) with their baggage and injecting them with new meaning. I realized that our work with Kali- the games and techniques and terminology we learned with her- it all has meaning because we have collectively undergone a unique experienced to understand these concepts. I doubt we’d be able to take in an outsider and share with them what we learned from Kali in any meaningful way. We could tell them to stop in the middle of a line and experience what that character is experiencing, and we could tell them we sometimes call that a “Roller Coaster”, but they weren’t there when Jamie and Faye were rolling around on the floor. We could describe the process through which we connected our action to our heads, first, and then moved it down into our upper and then whole bodies; we could even describe these body locations’ connection to breath, noting similarities to some of Ellen Hemphill’s teachings, but in the end, even if we’ve arrived at similar concepts through different methods, our results here will look very different from something that Ellen would have created. We’re not interested in definitions or descriptions, anyways. The theatre concerns itself with life, with the movement of humanity through time and space. All that ultimately matters (to any given performance, at least) is our humanly subjective understanding of our action. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to let go of my left-brain, but I’ll at least employ it to keep things in perspective.

The Language of the Body: Now Accessible through Rosetta Stone

Some of the growth I am most grateful for experiencing this past summer has been in how I experience the world. I’ve come to believe that there are a number of ways in which we can experience the world, and a number of ways in which we can transmit experiences to others. Much of formal schooling concerns itself with the clearest and most objective form of communication, writing. But imagine what kinds of different ideas can be transmitted through images alone. Through sketching the world (Berlin, specifically) I came to know it in an entirely new way. And I tried to find other methods of receiving the world. We can make logical sense of things, and we can try to note the distinct experience that is emotional connection to a moment in time, for example. If I call these “languages” in which we can experience the world or communicate to others, then focusing so stringently on movement has made me identify the different realms of communication we employ on stage (which is hopefully all of them, though I can’t claim I’ve found an exhaustive list). My background (which I believe to often be the case with amateurs) has made me most confident in my verbal communication and aural understanding, perhaps due in part to bodily insecurities and the literary-theater’s obsession with “the reading.” But there is certainly another realm of communication and experience surrounding static image, and perhaps yet another for movement through space(and furthermore I would note a difference between experiencing the world through moving in it, and experiencing the world through watching the movements of others). I question if our emotional reception to experiences add a separate (perhaps not mutually exclusive) realm, as well. Even how we communicate with our faces might be relevantly distinguishable from how we communicate with our bodies. What I mean to conclude is simply that each of these variables can be honed and manipulated on stage to create a variety of effects, and it’s been a pleasures exploring a realm that for me had been relatively ignored in my performing career.

With the new vocabulary I’ve/we’ve created, I can at least analyze my own or others’ performances or styles in new interesting ways. I see in myself a comfort in some realms and weakness in others, and I see how where a character devotes their energy (do they express themselves vocally, or corporeally, or facially? How much so in each region?) can become yet another variable that can defines them. I should clarify: I only mean to pick these categories apart for intellectual purposes; obviously every character will utilize every realm of expression, and it will mostly be difficult to separate one from another (We very purposefully had trouble separating vocal work from our movement work). If anything, I’ve only learned more how great things happen when these languages are translated into one another:

In the extra movement workshop with Kali that I attended, I realized that I was taking one realm of understanding/expression (say an image), and translating that into another (a specific type of movement), and then maybe translating that into something new again (a noise that I probably wouldn’t have associated with the original image at all). Combining these different elements created something original and special. Good art. Or consider this phenomenon: When we see a repeated human movement paired with some non-linguistic vocalization, for example, we are able to grant it a name that has meaning for us. We translate these methods of experiencing and understanding the world in trying to make sense of them, based on the methods we are more comfortable with (which for most of us is language- hence these written blog posts- But note that I have not even attempted to describe to you in language the specific movement I wrote about at the beginning of this paragraph. It wouldn’t suffice.). To conclude: I’ve become very excited about exploring the corporeal method of experiencing and communicating. Thanks for the guidance, Kali!

–Mike Myers

File under “theater has known this for years”

An article in my Twitter feed today caught my eye: “How Posture influences mood, energy, thoughts,” Kristen Brown for the San Francisco Gate.

We start in a Holistic Health class where the professor intersperses his lectures with time for students to “get up and wiggle.” Professor Erik Peper ties this tool to his behavioral science research on the mind-body connection. Immediately, I was hooked in. Surely someone is going to mention theater at some point. How could they not? I read on.

The article mentions the stir psychologist William James made in the late 1800s when he ruminated on the connection between physiological and emotional responses. Which comes first, the bodily experience or the mental feeling? A chicken or egg kind of situation. Then the Gate article author jumps to early 21st century research about the influence of bodily action on mental state: a 2003 study on nodding or shaking heads that showed how the action influenced group opinions, a 2009 study showing sitting up straight improved confidence. There’s even a mention of “embodiment” —

Scientists who study the influence of the body on the mind, a subdiscipline of social psychology called embodiment, are only now beginning to understand the physiological underpinnings behind it.

— but instead of a turn to theater, the article moves further into the scientific domain, neuroscience, to illustrate emerging physiological evidence that appears to link physical action to emotional states/moods (and vice-versa).

Now, I’m not surprised. For this to be “news” it has to be illustrative of the “real world” connections and that equals scientific inquiry. I bring it up here not to chafe at the neglect of performing arts like dance & theater whose artistry is dependent upon unique strategies of connectivity between mind and body but to illustrate how certain scientific fields are studying the kind of connections you are exploring in your movement work with Kali. As we look for ways to access greater paths of connection between the physical worlds you all have been exploring in workshop and the textual landscape of the script, it seems important to recognize how these psychology and neuroscience studies are searching for some similar kinds of connections just in a different domain.

“If I do a power pose, that sends signals up to the brain, and it says ‘I’m feeling powerful,’ ” said [Dana] Carney [social psychologist at UC-Berkeley]. “It starts as a neural impulse and then ends up acting a little bit like a drug.”

In the study, those signals, for example, triggered the production of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol, making a person feel more confident and less stressed. What is still unclear is the exact pathway those signals take.

“We are just defining now what those pathways might be,” said Carney. “The knowledge will come … but science is slow.”

Peper, the SFSU scientist, readily espouses his philosophy to any available ears – including the reporter, who he instructed to put down the phone and stretch “toward the sky” for a few minutes.

“Just get up and do some active movement for a moment, then observe yourself,” he said.

Philosophy and religion have long debated the nature of the mind-body relationship.

James, the 19th century psychologist, inspired a wave of criticism that lasted long after his death. Since James’ era, what has emerged is a picture of emotion that is much more complex. Sometimes, a mood is perhaps tied to the physiological. Sometimes perhaps it’s not. Scientists still disagree.

Don’t worry scientists. Artists disagree too.

“It’s complicated.”

Professor Erik Peper talks about stress in his holistic health class at San Francisco State University. Much of his work focuses on how posture can affect mood. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Professor Erik Peper talks about stress in his holistic health class at San Francisco State University. Much of his work focuses on how posture can affect mood. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

a Chekhov to bind them

Apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the amazing work done with Kali in last Friday’s workshop. I’ve also been reading a lot from directors and actors (past and present) about their impressions about the playwright and his work, thinking specifically about how the Moscow Art Theater basically emerged as Chekhov’s theater, even though he worked with them for only the last 4-5 years of his life (since he died at age 44) and from that union of playwright and an emerging theater company grew so much of the structure, vocabulary and tone of we use in acting and playwriting study and practice today. To that end I wanted to share some observations about ensemble building from Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen collected inThe Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (2000).

Nunn on gathering a group (which included McKellen) to work on The Three Sisters:

I could see that there was great value in doing a Chekhov; actors know that working on a Chekhov play is like to be a democratic experience and that everybody is required to provide an equal amount of contribution and initiative. The Chekhov play becomes ‘company-forming’ material. (102)

McKellen on his “next” Chekhov project:

I’m going to do Dorn in The Seagull this autumn [1998] at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with Jude Kelly directing. That play is so essentially about theatre people that a company of actors can bring an awful lot of their own lives to it, even though it was written a hundred years ago and in another country. We’re going to set up a company of actors who can do three or four plays one after the other. As usual, in those circumstances, Chekhov immediately springs to mind as a very good way of binding a group. The major joy of Chekhov is the group that does it. Also, every detail of the relationships between the characters, whether they speak to each other much or not, is very clearly present in the text. It’s very easy and quick to read what the situation is, which isn’t true of Ibsen, for example. Chekhov is a wonderful friend to the actor. (131)