Acting as Expertise seminar #2
Written by Yuko Takeda
The Swedish-speaking acting program (SA) organized the second installment of Acting as Expertise seminar in conjunction with the celebration of the 110th year of acting education in Swedish in Finland on November 18-19, 2018 at Theatre Academy.
I was able to attend the seminar on the afternoon of the 19th at the classroom 527. It was the last event of the whole series of the celebrations. It consisted of a three-hour session of keynote speeches and Q&As. The underlying theme was the future of acting.
At the beginning of the seminar, Anders Carlsson, director of the SA, briefly introduced each speaker to the guests and talked about his philosophical and pedagogical challenges in actor’s education. As an educator, he expressed his wish that actors would become the innovators of the new kinds of work after they graduate from the academy. He first posed a question, “What is acting good for in society?” What could be the function of acting not only in the artistic context but in a much larger one that involves many people and fields? If acting skill is about creating a reality of some sort, how do we deal with new realities constantly generated by multiple sources such as the virtual world and new scientific discoveries?
He then told about his wish to advocate new ontology in acting education or investigating what actually happens and how things or meaning appear in acting. This philosophical inquiry could give a real challenge to the current paradigm of post-modern theatre. One of post-modern tendencies, the pursuit of “newness” within the same paradigm of acting, is just adding new perspectives to the same thing, and it’s not always interesting.
So how can we go about learning acting differently than before?
Anders then mentioned “the state of not knowing” as a starting point.
What would happen, what would we experience as actors, if we stepped outside of the familiar and delved into the unfamiliar?
Anders had beforehand proposed to the keynote speakers several questions regarding the skills of acting in the context of transdisciplinary performing arts, the contribution of acting in the contemporary world, other potential implementations of acting in our society, and the challenges and future of acting education. The keynote speakers were asked to be freely inspired by and respond to those questions in however way they wanted.
The speakers were prominent researchers, educators, and performers in the field of acting from Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Their speeches were full of provocations, insights and inspirations to tackle the big question mark surrounding the future of acting. The following is what I found interesting in each speaker’s talk, which in no way covers the entirety of their arguments and stories.
The first speaker was Marion Reuter, a researcher and teacher at Danish National school of performing arts. She shared some of her on-going artistic research to talk about actor’s education and skills. She wants to invigorate and enrich the process of creating/building a character so that actors can truly play in public. By building a rehearsal/practice structure that allows actors to play in ambiguity, tension and the unknown, she investigates the dissolution and the boundaries of the autobiographical and the fictional, presentation and representation in acting. As she was telling all this, she also acknowledged how flustered and uncertain she was feeling in articulating her thoughts in English, her non-native language. That was the moment she pointed out as a personal example of acting in ambiguity, tension and the unknown.
Marion is currently in the process of forming her own theory about the actor’s process based on her praxis.
The second speaker was Kent Sjöström, a professor and researcher at Malmö Theatre Academy, Sweden. Kent, being a teacher of movement, made a rather provocative statement to start off his talk: “We shouldn’t trust our bodies.” His reasoning behind it is that in the phenomenology of performing, the body is regarded as something sacred and the object and source of truth. In other words, “what I feel in the body is the truth.” But, in that blind faith in the body hides an assumption that “I” is something that can move through time and space to become any character of any time period and circumstances. So, an actor often askes in creating his or her character: “What would ‘I’ feel in the situation of the character?” For Kent, this is a bad question to ask in the exploration of the character because human emotion is as biased and corrupt as human intellect. One cannot just assume that his or her feeling takes precedence over any objective inquiry.
He then cited a phrase from Declan Donnellan’s book The Actor and The Target: “Don’t go home.” It implies the importance of getting inspirations for the character from outside, the target, not from the place of familiarity, which is one’s own body and mind or one’s ego.
He concluded his talk by expressing his desire to get out of “oneself” and be free to play.
The third speaker was Øystein Stene, a Norwegian novelist and playwright. He is a professor at the Academy of Theatre at Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Øystein first placed acting in a broader cultural context by citing Richard Schechner’s concept of “performativity,” which deals with the cultural tendency of being performative not only in the artistic realm but in other areas of life. As an example, he listed gender as a performative concept and behavioral techniques for men to approach women as if there was a right way to perform and act in front of women.
Then he pointed out how the technological advancement and the evolution of the digital world has made it possible for many people to create identities separate from the body, which used to be a privilege to a few in power. This evolution is also the process of making the audience the expert of performative behavior. For example, through social media, YouTube and such, they select and broadcast the parts of their lives they want others to see.
So, how do we as actors work with the audience’s expertise in performativity? Øystein asked to ponder on the question.
Then he implied how the actor’s identity created for roles is different from the societal process mentioned above by citing the four modes of existence for a performer. A performer can be identified as:
1. Human, which is a corporal entity as is in a situation including emotion.
2. Actor, whose special training and expertise are communicated to the audience.
3. Role, which is the function of the performer in the composition and progression of a piece.
4. Character, an entity different than actor.
“In my experience, we often see actors as actor,” Øystein said jokingly but simultaneously illuminating problematics in acting education. In order for a performer to be fluid in those modes of existence and beyond, educators have a responsibility to contextualize acting methods for relevancy in the present and future society. The audience is becoming more and more adept in perceiving and evaluating a performance. Therefore, how we educate actors needs to evolve with it. Otherwise, the actor’s expertise and skills would be something of arcane nature to the audience.
What is human performativity? What does it mean to be human?—We need to sincerely and seriously ask ourselves as we learn how to be a performer.
The fourth speaker was Trine Falch, a writer and performer based in Norway with background in Verdensteatret (an experimental artist collective based in Oslo) and Baktruppen (an artist collective (1986–2011) in Norway that has had a substantial impact on European live art).
She humorously introduced herself as someone who has gone through menopause and is now too sensitive to be looked at while she talks. She said that she’d written her speech for the seminar and asked us to allow her to read it out loud from her laptop instead of directly addressing us.
What followed was a highly engaging speech, full of perceptive personal anecdotes, unique themes and insights into the future of performing arts. What I describe below is just a fraction of her speech.
According to Trine, “The world is f*cked but not bad enough to change our behavior.” She observes that the state of the world is becoming increasingly uncanny; We sense that something is off, odd, uncertain, but not threatening enough. She then compares the concept of the uncanny valley with scary movies, which she loves. The biggest difference between the two is that in scary movies there are the endings or resolutions of fear and suspense, whereas there is no such relief in the uncanny valley.
To illuminate more on the uncanny valley, she tells us about a German word “Das Unheimliche (the uncanny, scary, eerie).” The etymology of the word contains a word that means “home.” When something that used to be so familiar like home feels no longer familiar or secure, it creates tension. It becomes “Das Unheimliche,” a sense of secrecy and eeriness contained in the familiar. The familiarity therefore could be a common ground for us to leap into the unknown.
Then Trine also mentions the fear of Michael Jackson, which is a real thing some people suffer from. When a human imitates the real physical appearance of another human, the line between the real and the imitation of the real is blurred, which confuses the brain to cause the feeling of incongruity or the uncanny.
All in all, many of us see the future as a scary place. We feel that there are invisible forces hidden underneath all that we can know and will know. We are consciously or unconsciously trying to make the future less scary by creating narratives with causes and effects, making what is to come little more manageable and enjoyable. At this point Trine admits the post-modern, post-drama writers and performers’ “guilty pleasure” of consuming a bunch of narrative-based dramas on TV, Internet and film. This candidly reassures that we all are seeking in one way or the other the resolution, ending, or relief for the uncanny we live in.
After Trine’s speech was over, many of us were quite appreciative of her stories, which evoked various thoughts and emotions in us. Anders then quickly commented on how the function of narrative is underestimated and somewhat looked down upon in the contemporary performing arts field. As someone who believes in the power of storytelling, I immediately took heed to his remark as a point of further contemplation.
The last speaker was Esa Kirkkopelto, a philosopher, artist-researcher and performing artist from Finland. Esa has been leading several artistic research projects to focus on the deconstruction of the performing body both in theory and in practice. In his term it is “non-human acting,” which is about liberating the actor from the anthropomorphic mode of acting. In many occasions, acting is seen and treated as the action of a natural human, having human characteristics, while in contemporary dance the body is often explored in a non-human context. This is a strange phenomenon according to Esa.
The stage is probably the uncanniest place imaginable. Why do we try to make it “real” or “natural” by acting so?- he wonders.
As for acting skills, instead of adhering to the existing standards of what good acting is, Esa proposed to create our own criteria and develop our own skills by trying to do something difficult on stage. This difficulty has to do with the comfortable and the uncomfortable, the affects and the affectivity of the actor. As if to respond to the state of not knowing proposed by Anders and Trine’s speech about the uncanny, Esa encouraged us to take a theoretical and practical step into the unknown realm of acting. The purpose of all this insurmountable challenge in acting might be the pursuit of truthfulness beyond mere representation or identity and to make the development of acting skills a life-long process for the actor.
Go for evolution, not for confirmation— That was a phrase that came to my mind as I was listening to Esa’s main point about developing acting skills.
In between there were brief Q&A sessions. Many deep, interesting questions were asked.
How do we address the subconscious or unconscious in acting? How do we negotiate with the intelligent audience of the contemporary world as actors and educators? How do we consider and play with “reality” or realism in acting? etc. etc.
No one had a clear-cut answer to those questions, but everyone was aware of the complexity surrounding the future of acting, influenced by new discoveries and findings in neurobiology, consciousness, etc.
For example, Anders mentioned different ways of looking at human consciousness. Some people see it as vertical as in the consciousness on the top and the subconscious on the bottom. But some see it as horizontal. And there are even some people who refute the idea of the subconscious altogether.
Another example was when someone asked about dealing with the audience’s expertise to Øystein. He told that the audience does not need to be participating in a performative act with actors in order to feel engaged in what’s happening. The current trend of participatory and immersive theatre does not necessarily correlate to the emancipation of the audience. The audience is already engaged when they are in the same time and space with actors.
Also, in response to the question of realism in acting, Esa pointed out that it is important not to generalize any style of acting as something different from the other styles. The more productive way to examine acting would be to see how all the different acting styles are related to each other and how the body is involved in the construct of reality, which is a continuum of the strangest and the realest.
And to some questions, their answers were simply, “I don’t know.”
At the end of the seminar, my head was oversaturated with thoughts. As one of the speakers said, I felt the humbleness of not knowing. There are no plausible answers or solutions, only many an uncharted path. Maybe this is a phase in the evolution of acting; We step into the unfamiliar and attempt to weave meaning out of different strings of an ever-expanding, ever-morphing universe with all that we know and all that we don’t. That is hell of an acting skill already.