Posts Tagged ‘experience’

I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite books: True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, by playwright and director David Mamet.


At first glance, it’s a trenchant attack by an experienced and opinionated drama teacher on Stanislavsky and the whole theory of ‘Method Acting’. Method Actors try to get inside the mind and heart of the characters they are playing. The more they ‘become’ the character they are playing, and the more they identify with the experience of the fictional person they are trying to bring to life, then the more authentic – so the theory goes – their portrayal will be.

Mamet says this is just nonsense. The actor just needs to act. Their inner experience has nothing to do with the effectiveness of their acting. The good actor, as opposed to the ‘Great Method Actor’, simply plays the part, using all his or her skills and experience of the stage. The success comes through the strength of the writing, and the extent to which the actor can communicate the ‘practical’ intentions and concerns of the character: what they want, where they are going, what they are worrying about, why they are excited, etc.

It’s this dynamism that makes a character interesting. This is what makes drama dramatic. We are not moved by a character’s emotion (that’s a cheap response); we are moved by the dramatic situation that causes the emotion in the character. So the primary task of the actor is not to simulate the inner experience or emotion of the character, but to put his or her dramatic situation onstage in front of us. They are quite different tasks.

You can apply this to so many different situations, and not just to acting – which is why I find the book so inspiring. It’s about discovering a different kind of authenticity from that which is normally on offer in our culture. To be authentic is not to go inwards, to summon up great depths of emotion, to express ourselves without self-restraint: this is authenticity as ‘sincerity’. To be truly authentic is simply to act for something worthwhile, to live a life worth living. It’s more objective, more matter-of-fact.

There is still a kind of transparency (which has a great currency in our culture), but this is because when you see what someone is striving for, it helps you to understand who they truly are. You don’t always need to go inward; you don’t need to get them on Oprah.

This is basically Aristotle. It’s the telos (the end, the purpose) that defines a person’s actions; and it’s the telos that defines the person. I don’t discover who you are by having you pour out your heart to me (although that might, in some situations, be an important moment in our relationship!); I discover who you are by seeing how you live and what you care about and who you love and what you would die for.

It’s the action, the life, that makes you the person you are, and makes you interesting or not so interesting. The inner commentary that you may offer me, or the emotions that you may experience, may help me to understand you a little bit better, but they won’t actually show me who you are. I need to discover that by the way you act. This is what Manet and Aristotle know.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from the book:

Nothing in the world is less interesting that an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions. The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness…

The good play does not need the support of the actor, in effect, narrating its psychological undertones, and the bad play will not benefit from it…

In ‘real life’ the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance – these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in ‘real life’ to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch…

Great drama, onstage or off, is not the performance of deeds with great emotion, but the performance of great deeds with no emotion whatever…

The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called ‘heroism’…

Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time… Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make out intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performance becomes pure and clear…

There is much, much more to this simple book – 127 pages, large print. Do take a peak.


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A young couple fall in love and panic about the consequences of commitment. A woman hides away in the bathroom at her own fortieth birthday party because she can’t face being reminded of so many years lost in an unhappy marriage. A young man confronts his widowed mother because she doesn’t seem to trust the woman he wants to marry.

There were constant glimpses of the beauty and the fragility of human love, and the way it inevitably uncovers a longing for something even deeper, something more mysterious. An indescribable longing, as one of the characters says.

You might expect a Polish bishop to preach about some of these themes, but not to dramatise them and bring them to the underground theatre of his day.

It was a marvellous play. I wish I could urge you all to go and see it, but there were only two performances. Martin O’Brien is the artistic director of Ten Ten Theatre. He’s adapted a play called The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to present profound spiritual themes in the context of our contemporary culture without trivialising them, or sounding preachy. The most fruitful way is often through the medium of human experience. We live in the age of Big Brother and YouTube. Lives are exposed. We are constantly confronted with an unmediated human experience. So when grace is working through that ordinary human experience, it gives an opportunity to touch the fringe of God’s cloak and be lifted up for a moment into the transcendent, without stepping into church or lighting a candle.

Formal religion and popular devotions have lost none of their significance, but the fact is they are outside the bounds of most people’s reality. That’s why a bishop in the late 1950s, and a cutting-edge playwright in our own time, have tried to put the focus on everyday human relationships. Through those relationships, with the ambiguous longings of the human heart exposed so clearly, we catch a glimpse of the divine; just a whisper – quiet enough to be missed, clear enough to unsettle and enchant.

The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla is published by Ignatius Press. The Jeweller, by Martin O’Brien, was performed at Leicester Square Theatre on 22 June, directed by Paul Jepson, as part of the Spirit in the City festival. If you can help Ten Ten Theatre put on a longer run of this wonderful play, see their fundraising page here.

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“Estamos bien en el refugio los 33,” it read. “We are well in the refuge – the 33”. This is the phrase that was scribbled on a piece of paper, put into a plastic bag, and hoisted up to the surface as evidence that the trapped miners were alive and well.

Martin Fletcher and Laura Dixon write about how the copyright to these words has now been registered by their author:

The note brought joy to Chile but it can no longer be freely reproduced. It has been copyrighted on behalf of Jose Ricardo Ojeda Vidal, the miner who scribbled it in big red letters.

Pablo Huneeus, a well-known Chilean writer, was moved to act after President Pinera kept the note and flaunted it during his foreign travels.

In London on Monday he presented copies to Queen Elizabeth II and British PM David Cameron, and was expected to do the same in meetings with French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this week.

“I thought ‘That’s just too much’,” said Mr Huneeus, who went to the Civil Registry Office in Santiago, obtained copies of Mr Ojeda’s birth certificate and national insurance number, then paid pounds 5 to register the sentence as the intellectual property of Mr Ojeda at the Directorate of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

“My point is, Ojeda is owner of the phrase … According to our law, copyright for a creation, invention, song, a piece of art, belongs to the author at the moment he creates it,” Mr Huneeus told The Times. “There’s another aspect here. We have a man that was 625 metres below ground, and up above, a billionaire [Mr Pinera], takes his property and pockets it.

“As for the words themselves, I think they are amazing. I can only compare them to the first words of the Bible … It’s a beautiful sentence. As a writer I would love to have been able to write something so precise and concise as that. It’s the most perfect sentence.”

Having copyrighted the sentence and the image of the note, Mr Huneeus then called the miner to tell him that “now no one can use them without asking his permission”.

He said that Mr Ojeda was “very happy about it. He had seen the T-shirts, cups, the posters that have been cropping up all over the world. He is … very much aware of his rights. He knows what justice is.”

Mr Huneeus said that Mr Ojeda also wanted to recover the original note, which Mr Pinera keeps in his office and considers part of the national heritage. “It’s his property and he wants it back.”

The first of several books – Under the Earth: The 33 Miners that Moved the World – is about to be published. The first television re-enactment will be broadcast in December. Three applications have been made for the internet domain name los33mineros.cl and four for estamosbienenelrefugiolos33.cl.

Some people might feel snooty about this, as if the purity of the rescue had been sullied by this commercialisation. I’m not so sure. There is something very human about this – not the commercialisation in itself, but the fact that raw experiences very quickly become objectified. As soon as we experience something, we are able to reflect on it and question it.

We are never just trapped in the moment; we are always at a certain distance – even as something is taking place. This is part of the self-consciousness that characterises human beings. So it doesn’t surprise me that a spontaneous word very quickly becomes a possession and a commodity. What we then do with that possession is another question entirely.

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