Reconciling Mind, Body And Feeling In Acting
Doctors often are asked to mine their emotions and conjure up
memories to bring substance to their roles for the stage or
the big screen. But many become too focused on getting a
feeling or a memory exactly right – what Professor of Theatre
Rhonda Blair calls a “neurotic preoccupation with authenticity.
Sometimes actors don’t understand that thinking is feeling.”
In philosophical opposition to this approach, Blair says, are the
academic performance theorists who have, for the past few
decades, refused to acknowledge the validity and importance of
emotions for actors.
After more than 30 years in the theatre as both a director/actor
and academic writer, Blair found herself in the middle: disagreeing,
to some degree, with both sides. “On one side were the practice-
centered actors who were so focused on feeling that they
didn’t want to think, and on the other, the performance theorists
who disdained feelings,” she says. “It was a variation on Descartes’
assertion of the mind-body split.”
As a way to reconcile the two viewpoints, she turned to cognitive
neuroscience – the study of the relationship between biological
mechanisms, emotion/feeling and thinking/reasoning.
“The cognitive view requires both actors and theorists to understand
they can’t separate body, feeling and thinking – it’s
all of a piece.”
The application of cognitive neuroscience to the theatre
realm has developed only within the past eight years.
“Cognitive science shows that memory, imagination, emotion,
physicality and reason are all connected, and they are
all, in many ways, a process, not pieces to be held onto and
practiced individually,” Blair says. “The goal is to teach actors
to be less focused on themselves in a psychoanalytic sense
and more on the role – on being as engaged as possible with
the role and the audience.
By doing so, actors
can focus on what they can
take from their experiences
and imagination in service of the role.”
Her research has made a significant impact not
only on her work as a director but also as a teacher. This
spring, she published The Actor, Image and Action: Acting
and Cognitive Neuroscience, the first book written for actors that applies the insights of cognitive neuroscience to actor training.
“The book is a required text for my graduate acting classes, and
I talk to all my students about how the brain works,” says Blair,
who was named a Ford Research Fellow for 2008. “I’m more attentive
to their physical state and energy level in the room. I’ve become
less lecture-oriented and more interactive, providing much
more sensory stimulation. As a result, the students are noticeably
more engaged with the material.”
Blair, who joined SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts in 1995,
received her Ph.D. (theory and criticism, directing, Russian theatre)
and two M.A. degrees (acting and directing; Russian language
and literature) from the University of Kansas. She has directed and
acted in more than 75 productions and has staged original solo and
collaborative performance work since the 1980s. In addition, she
has given national and international workshops and presentations
on solo performance, gender and performance, and improvisation.
For more information: smu.edu/meadows/theatre/