Brains! Ever get caught in your head in the middle of a scene and want to eat your own brain for getting in the way? Or find yourself wracking your brain for inspiration to magically appear? Or pleading with your brain to stop hijacking your performance?
Speaking of brains, I think we’d all agree that playing a zombie is fairly easy. Single focus: eat brains. Why can’t other roles be that simple? They can, actually. Simple. Not easy mind you (pun intended). Like everything else in nature, the mind abhors a vacuum. In the absence of a clear, simple, focused point of concentration, the mind fills itself with whatever is available. Too often that’s self-consciousness, insecurity, and other things that hinder high-level performance. The beauty of a clear focus is it quiets the mind and frees the body to act spontaneously and live truthfully in the scene.
In 1963, Viola Spolin, the mother of improvisation released her seminal book, “Improvisation for the Theater,” and expressed an interest in demystifying the intuitive—refuting the idea that the magical force of intuition was unattainable except by chance or endowed only on a select, gifted few. But for many actors today, intuition remains a phantom.
Because spontaneity and humor are inextricably linked, the comedy world seized Spolin’s games. Her techniques became the engine for developing comedic sketch and the foundation for improv comedy. However, the true power of improvisation for many actors has remained largely untapped. Now neuroscience and psychology are finally verifying things that the great teachers have known for years, and Viola Spolin first wrote about more than 50 years ago.
In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes the mind as a pair of systems. System 2 is reserved for slightly more laborious thinking, like adding 289 + 7853. You can do it, but you have to do it. In acting terms, System 2 typically shows up when you have difficulty memorizing a line or when and your acting teacher tells you that acting is just “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances,” but you are working in front of a green screen that’s supposed to be a chariot race. The mind often rejects imaginary circumstances the way the body can reject an artificial organ.
But the mind’s other system is effortless, insightful, and instantaneous. It is the part of the mind that just knows certain things, like if someone is sad, what color blueberries are, or who your acting coach is. This is the intuitive mind. It’s there for you when, with the camera rolling, you’re fully immersed, playing, and you make some discovery or reveal some new insight and after cut is called, everybody cheers. You were “in the moment” and all the answers “just came to you” intuitively. But how did that happen and how can you make it happen more frequently?
Most of us have had the experience of moving difficult tasks from the laborious System 2 to the spontaneous System 1, like when you first learned to ride a bike. Or drive a car. Or shave.
It was initially in the effortful System 2, then, over time, it moved to the effortless, intuitive system.
In the fast paced world of film and television, we often don’t have the luxury of time to create a role. But total transformation is possible instantaneously if you have a technique for it. So how do you speed up the process? The trick to quickly and directly accessing your intuition and turning the effortful into the intuitive is crisis. That’s right—crisis. When your bike was about to tip over and you suddenly pedaled faster to stay vertical that first time, your intuition saved you, but only because you were thrust into crisis: steady the bike or skin a knee.
That crisis moment is a very creative time. We open up, new choices are available to us, and we do things that were impossible only a moment before. When faced with a crisis, the mind doesn’t have time to think through the problem. It just clings to the most present thought and intuition is released to solve the problem. Intuition comes in the now. If you were about to tip over and felt gravity make its move, but in the distance (or in your mind) you heard your parent’s voice coaching you to “Keep pedaling,” your intuition kicked in and you did something you could never do before—suddenly and completely.
It’s important to understand that the difference between handling a crisis with panic or with grace isfocus. At the audition, you may feel you’re in a crisis when you look over the lens at Francine Maisler, but unless you have that voice steadying your concentration, all you’ll likely get is panic. Conversely, after waiting on set all day for your scene, having fully prepared, there may be no crisis present whatsoever and your performance may be headed for Zombieland. So, how do you find a crisis on set without causing a crisis for others? Play a game. Why? Games create a safe crisis and thrust you into the intuitive.
The next time the camera’s rolling, try to make fresh physical contact with your scene partner for every line of dialogue. Or discover as many objects on set that you can find. Or try and communicate the relationship to your scene partner as if they didn’t know who they were. In addition to adding more fun, one can easily integrate games as part of a scripted scene.
While brains provide zombies with a fine entrée and a simple motivation, they don’t always help actors achieve their desired results. By using a singular focus and tricking the brain into a safe crisis, it frees up the body to tap into its intuition and unlocks spontaneity.