The Players' Journal


EXPLORING THE ART AND CRAFT OF ACTING

EXTINGUISHING THE “FIRE” IN THE HEAD

by Jennifer Popple, Assistant Professor

Theatre and Women’s and Gender Studies Departments
Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois

n the spring of 2012, I directed How I Learned to Drive at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illlinois. Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning play deals with sexual abuse, a subject that can contribute to what Vogel deemed our “culture of victimization.” (Holmberg, para. 19)  In my production, I wanted to combat traditional American directorial processes that, according to Ellen Donkin, “ultimately [reproduce] dominant ideology” (81). For me, this dominant ideology includes an emphasis on inside-out psychological approaches to character creation that can damage actors’ emotional health. My feminist directing practice, rather, is informed by an outside-in psychophysical approach that I believe led my actors during Drive to an emotionally safe space from which to produce dynamic, healthy performances.

The purpose of this essay is to contribute to the increasing discussion about ethics in Theatre directing, using my production of How I Learned to Drive as a case study. In it, I provide examples of some inside-out directing approaches that may compromise actors’ emotional health, and provide an argument for outside-in psychophysical directing processes. I include descriptions of specific exercises, drawn mainly from Michael Chekhov and his Psychological Gesture work, which I adapted for use in rehearsal and performance, and an analysis of the process. My hope is that the essay will provide some assistance to directors and acting teachers who wish to use an approach to character creation that is ethical and safe, without sacrificing the opportunities for creative breakthroughs.

A Need for Ethical Standards

Theatre directors and acting teachers often work with physically and psychologically intense material, yet some of us are lacking what Allen Dyer in Ethics in Psychiatry deems the “self-conscious reflection on standards of conduct [that] is one of the defining characteristics of a profession” (17 quoted in Burgoyne 1). This can be due to varied training Paula Vogel’smethods and schools, not all of which include ethical standards in their learning outcomes. This varied approach can involve actor training programs, particularly in the United States, that may teach the students to seek the same “truth” from themselves, and to look to their directors to provide the tools for artistic breakthroughs in rehearsal and performances. It is not surprising then that some directors may cross a threshold of healthy emotional exposure through a misapplication of inside-out psychological acting techniques. While the results can feel truthful to the actor and audience, they may come at the expense of the actor’s emotional equilibrium.

While more schools appear to be recognizing the need for ethical standards, a look back at the last fifty years of directing theory can provide some evidence for the continued need of these standards. Suzanne Burgoyne documented the repercussions that her inside-out “Method” rehearsal exercises had on the actors in her 1980 Creighton University production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. She discusses several exercises she designed to connect the actors personal experiences and emotions with those of their characters. In one exercise, the actors were directed to write personal answers to a series of statements such as “When I’m angry, I—“, and even “confess” one of these answers to the group in order to connect to Miller’s story and characters (4). In another exercise, each actor received a cardboard box and ripped it apart, talking to it as if it were someone the actor hated; at the end of this exercise, the actors were instructed to forgive both themselves and the person the box represented (5).

While the exercises elicited apparently highly realistic and committed performances, Burgoyne reported that the exercises had a number of disturbing side-effects on the actors, including nightmares (4), intense fear of performing some of the more intense scenes (6), animosity, and blaming others for performance weaknesses, mirroring the scapegoating that occurs in the text (5). Burgoyne writes, “Belatedly, it occurred to me that my theatre training not only had not prepared me to deal with the psychological fallout my actors were experiencing, but that no one had seriously warned me that I might encounter such a phenomenon” (6).

Disturbed by her experience directing The Crucible, Burgoyne later partnered with psychologist Karen Poulin to conduct a study in 1999 on the impact of performance on university actors. Their study found that despite the many positive effects of acting that the actors reported, including “enhanced sensitivity, empathy, and awareness; strengthened sense of identity and values; facilitated emotional growth; improved understanding of self and others; and cultivated skills in relating to others” (Burgoyne et al. 160-1), lasting emotional distress was a common negative effect. Students also reported feeling out of control when in character (163) and having difficulty “shaking off” a character when offstage or after the run had ended (162).

Further complicating this process is the top-down power structure of traditional directing that places directors above performers. Some actors, eager to impress their directors, may be wary of confessing their discomfort over something that is asked of them in creating their character.

Using the Text as Guide

How I Learned to Drive tells the story of Li’l Bit, a young woman who recalls her growing up and the relationship she had with her Uncle Peck. The story is told almost completely in reverse chronological order, giving the audience bits and pieces of information about Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck’s relationship. It unfolds for the audience in a similar way to how Li’l Bit now views the relationship: as more complicated and nuanced than a linear approach would provide. The relationship is abusive and beautiful at different times as Uncle Peck, her abuser, also serves as her greatest champion; he supports Li’l Bit’s dreams to be a scholar and go to college, while the rest of her family expects nothing more from her than early motherhood, poverty, and marital servitude.

Vogel’s text and characterizations lend themselves to a psychophysical style of role creation. She employs a number of Brechtian distancing elements in the play including the “Greek chorus” of actors who play multiple characters, the episodic plot structure, and the overt theatricality of the play. The play is also written as a memory play, “refracted through the perspective of a survivor of sexual abuse” (Herren 103), which indicates that Vogel does not intend for this to be an emotional whirlwind for the actors or the audience. Li’l Bit is telling her story from the other side of it, as someone removed from the memories she steps in and out of. A comparison to the more emotionally fraught memory play, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (in which the set is more realistic, the memories are linear, actors play only one character, and Tom as narrator is emotionally invested throughout) demonstrates that Vogel carefully crafted Drive and Li’l Bit differently in order to achieve healthy distance between the character and the trauma.

In Drive, the episodic structure provides Li’l Bit with healthy control and distance. In this way, she serves as both director and protagonist in her own psychodrama, molding a dramatic piece out of her memories as a means to heal and move forward with her life. She purposefully reorders the events to suit the way she wants to tell the story, demonstrating that she is a strong narrator-protagonist, rather than a victim caught up in the tide of memories. Li’l Bit’s ability to control the proceedings (by directly addressing the audience, stepping in and out of scenes at will, picking both good and painful memories, and actually splitting her 11-year-old self into two bodies in the final revelation about Uncle Peck), provide her and the audience with a safe way to watch, move through, and learn from the story.

The dramaturgical structure of Drive thereby connects the play to Hans-Thies Lehmann’s “post-dramatic” category. This classification provides a helpful method for categorizing the large numbers of modern plays that challenge the late 19th and 20th centuries Western traditions of realism and naturalism. In reflecting on this rise in “post-dramatic” dramaturgies, Phillip B. Zarrilli writes:

However important psychology has been to shaping the dramaturgy of realist and naturalist plays from the nineteenth through the twentieth centuries, conventional realist approaches to acting and/or textual analysis may be inadequate or even inappropriate to the realization of the dramaturgy and acting tasks that consitute an actor’s performance score in a post-dramatic text or performance. (Zarrilli 7-8. Emphasis added.)

There are many elements of Drive that link it to Zarrilli’s statement. It is my belief that Drivecontains a “code of ethics” for effectively presenting this post-dramatic play about trauma. If the alternative and Brechtian elements of the play form a safe barrier for intellectual engagement rather than emotional immersion on the part of the audience, then the rehearsal techniques should do the same.

Directing How I Learned to Drive: A Psychophysical Approach

I approached the direction of the play with the intention of studying my own approach to ethical directing processes. I documented the process through questionnaires, photos, videos, and journal entries from the actors.[1] Apart from pre-casting the role of Uncle Peck with a local, professional actor (and Augustana alumnus), the remainder of the cast were college students between the ages of 20 and 22.

The initial questionnaire was developed to gauge the students beginning conceptions about acting.[2] The responses indicated that the student actors were drawn toward inside-out techniques and admired the actors they believed employed these techniques most effectively. One actor answered the question, “What do you believe makes someone a good actor?” with the following: “They have to be thinking their character’s thoughts.” Daniel Day Lewis was mentioned as one of the actors’ favorite performers. He wrote about Lewis: “He always immerses himself into a role.” Another actor said that the actors she admires most are “chameleon actors – anyone who can drop their regular persona and really become another person([…]Heath Ledger, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn). It’s just so cool!” (emphasis added), while another actor finished the statement, “Acting is…” with the answer “therapy, a way for me to connect with my inner thoughts and emotions, and channel these personal traits to connect with an audience.” He declared that a good actor “understands the character’s thoughts and emotions, and [can] apply a character’s personality to situations outside of the show’s context.”

This last answer, and others like it, was of special concern to me. I always teach my actors in class or rehearsals that they must rid themselves of the idea that acting and performing are forms of therapy. As Augusto Boal argued in a 2007 interview, “Theatre […] is not therapy but it is therapeutic […] Therapy assumes that you have a psychological problem and a need for treatment. Therapy also assumes that there is a therapist, a person who knows better than us.” While I always hope that the audience’s artistic experience includes thought about the issues presented in the play, what is the best way to evoke these emotional responses?

For How I Learned to Drive, I turned to a number of psychophysical exercises drawn from several sources. The exercises encouraged actors not to make personal connections to their characters, but to use the body and instinct as a method for exploration. In this our work connected with what Burgoyne discovered in her conversation with psychodrama colleagues: “that keeping student actors in character rather than bringing them into direct work on personal analogies may provide a psychological cushion” (7). The first exercise I used is called the Gender Continuum.

The Gender Continuum was developed by Jill Dolan, Phillip Zarrilli, Michael Peterson, and Stacy Wolf in 1990, and is included as a chapter, written by Wolf, in the book, Radical Acts:Theater and Feminist Pedagogies of Change (2007).[3] It is designed to help actors develop awareness of gender performativity in both their own lives and in character creation. The continuum uses a 1-10 scale; I write each number on a piece of paper and have the students choose which end represents ultimate masculinity and which end represents ultimate femininity (the Drive actors chose 1 for ultimate femininity and 10 for ultimate masculinity). After we discuss what sorts of physical and emotional qualities the different numbers may represent, I then have the students give me names of iconic people, living or dead, who represent some of the numbers. After the initial discussion, the actors walk down the continuum and write more names until each number has at least three people listed on it. The usual suspects are often at the polar extremes – Marilyn Monroe is a 1, ultimate femininity, while Clint Eastwood is a 10, ultimate masculinity, with women like Sigourney Weaver crossing into the 7s and 8s; for the Drive actors, Venus Williams, Michael Cera, and Angelina Jolie represented a 5.[4]

Popple Figure 1Figures 1: The Drive students’ choices for
1, ultimate femininity
Popple Figure 2Figure 2: 10, ultimate masculinity

Once we have established a common language for which iconic people perform the different numbers, I then lead the actors through a series of exercises, using Wolf’s chapter as a guide. I direct the actors to walk around, embodying different numbers, sidecoaching them as they progress through the continuum (“What part of the body does a 3 lead with? How large is an 8’s stride? Do you make eye contact with others as a 4?”); other continuum activities have included entering a room and choosing a seat, tying shoes, giving someone directions (to encourage them to think about gesture and interpersonal interaction through the lens of gender), and posing for magazine covers.

The continuum is not only a strong ensemble-building exercise, but it also adheres to the psychophysical goals I have for character building. As Wolf states, “From the start, the exercise does not ask them to play their own place on the continuum, but instead encourages an outside orientation to a character, thereby facilitating an imaginative relationship between the actor and the character, rather than an identifacatory one” (176-7). The exercise thereby fulfilled several goals for me as director during Drive: It was an approachable introduction to psychophysical action, it encouraged students to begin to think about gender as a “routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment” (West and Zimmerman 126) that can change depending on the context, and it helped the actors reach beyond their own gender performance in order to safely investigate their characters’ performance of gender.

Popple Figure 3Figure 3
Popple Figure 4Figure 4

Figures 3 and 4: Students posing for magazine covers as a 10, ultimate masculinity, and 1, ultimate femininity.

Once I led the actors through the Gender Continuum, explaining that their gender presentation would be the foundation for everything else (if their character is most often performing the role of a 2 on the gender scale, then all of their physical expressions will likely be developed from that number), I then introduced Michael Chekhov’s psychophysical techniques. Like his first mentor, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Chekhov’s method of character creation evolved during his career as an actor, director, and teacher. The importance of the Chekhov technique is that it is based on physical action and impulse as opposed to introspection and emotional connection to the character. According to Leonard Petit, Aritistic Director of the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio in New York City, Psychological Gesture is the crucial part of the Chekhov technique:

Being in the body, these gestures (forms) come to the actor directly as knowledge, or a physical connection to the action. They can generate impulses to satisfy the action. The impulses surge through the body, and this engenders a real bidding to do. One doesn’t have to convince oneself of anything, one is not called upon to consider anything, because the intellect is left out of the effort. The inner gesture is the spark to the fire of life on stage. (48, emphasis original)

Psychological Gesture consists of a physical gesture paired with a quality to create a psychophysical grounding for a scene or character arc.

While Chekhov produced an enormous list of Psychological Gestures and qualities, other practitioners have developed a smaller list, leaving the more nuanced techniques and gestures for advanced study. For my purposes with student actors, I focused on the following core concepts:

Things to Remember:
  • Always involve your whole body.
  • Don’t “act” the gesture, “be” the gesture.
Step 1.
The Gestures
  •  Opening
  • Closing
  • Pushing
  • Pulling
  • Lifting
  • Smashing
  • Throwing/Casting
  • Wringing
  • Penetrating
  • Tearing
Step 2.
Add Direction
  • Forwards
  • Backwards
  • Up
  • Down
  • Left
  • Right
Step 3.
Add a Quality
  • Slowly
  • Quickly
  • Lightly
  • Heavily
  • Quietly
  • Carefully
  • Carelessly
  • Sneakily
  • Explosively
  •  Sluggishly[5]
Step 4.
Involve the Gesture
  • Follow-through
  • The moment before, gather your energy in preparation
  • Initiate the gesture
  • Reach the gesture’s peak

I introduce the gestures first, leading the students through a guided exploration of many different ways of expressing with their entire bodies (reminding them to use different levels – floor, standing, or middle levels). We work through the gestures slowly, experimenting with the multitude of ways someone can show each gesture and adding in the six directions after that. We then run through the gestures again, this time with different qualities layered on them: “What does a Slow Smashing look like?” or “How can you express a Heavy Tearing?”

Popple Figure 6Figure 6: Students demonstrating a Heavy Pushing Psychological Gesture.
Popple Figure 7Figure 7: A Sneaky Penetrating Psychological Gesture

For How I Learned to Drive, I introduced the Gender Continuum and the Psychological Gesture work in the same three-hour rehearsal period. After working on the two techniques, students wrote in their acting journals about their initial thoughts on where their characters may rest on the gender continuum and what gestures and qualities connected with their character at this early point in the process. For the Gender Continuum, one actor wrote:

I’d probably put myself at a seven on the scale. I think my normal physical movements tend toward the masculine side in that I keep my shoulders back, head up, chest up, don’t swing my arms much, etc. I lack the aggression in my movements that would push myself to 8 or above. For the grandfather, I think I should play it as a nine or ten, but then make him old, physically weak, decrepit, etc. Grandpa wants to be a ten, but his physical limitations prevent him from fully expressing this.

The actor playing Li’l Bit wrote Opening Carefully (“open to accepting her life and self”), Lifting Carefully (“rising above her cracker background”), and Embracing Carefully (“learning to forgive”) as options for Li’l Bit’s character overall. Both of these examples support a psychophysical approach to character creation, as the exercises unlocked important character connections without the need for any personal connection.

For the remainder of rehearsals, we returned to the gender continuum and the Psychological Gesture work in scene work. The gender continuum was especially helpful in my work with the actor playing Li’l Bit, as she had to determine different physical performances for the variety of ages she must inhabit. We spent one night of rehearsal playing with her character’s gender performance at different ages and moments; she moved in and out of different physical performances and experimented with a variety of Psychological Gestures, seeing how they changed or were replaced by others as Li’l Bit gets older. By the end, she had chosen walks, postures, sitting positions, hand gestures, and facial expressions for nine different ages (11-approximately 29 years old). In later feedback, the actor who played Li’l Bit’s Mother said about the Gender Continuum work: “It was incredibly helpful in understanding where I stood in comparison to other members of my gender and those of the opposite one. I could then better create the physical characteristics of my roles by understanding what about me is feminine or masculine and determining where the character(s) fall in comparison.”

Psychological Gesture work also proved to be effective in our ongoing scene work. We would initially work a scene with big, full body, Psychological Gestures, then began to gradually pull back on the gestures until they were small enough to be realistic to the moment. For example, the actor playing Li’l Bit worked on moving between Opening Carefully and Closing Quickly in the photo shoot scene (a memory scene in which the audience witnesses Uncle Peck’s manipulation of a young Li’l Bit). When we scaled back on the Psychological Gestures, the actor was left with a couple of opposing physical expressions that remained in the scene: pulling her shoulders in and her eyes and chin down at vulnerable moments (Closing) and opening her shoulders, lifting her chin and eyes to Uncle Peck (Opening) in confident moments.

Popple Figure 8Figure 8: Li’l Bit in a Quiet Closing Psychological Gesture during the Photo Shoot scene
Figure 9: Li’l Bit in a Light Opening Psychological Gesture during the Photo Shoot scene.Figure 9: Li’l Bit in a Light Opening Psychological Gesture during the Photo Shoot scene.

The actor who played Li’l Bit later wrote about the Psychological Gesture work:

I enjoyed working with the Chekhov method because the physical element of the emotions helped me connect with the emotional levels of the character. […] I was able to find Psychological Gestures for each scene, as well as an overarching gesture that made sense for the character to have throughout the entirety of the play. Having this overarching gesture (wringing) helped me in my warm-ups for the show, as I could focus on the physical movement more than on delving too deep into the mind of a character who is emotionally unstable—in comparison with my usual self, I mean. (emphasis added)

Her final notes about the Psychological Gesture work demonstrate that this work helped her stay emotionally removed while performing the role of an abuse victim. I believe that the actor’s testimonies suggest that that the psychophysical approaches we used not only helped protect the actors emotionally, but also led them to some of our most creative moments.

At the end of the shows, I came away immensely pleased with the process and the performances. Keeping with Augustana’s Theatre department’s practices, we held talkbacks after each Saturday night performance. In addition to the production team, Augustana’s counseling staff sent a representative each night to speak to the specific psychological and sexual trauma events in the play, offering pamphlets and service to anyone in the audience who wanted more information or support.

In the end, I was fortunate to have student actors who were open to this style of psychophysical character creation, as well as a generous and flexible professional actor, who gamely leapt into any exercise I employed in his work with creating Uncle Peck. In future productions, I will be sure to return to the gender continuum and Psychological Gesture work later in the process, as many actors said they wished we had focused on it longer. Further, I would like to see how this type of character creation lends itself to Realism, the style of plays and characters that are most affiliated with an inside-out Method based approach.

Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive provides directors with a code of ethics for safe enactment of trauma and damaged characters. Just as Vogel took steps to protect the audience and characters from victimization, directors should do the same with actors. With sensitive material like How I Learned to Drive, working from a psychophysical direction can not only protect actors from potential emotional damage through either previously lived or enacted trauma, but can also lead to tremendous artistic breakthroughs and creativity.


Works Cited

Burgoyne, Suzanne et al. “The Impact of Acting on Student Actors: Boundary

Blurring, Growth, and Emotional Distress.” Theatre Topics 9.2 (1999) 157-

  1. Web. 15 June 2012.

Burgoyne Dieckman, Suzanne. “A Crucible for Actors: Questions of Directorial

Ethics.” Theatre Topics 1991 (1:1): 1-12. Web. 4 June 2012.

Donkin, Ellen. “Black Text, White Director: Issues of Race and Gender in Directing

African-American Drama.” Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as if

                  Gender and Race Matter. Eds. Donkin, Ellen, and Susan Clement. Ann Arbor,

MI: Michigan UP, 1996. Print.

Gordon, Mel. “Introduction.” On the Technique of Acting. Michael Chekhov. New York:

HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

Herren, Graley. “Narrating, Witnessing, and Healing Trauma in Paula Vogel’s How I

                  Learned to Drive.” Modern Drama, Spring 2010 (53: 1): 103-114. Web. 1 May

Holmberg, Arthur. “Through the Eyes of Lolita.” How I Learned to Drive. American

Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). 18 Sep. 1998. Web. 20 June 2012.

McFarren, Cheryl. “A Question of Ethical Standards.” Association for Theatre in

Higher Education, Acting and Directing Panel, Chicago, IL, 2011. Unpublished

Conference Paper.

Petit, Lenard. The Michael Chekhov Handbook for the Actor. New York: Routledge,

  1. Print.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania

UP, 1985. Print.

Seton, Mark Cariston. “Post-Dramatic Stress: Negotiating Vulnerability for

Performance.” Australasian Drama Studies Association Conference,

University of Sydney, 2006. Academia.edu. Unpublished Conference Paper.

Vogel, Paula. How I Learned to Drive (Revised Edition). New York: Dramatists Play

Service, 1997. Print.

West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society, Vol. 1,

No. 2. (June, 1987), pp. 125-151. Web. 22 June 2012.

Wolf, Stacy. “On the Gender Continuum.” Radical ActsTheater and Feminist

                  Pedagogies of Change. Eds. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong and Kathleen Juhl. San

Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007. Print.

Zarrilli, Phillip B. Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach After Stanislavski.

Routledge: New York: 2009. Print.

 


[1] I received permission from Augustana’s Internal Review Board (IRB) and from the actors to document the process, in pictures, videos, and notebook entries and questionnaires.

[2] The student actors in How I Learned to Drive had a variety of actor training. One of them had no college-level training, while the others, who had taken at least Acting 1 at Augustana, had been exposed to both inside-out and outside-in techniques.

[3] While the Psychological Gesture work, discussed below, was new for me, the Gender Continuum has been a core exercise of mine since 2008.

[4] As the gender continuum often illuminates stereotypes about gender, race, and sexual orientation, it is important to leave ample time for discussion of this. Wolf notes, “The gender continuum provides an excellent way to assess how different aspects of one’s performed identity are dependent on one another; for instance, there is no such thing as a ‘woman’ – she must be a Latina, a Chinese-American woman, a white woman” (172).

[5] While the gestures were pulled from a variety of sources, the directions and qualities are taken entirely from Leonard Petit’s The Michael Chekhov Handbook for the Actor, p. 52.