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Acting Education Through the Eyes of a Psychologist

The art of theater is about making the invisible visible... And the actor is the one who makes it visible. The actor's body is the primary tool used to convey meaning in performance. The fundamental elements used in conveying meaning include posture, gestures, speed, tempo, and the use of space. In other words, movement is behavior in my language. So, if we assume that I've understood something correctly up to this point, and if communication is the goal and behavior is the tool, then as a psychologist, I have something to say about this too.

Behavior, as we call it, is the result of a combination of thoughts in our minds, our feelings, the environment, events, what is said, etc. It varies depending on the individual, environmental conditions, past experiences, physical condition, and many other variables. In other words, we know that not every person reacts the same way to every situation, and one person may not react the same way when faced with the same situation again. So, there's no one-size-fits-all formula. But what we, as the audience, expect from actors is to provide a believable output. This should happen at every moment on the stage. A comprehensive, consistent, authentic output. It's a tough job!

First, a bit of history...

In the 17th century, René Descartes introduced the concept of the mind-body dualism. The notions of consciousness and awareness emerged for the first time. Descartes argued that there is a place called the mind, and it deserves attention separate from the body. Thankfully, he did. However, the effects of this separation still persist.

The mind-body separation is so deeply ingrained that it continues to be lived and perceived as an absolute truth. We continue to emphasize this separation in religion, language, daily life, everywhere. Just like the sun... We see the sun moving, so for centuries, we believed it. We knew it as such until it was proven that the Earth is the one revolving around it. Now we know that it's us who revolve around the sun, but we still talk as if the sun rises and sets. This knowledge has stuck. It's natural. The mind-body separation is similar; it's as simple as answering "How are you?" with "I'm fine, just a bit down lately..." So distinct... Therefore, the treatment is also like that. When a loved one says, "I'm feeling really down, I don't even want to get out of bed in the mornings," we often tell them, "Don't worry, shake it off, try to have some fun, it'll pass" (I'm not saying this, of course), but imagine saying the same thing to a loved one who has difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings due to a back injury... "Don't worry, shake it off, try to have some fun, it'll pass..." The issue is that it's as clear as the sun: what we see is solid. Something is happening in our nervous system inside us, a place called the amygdala is responsible for emotions, it actually controls the heart rate, moves the muscles, regulates breathing, etc., but it's not visible, just like the sun... So, we continue to conform to this separation.

So, why does all of this matter to aspiring actors?

A century later, another Frenchman, Denis Diderot, adapted this concept to acting and wrote "The Paradox of the Actor." The book was only published in 1830, but its contribution to acting education preceded its publication. Diderot was the first to distinguish between an actor's movements and emotions, thus emphasizing this distinction in training. He proposed two different methods: "sensitivity," which involves genuinely feeling emotions, and "technique," which focuses on using muscles consciously. Because the mind and body were separate, their training had to be separate as well. Although many of Diderot's analyses are inconsistent with the information provided by contemporary neuroscience (because the mind, body, emotion, thought, and behavior are all part of a reflexive relationship), acting education has continued to separate these two areas. Acting education in schools is now carried out by separating physical processes from text analysis and psychological processes from technique. Those who focus on physical processes neglect text analysis, while those who focus on psychological processes neglect technique... Consequently, students are taught more about the separation than the integration of these elements. However, neither one can exist without the other...

But let's continue to look at what happened afterwards.

Again, about a century later, theater critic Aaron Hill wrote "The Art of Acting" and explained the fundamental 10 emotions for actors and how they should be expressed. For example, anger should be expressed quickly, forcefully, and aggressively. I can already see many of my students typing "Aaron Hill The Art of Acting" into Google. I have a few questions: Is anger always expressed in the same way? Or is anger always expressed?

Fortunately, in the 19th century, the "realism" movement emerged, bringing everyday life to the stage. The actor's performance began to gain importance beyond clichés, and as Chekhov also said, "In real life, people don't spend every minute attacking each other. Or making love constantly... Or saying clever things all the time." Thanks to this movement, realism spread worldwide, including to Konstantin Stanislavski.

Stanislavski and the System

As an actor directing and performing Chekhov's plays, Stanislavski described characters as "creatures who think and feel many things that they do not say in words." Just look at your daily life; what goes through your mind? What do you feel? And what do you express with varying degrees of intensity? With the influence of the era and our "father," Freud, the concept of the "unconscious" from psychology and the realism movement in theater together gave birth to the concept of the "subtext." Whether recognized or not, thoughts and emotions are always part of the communication process; they have to be. Konstantin Stanislavski developed an approach that combined physical movement with thinking and feeling in character preparation. Although Stanislavski initially focused on inner elements in his system, towards the end of his career, he emphasized that physical activity alone brings forth emotion and thought - and vice versa. In other words, what cognitive science tells us today, Stanislavski was already saying back then. Physical activity, emotions, thoughts, they are all interconnected, they are all parts of a reflexive relationship. Therefore, my dear students, please read Stanislavski.

Anyway... A series of historical accidents - misunderstanding Stanislavski's work in Europe and America. Let's call it a translation error. It is indeed so. Stanislavski's concept of "assimilation," which could be translated into Turkish as "özümseme," was translated into English as "emotional identification" and was introduced into practice this way. It was thought that the actor had to feel themselves as the character, this idea found acceptance, settled, and is still ongoing in many schools. However, Stanislavski himself said, "An actor who thinks he is someone else is a pathological case," to which I partly agree as a psychologist. Beware, those who do this harm themselves. It is from this misunderstanding that Stanislavski's method in Russia advanced further while in America, it became stuck in a cycle of psychology-reality.

Stanislavski's legacy in America is Method Acting, founded on Stanislavski's method by Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio. Strasberg said, "Emotion must be revealed through a sense of personal experience, the actor must recall and replicate similar emotional incidents from their own life." I have a few issues with this, which is actually the subject of another article. With the light of recent neurobiological studies, let's remember that real memories and the memories you recreate in your mind using all five senses are stored in the same places in our nervous system. Therefore, you don't have to rely on your own life experiences (because immersing yourself in every memory is not safe).

The Actor's Studio emphasized psychology too much, while neglecting the physical contributions of the System. In the second half of the 20th century, in Russia, Michael Chekhov (Chekhov's nephew), in Poland, Jerzy Grotowski, and in France, Jacques Lecoq developed physical methods based on Stanislavski's system. During the same period, Jacques Lecoq, in France, merged his love for sports with theater to create an independent physical method...

We will talk about each of them as opportunities arise. But my emphasis is this: in acting education, just like in our daily lives, the mind-body separation still persists. As someone dealing with human psychology, I say that this is not very functional.

From Dualistic Concepts to the Body-Mind Phenomenon

Advancements in brain imaging over the last 30 years have provided us with rich neurobiological data on how the human brain functions. The data from neuroscience, psychology, and linguistic sciences show us:

  • The Body-Mind Phenomenon: The process of thinking (thought) is closely linked to bodily movement, following the same pathways in the brain.

  • Thinking generally occurs in the unconscious - we are only aware of about 5% of our thoughts (brain movements).

  • Most of our mental concepts are metaphorical - so we use gestures and movements to express most of what we think (words, definitions, etc.).

The processes are so intertwined that it's not possible to describe them as "psychological" or "physical." Acting is a state where the mind and body are deeply intertwined. The actor experiences this connection, gives it meaning, formulates it, and communicates it. It involves physical experience, movement, mental visualization, language, non-verbal communication, mirror neuron mechanisms, emotions, and empathy.

Research on the neuroscience of emotion (Antonio Damasio), the emotional output of movement, mirror neuron mechanisms (Vittorio Gallese), the relationship between facial expressions and emotions (Paul Ekman), and the relationship between thought and speech (David McNeill) should be combined with the practices of masters like Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, Grotowski, and Lecoq to shape a new form of acting education.

So, when I, as a psychologist, look at acting education, I see the connection between non-verbal communication, thought, speech, and gestures, the link between the actor and the character they portray, the ability to empathize, and the skill of mental visualization and emotions shining brightly before my eyes. I want to examine these with even more attention, care, and enthusiastic curiosity.

Embodied Acting: What Neuroscience Tell Us About Performance, Rick Kemp, 2012.

This article was written by Filiz Kaya Ataklı in 2012, published in various platforms.

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