Neuroscience and drowning in a livingroom.
I’ll start this with a little story.
When I was about 7 years old, I was sitting watching one of those Saturday afternoon War movies which used to pepper our TV screens in the 70’s. It was called ‘We Dive at Dawn’ and, as you can probably imagine, was full of submarines and testosterone. Sat beside my elder brother we were wrapped by the narrative …. but the point I want to make is deeper than how propaganda can grab hold of a boy … Toward the end of the film, a torpedo slammed into the side of the ship. Pandaemonium broke out as submariners scrabbled around to fight for rapidly vanishing air pockets as the water rose in the cramped compartments.
While I sat watching this horror, my brother decided to point out, with no short supply of derision, that I was craning my neck and breathing through the pursed lips of a drowning man. I was watching the action as if I were there, going through the same thing. A shortness in my panicked breath, my heart pounding in my chest and a sense of claustrophobia coursing through me…. As you can imagine, I straightened my head and continued to watch from a more ‘Normal’ position … but secretly I was still trying to hold my breath. Since that time, I’ve always been aware of my response to well told narrative. If it’s a good comedy, I laugh like a drain, if a thriller, I am thrilled to the point of having white knuckles up to my elbows and there is never any need to try and jerk tears from me if the story is a sad one, much to my children’s delight.
Cute story, Eh?
But you see, for years I thought I was just a bit sensitive … easily manipulated …
It turns out that there is a neurological reason why I did what I did, and that reason was not discovered or formalised until quite recently.
It turns out that around the 1980’s a group of scientists including Giacomo Rizzolatti and Giuseppe Di Pellegrino discovered a very interesting area of research kind of by accident.
They were in Italy doing research into the motor-neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys … this is not to imply that you have to go to Italy to do brain research on monkeys … They just happened to be there …
The research went something like this.
Let’s put some monitors on the monkeys while they pick stuff up … something they want .. food for example, and record how their brains respond when they pick them up.
Being scientists, they had to do this for quite a long time, with quite a few monkeys, and one day they were tidying up after a long day of monitoring and, in the case of the monkeys, picking up food, when one of the scientists was a little tardy about removing the neural apparatus, while the other guy was a bit more efficient about tidying up the food left over.
As the second chap picked up the food, the monkeys brains fired as if it were them picking it up … Think about that for a moment …. the monkeys brains sent out messages that they were moving their arms and grasping food when they saw another, of a different species, pick something up.
At first they may have called this the ‘Monkey See-Monkey Do’ response, but soon the neurons involved were named Mirror-Neurons, and that was the start of something quite revolutionary in the understanding of social psychology. It turns out that these Mirror neurons are not only part of monkey’s brain function, but appear to be an active part of how humans experience and engage with the world.
When we watch, hear, or even imagine an physical process or event occurring, we experience it in an intrinsic and cognitively profound way. On a tiny level we reproduce the movements of others within ourselves. You may have experienced something similar… a sense of pressure upon you when seeing someone get a wave dumped on them while surfing … even if you don’t surf. The change in breathing while watching a high-wire act go through their routine. Feeling exhausted after watching a boxing match or a particularly good action sequence in a movie.. hence my opening story.
Working in theatre and film is all the easier once one knows that those watching will experience, on a very real and personal level, the peril, joy and anguish we explore. We just have to be good at it … and we are all too willing to point out those who are, and those who aren’t.
It would appear that we are ‘hard-wired’ to have an empathic response to those around us.
Now this could be taken as a reason to believe that human beings are fundamentally good and caring individuals, who are aware of the experiences of others in a profound, visceral and compassionate way … and that it’s just education which teaches us to be grasping, acquisitive and selfish … and to an extent, I hope that is true … but I have watched many small children and heard their parents saying things like ‘Give that back. You only want it because he/she has it.’
Of course they do …. Their Mirror-Neurons have informed them that the other kid picked that up and showed a level of satisfaction on their face when hold or playing with it.
It is a shame that this piece of science cannot justify a move toward us all becoming relaxed and caring hippies in a fare and compassionate world.
I will continue to use this stuff in my work, though … it is really helpful when creating a believable character …. and I’ll keep looking through scientific journals and anything else I can find, just in case they come up with a cogent reason to justify me wanting to be a nice guy.
What does a Movement Director do?
Part 1…. The Concept
‘The readiness is all’
Sometimes I’m am asked to oversee the development of movement and physical characterisation for the entire play, facilitating a cohesive aesthetic to the piece. Other times it’s to come in for a short period of time to provide a workshop on a specific aspect or part of the play. This may be for health and safety reasons as well as theatrical clarity, Stage fight scenes for example, for the building of a period or stylised dance/movement scene, or to assist in the creation of a chorus who share a common physicality. Maybe to help an actor age up or down, or explore the physicality involved in the characterisation of a soldier, or a long distance lorry driver … or a fish!
All that being said, we are still not getting down to the nuts and bolts of what is actually done …. that’s because each task is unique to itself, requiring research, preparation and structure … and then you have to be prepared to change tack in the moment in order to get the results needed to fulfil the brief and help the story be told.
One could spend a whole life researching the themes, symbolism and nuance in the texts of Shakespeare for example (many people have done exactly that) and still not ever get around to putting on a single play. Within Movement Direction, the onus was not about investigation. It’s about getting results, and those results have to be manifest and quantifiable. That is not to say that research and a thorough grounding in the nature, context, structure and themes within the piece is not necessary. On the contrary, being prepared and well researched, with a knowledge of the process and needs of the actor, allows for a more adaptive and creative engagement with the actors while staying focused on the task itself.
When engaging with the production, you have to be aware of the processes and systems of analysis used by both actors and directors. The truth is that I may never have met the actors before, so don’t know what they bring to the party yet. Actors, while sometimes padding out their CVs with stuff they can almost do, forget that ‘Life Experience’ and the strangest little bits of information or innate capability can be invaluable during the creation process.
In ‘Creating a Role’, Constantin Stanislavski describes the written text of a play as a complex multi layered structure of clues, to be investigated and explored in order to produce a satisfying and truthful performance.
‘A play and it’s roles have many planes, along which their life flows. First there is the external plane of facts, events, plot, form. This is contiguous with the plane of social situation, subdivided into class, nationality, and historic setting. There is a literary plane, with its ideas, its style, and other aspects. There is an aesthetic plane, with sublayers of all that is theatrical, artistic, having to do with scenery and production. There is the psychological plane of inner action, feelings, inner characterisation; and the physical plane with it’s fundamental laws of physical nature, physical objectives and actions, external characterisation. And finally there is the plane of personal creative feelings belonging to the actor.’ (Stanislavski, 1961)
These areas of analysis were formalised to assist an actor in the task of embodying a character. These same tools are used by a Movement Director as part of the process of preparation when designing and producing a structured workshop.
The first three of Stanislavski planes (external, social and literary) are held within the themes, concepts and imagery of the text itself, and can be explored before I get there. The Aesthetic plane is one to be explored and researched based on consultation with the production team, primarily the Director, as it is their role to oversee the cohesive creation of the entire vision of the piece. The areas of psychological and physical engagement can be investigated as preparatory research, but any thoughts, plans and ideas must be open to being adjusted and/or jettisoned if the actors or the Director find them unhelpful or inappropriate. Jane Gibson makes it pretty clear when she says ‘As a Movement Director, you have to leave your ego at the door.’ (Gibson,J.2009)
So the first bit is exhaustive research of the text for any and everything which might help quite literally ‘flesh out’ the story and the characters.
So what could that research look like?
I’ll do that in part 2