Playing the Paradoxical

Back story:

It is a familiar cliché that you can’t ask an actor to play more than one thing at a time. There can be an hierarchy of objectives but they all logically support the same conclusion, and should be addressed one at a time. Many years ago I had a conversation with a colleague about whether that is true. I held that you could certainly ask an actor to play two simultaneous, conflicting agendas, and she held that you couldn’t. Some years after that, she reminded me of the conversation. She said that she had changed her mind, and believed it was indeed possible. I wondered to myself, taking the question to some weird meta-level, if these her two differing opinions really could be held by the same person. Sequentially, yes, obviously, as she had just demonstrated. But simultaneously? No changing of the mind? To be of two minds in the same body? Isn’t that the definition of a paradox? And to close the circle, could an actor play that? When paradox seems to be an inescapable aspect of the human condition, shouldn’t it be included in an actor’s toolbox? It seemed to me that a re-think was necessary!

Definition of Paradox:

Two contrary but co-existing realities. (This seems to echo a common definition of Tragedy: Two great ideas that are in opposition.)

Pedigree of Paradox:

Ain’t nothing new under the sun. St. Paul to the Romans Chapter 7, Verse 19: “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” He goes on to resolve his confusion by introducing the poor Romans to the concept of the body/mind split, with predictably, the mind being good and the body being evil. And so establishing a gross misunderstanding that has echoed through the millennia.

Points of Attack:

An actor embodies the interface between the art of theatre, and the science of biology. Each puts limitations and demands on the other that have to be successfully negotiated for the actor to succeed. Training of voice and body, costumes, make-up, prosthetics, imaginative thinking, aesthetic compromise, and constant re-working are all brought into play to resolve the tension between what wants to be said and what can be done. Consequently, I have pursued two points of attack, a kind of pincer action on this slippery subject: the paradoxes of brain science, and the paradoxes in dramatic literature. The examples are endless. I will just present a few. So let’s start with paradoxical characters in literature, but first differentiating them from the simple and the complex.

Simple characters

Complex characters

Paradoxical characters

On Objectives:

Perhaps the linear, twentieth-century approach of using a character’s “objectives” as a road map through the play, perhaps this is actually where the confusion lies. After all, objectives are only useful for a rather limited range of applications. They are a literary, directorial and forensic approach to theatre, most useful for playing American crime dramas. “I know what I want, and you better believe I am going after it.” However, they are not founded on any physical or biological reality. They can of course be useful as a way of combating self-consciousness by manipulating the actors’ attention away from themselves. But really they are not as useful to the actor as they are to the director as a command and control language. And these things are cultural: the English might analyze a text in terms of status relationships; the Southern Europeans might search for the moments of discovery and recognition – the Ah-ha’s. So already we have a problem with Objectives: their use is a modern cultural choice as to how to structure, analyze and play dramatic action, and western playwrights have become more and more complicit in that choice.

Characters confronted with various kinds of paradox in dramatic literature:

The Accidental Paradoxical Situation: Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” unintentionally kills the woman he loves.

The Inner Battle: In “The Merchant of Venice” there is Launcelot Gobo’s “Budge, budge not!” scene.

The Imposed Paradoxical Situation: In “As You Like It” Orlando is in great trouble. He is finding himself falling in love with what appears to be a man, while simultaneously his understanding of his own sexuality tells him that is absolutely impossible. This is a scene full of the danger that makes great comedy.

In Strindberg’s preface to “Frøken Julie” he makes a clear reference to the paradoxical nature of human beings, and to the possibility of multiple simultaneous objectives.

And then there is the self-imposed paradox. But let’s wait on that for the moment and now dip into:

The Neurology of Paradox:

All modern research points to the fact that the brain is much more complex and paradoxical than most Twentieth Century acting methods allow. The ongoing convergence of modern neuro-psychology with early intuitively-derived physical approaches to actor training methods has been a joy to watch. It is sad that Jacques Lecoq died just too early to be able to say: “Embodied cognition you call it? Yes, that’s the way it works. I told you so!”

The Natural (?) Baby:

I had always thought that a baby was a simple, naturally wise creature, that when tired would easily drop off to sleep. Until we actually had our first baby! I could see how the baby was oppressed by its own curiosity. What then are an overtired, crying baby’s objectives? Do adults also get overtired and crazy?

The Clinically Pathological:

When psychiatrist R. D. Laing writes about the “Divided Self,” and Dr. Sarah Krakauer writes about “Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder: The Power of the Collective Heart,” attempts are being made to rescue the paradoxical in human nature from being dismissed as simply pathological.

The Normally Functioning:

When Tor Nørretranders writes about “mig” versus “jeg,” and Daniel Kahneman writes about “System One” and “System Two,” we learn that spontaneity and reflection are two physiologically different processes.

The discoveries of Robert Heath and Kent Berridge that “liking” and “wanting” are two very different brain activities presents us with a concrete paradox. Wanting is related to dopamine levels, but liking is not, and the two processes can be isolated experimentally. Again, the concept of “objectives” is in trouble.

The widely accepted concept of “body schema” was developed out of a need to explain how the brain could process such a large quantity of simultaneous input. Imagine if the brain employed a sequential scanning process: Starting at your left big toe, working point by point through the adjacent toes, dallying a while with the plantar reflex and so on to heel and ankle etcetera, etcetera. By the time your brain had worked its way back down to your right big toe, canvassing every nerve ending on the way, you would have fallen flat on your face. There is no aspect of the nervous system more fundamental than the way it handles massive quantities of simultaneous sensory input and physical action. Its activity is dispersed and shared over many anatomical regions. There are networks of attention and salience, but there is no central control panel parsing and passing out objectives. Buckminster Fuller famously said "I think I am a verb." But Fuller might better have said, "I think I am a dynamic network."

When a sunflower turns towards the sun, is it pursuing an objective? And is it simply a collective heliotropic response that fills the beaches with sunbathers?

And talking of dynamic networks, how fascinating it is that an octopus, with its anatomically dispersed brain is able to integrate its inputs and appear to act with purpose.

Actually, even simultaneity itself presents problems. Something I find sweetly ironic is the way the brain works so hard to present the conscious mind with an illusion of synchronicity; what I call the "How thick is Now?" problem. Time, and timing, as perceived by the nervous system, has a granularity, a limit to precision presented by varying speeds and distances of nerve transmission, and by time-consuming sensory trigger thresholds that have to be met, for instance in the bleaching of pigments in the retina. You only have to cover one eye with a filter – half your sunglasses will do – and the image it presents to the brain will be retarded, registering an earlier point in time relative to the uncovered eye, and producing strange effects when seeing moving objects. All kinds of buffering and looping and compensating and Mars Rover type delegation of processes are in operation to support the subjective lie which we call the Present Moment. Snap! How thick is Now?

Let’s return to dramatic writing!

Howard Barker and Desire:

In Barker's plays Desire is often intentionally frustrated through the character’s own conscious, self-denial because, paradoxically, there is no better way to enter into that inner chaos that forces one to feel oneself fully alive. In several of Howard Barkers plays the characters themselves impose the sweet pain of longing upon themselves. In “The Possibilities” Judith and Holofernes take off their clothes and stare at each other. In “The Europeans” Katrin and Starhenberg (Played by Ann Eleonora Jørgensen and Peder Holm Johansen in the Bruthalia production.) sit there naked drinking each other in. Those neurological studies discriminating between wanting and liking could do a lot to explain what is going on here!

There is a wonderful line in “The Hard Hearted” where Riddler (played by Lane Lind in the Bruthalia production) says that confronting the surrounding chaos has enabled her to become more and more herself. So the paradoxical question is “Who is she really, and when?” But also, how can she be both the observer and the observed? This sharing of a character’s meta-cognition is a device that Barker often uses, and there are often overtones of the playwright's own voice! For directors and dramaturgs Barker is a conundrum, a son-of-a-bitch. But actors, if allowed, take to his writing like a duck to water, because they can resolve his paradoxes not by thinking about them, but by embodying them. They can trust and apply the intelligence of their bodies.

But if we accept the paradoxical, are we then denying Truth? Theatre folk are very fond of the word "Truth," each applying their own meanings and values. Truth seems to crowd in from all directions. In fact Theatre is a veritable Turkish bazaar stacked to the ceiling with Truths. In an art built out of the most beautiful of lies - “That I am he,” truth is a curious and rather wobbly commodity. In the Arts, Truth is anything you want to make of it. And something else again tomorrow. So slippery. So transient. So beautifully irresponsible! But it is exactly that special privilege, permission to be whatever it wants to be, whenever it wants to be, which allows the Arts to blossom. This does not mean that they are without ideals. Much more useful and understandable additions to an actor's professional vocabulary than “Truth” are words like generosity, playfulness, complicity, availability, sincerity, transformation, simplicity, and amplification. And of course “listening.” Not with the brain but with the whole body.

So can we train the paradoxical possibilities of the actor? That’s not for sure. What we can do is expand their range and complexity of expression. We can widen the actor’s bandpass. Open the doors to the actor’s virtuosity. So I suggest we consider:

The Contrapuntal Actor:

By which I mean we can understand the actor as a magical multi-channel mixed media metaphor machine! All the available channels, all the expressive components that an actor can draw upon, provide rich, contrasting possibilities. Unfortunately they are far too often locked in parallel movement.

One set of exercises that, among many others, serves to further this ideal of the contrapuntal actor, I call the “decoupling exercises.”

The Decoupling Exercises:

The principle of decoupling elements of an actor’s expression is based on the image of the Jumping Jack puppet, (DK: sprællemand) whose movements are synchronized by strings connecting the limbs. The exercises serve to “clip the strings,” promoting independence of the many channels of communication available to the actor.

Walking and talking: Walking while smoothly accelerating the tempo of the steps, and simultaneously talking while smoothly decelerating the words. And of course the opposite. In all these exercises the challenge is to make the transitions smooth, not in steps or stages.

Fiery and watery movements divided between the left and right sides of the body and smoothly crossing over.

Working carefully with a partner, loving gestures and violent language, and the opposite.

Separating the channels: (1) The dry meaning of the words. (2) Prosody (3) Facial expression and (4) Body language, like a kind of layer cake.

Working with text separating Pitch, Tempo and Volume which are all too often locked in parallel movement.

All these techniques need to be absorbed into the Body Schema, and forgotten, but remaining in the subconscious as a set of possibilities that, when applicable, are available to support and expand the actor’s range of expression.

Paradox Built In:

And this we shouldn’t forget: The paradox underlying all our work on the stage concerns the presence of the audience. The audience itself chooses to suspend disbelief; in itself a paradoxical choice. We the performers know there is another reality in the space, that there is an audience out there. But do we let the audience know that we know they are out there? And do they let us know that they know that we know they are out there? Do we share things with the audience that we keep secret from the other characters - a tool used to build complicity or to expose a character’s hypocrisy? Oh yes, it can get quite complicated, this theatre thing! Paradox is unavoidable.

In Conclusion:

Of course Art can postulate anything; all is possible. The question is: how far can the actor follow? My experience has been that it is much further than the rational mind would expect. When actors access the multi-dimensional intelligence of their bodies they are able to contain, transport and offer to an audience not just complexity of situation and character, but even beyond into the realm of the paradoxical.

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