“Just as the loveliest melodies are not too sublime to be expressed by notes, so the loftiest activities of consciousness have their origins in the physical occurrences of the brain.” —W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (1949)
Where and when does a play exist? Only truly in the instance of performance, when its component parts and players come together to act and react upon each other for their allotted time, then cease. A play is a thing, no doubt, but it is a thing less like a hammer or a cow or an atom and more a thing like a song or a system or a mathematical proof—a thing without mass or chemical composition but very much a thing with properties that exists in time and space nonetheless. A play is a thing, it turns out, quite like a mind: a nonphysical entity that might be explained in entirely material terms, as the sum of actions undertaken by artists in the case of a play, or by synapses in the case of a mind. Plays and minds can also be seen in far more abstract, even spiritual terms: as the summoning of energies, souls, to rehearse and create meanings, in communion with each other, with some essential larger self or selves. A case could be made that these two seemingly disparate approaches, applied either to the theatre or to the mind, are not mutually exclusive—but that may be an argument for another day.
These conundrums come to mind as I think about the training of performers for the stage, the subject of this annual special issue. Actors, after all, are charged with embodying a playwright’s ideas; they must in a sense recreate consciousness onstage. So not only does the craft of acting involve two seemingly discrete areas of study, the mind and the body; its honing of these conflicting impulses into a responsive interpretive instrument might also be seen as a case study in what neurologists and philosophers call “the mind/body problem.” Put simply, this is the question raised by our palpable sense that we have a self that acts through our body, from inside our body—that somehow “we” and “our body” are distinct entities.
Try telling that to a body in distress, or a mind in despair. As playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig discovers in a searching recollection of her time intensively studying physical theatre at Dell’Arte International in Blue Lake, Calif., embarking on a rigorous physical regimen to sublimate or escape a dire mental state of affairs may instead force a confrontation with your deepest, darkest fears. And in preparing their roles for the stage, all of the seven actors profiled by reporter Stuart Miller toggle between what might be thought of as “head” work—scene study, research, reflection—and more bodily matters of speech, bearing, and stamina. Finally, AT editorial assistant Allison Considine’s listing of training options with a focus on physical theatre provides a glimpse of programs, like Dell’Arte’s, where the focus is as much on what the body can express as what feats it can be persuaded to do.
This is not all practice for its own sake, of course. The theatre, finally, is a place where we are faced with the uncomfortable truth that other people have distinct, often conflicting inner selves, just as we do (or think we do), and the best plays dramatize those conflicts—those inner-driven but outward-showing collisions of minds inside bodies. Whether we think actors are mediating something sacred or revealing something more quotidian (or both), representing human consciousness on the stage remains a craft as rigorous as it is nuanced, as nitty-gritty as it is ineffable. Like a play or a mind, stage acting is definitely a thing, but not a thing that can be held, measured, or contained. Like our bodies (and for all we know, our minds), it lives in the moment, then is done.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!