Jeff Zinn's Drama Book Shop Essay
There’s a reason why the bookshelves here are bursting with books about acting. There’s a reason why there are literally hundreds of undergraduate and graduate theater programs, and probably thousands of independent studios and acting coaches right here in New York City. It’s because this shit is hard.
People have been trying to figure it out for a long time. And to some extent it’s a process of reverse engineering. We all know greatness when we see it but the question is how to get there. The major Greek dramas were more than 100 years old when Aristotle reversed engineered how they did what they did and came up with Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Spectacle. Six elements. And since then it’s been something of a numbers game because there’s only so much theory you can carry around in your head when you’re trying to be real on stage. After Aristotle’s 6 elements, Theophrastus thought he had boiled it all down to 30 something distinct character types. Commedia Del Arte refined that to about a dozen. Delsarte had a system with hundreds of poses and gestures. Stanislavski had about 50 different elements – at least if you believe Stella Adler’s chart. The Group Theater guys – Bobby Lewis, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – went minimal, reducing everything to one or two MOST important elements – Intention for Lewis; emotion for Strasberg; repetition exercises for Meisner. Michael Shurtleff has 12 Guideposts. Mary Overlie has 6 Viewpoints. Patsy Rodenberg has 3 Circles.
Part of what I set out to do in my book was to dig into all of these systems and synthesize it into a number that was small enough so as to be manageable in performance, but not so small that it leaves out anything crucial. That’s how I arrive at the 4 elements – Shape, Action, Transaction and Surrender.
Shape is what Aristotle would call character – it’s what the character looks like on the outside and what he believes on the inside. Action is what you do after you figure out what you want, need, are motivated by. And really Action, as an element is ubiquitous. It’s the one everyone comes around to in some form. Transaction is my word for the Meisner listening. Patsy Rodenberg’s 2nd circle. Mamet combines Action with Transaction – you only know you’ve accomplished the action when you are signaled from outside. The test is in the other.
Surrender is that essential release of emotion that was core to Strasberg, Susan Batson and the Actors Studio generally.
But taken by themselves the 4 elements are just a bundle of techniques. What prompted me to write the book was a unifying principal that brought it all together. That’s the existential part.
In the weeks, then days, leading up to my Drama Book shop book signing event, scheduled as it was just days after the election, I had anticipated that the mood might be celebratory. Then, post Tuesday, it acquired a different pall. Carrying around that feeling of being punched in the gut that we all (well, not all) have these days, I was wondering, “how do I gin up the enthusiasm to do this?” I also wondered how my attendees – assuming anyone at all shows up – would be able to focus on what I was saying. Suddenly the actor’s challenge of creating believable characters seems awfully small beer.
But then I realized that the core ideas in my book were absolutely pertinent and relevant, now more than ever.
You know that feeling of being punched in the gut you’re carrying around? Well, it’s real, and the reason you’re feeling it goes way beyond the facts about the awfulness that has just happened. What it means for – and about – our country, what might happen to our economy, or how vulnerable people might now be treated, or what it says about the underlying racism, misogyny, and xenophobia of our people, all of that is very real and true. But the real reason we are so shaken up is that our worldview, our sense of ourselves as a people with empathy, and love in our hearts for our fellow humans, has been dealt a death blow. Ernest Becker would say that this identity, our causa sui project, allowed us to feel that we were, at least symbolically, immortal. This devastating loss powerfully removes that fragile certainty of who we thought we were, and the rightness of that sense of belonging to that world view, and leaves us feeling shockingly insignificant, vulnerable, mortal. In short, the truth of our finitude has been laid bare in the most horrifying way because it didn’t just happen to one of us – it’s bad enough when we get smacked down as individuals – it happened to all of us at the same time.
So much of our personal sense of security and symbolic immortality comes from the groups with which we identify. This is the essence of Shape.
Ever since the start of this past election cycle (when did it start? It seems to have been with us for an eternity) our worldview has been under relentless attack. We have been brutally othered by the other side. Women, gays, trans, non-whites, differently abled, Liberals, Socialists, Democrats. Blue Nation. We fought back, outraged, at the outright lies, the distortions, the hate, the ugliness. Surely, we thought, our fellow Americans will join us in defeating this poison. I was actually encouraged when so many prominent Republicans, including many I had previously included in my own personal basket of deplorables, went on record to say that this, finally, was too much. That was a good sign. Then they won.
In a battle of opposing cultures it is not at all uncommon for one side to demonize the other. The “other.” We reduce the other to the subhuman, not worthy of respect, even of life itself. We saw this in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, and we have heard much of the same today from the Alt Right and ascendant white nationalists and neo-nazis. In just the past few days we have seen the right exultant in Kristallnacht-like outbursts of violence.
How important, how crucial to our sense of well-being, is this causa sui, this project of identity we are all engaged in and which is tied so closely to our membership in various tribes, in our case, the Blue Nation? It goes all the way back to the startling knowledge that arrives with human consciousness that we are mortal. We buffer ourselves from that awareness with layers of psychological armor provided by the cultures we inhabit.
Culture provides answers to the deep cosmological questions: Where do we come from? What are we to do while alive? What happens to us after we die? Once we embrace the values of the group, the collective answers to the 3 questions, we are rewarded with a sense of belonging, of rightness, of purpose – and since these are values which we pass along to our children and future generations – with a sense of symbolic immortality. We have all just come through a period of intense group identification and our worldview has been defeated. That is why we feel like shit.
So let’s reel this in and bring it back to the actor:
We walk onstage with the action of constructing and defending the causa sui project, the cultural world view of our character. The shape of that character, the way she comports herself, dialect, posture, gesture, and most centrally, her belief system, all derive from the culture in which the character is embedded. Whatever else is going on in the scene or the play, whatever the super-objective – the spine of the play – might be, whatever the smaller actions, objective, beats, units, there might be, under it all is this most central and most important of actions. And since membership in that tribe, that culture, is what confers a sense of rightness and purpose, we MUST accomplish that action. Because to fail in that action is to die symbolically. You – we – are all now experiencing in the most direct way, what that feels like. When the world view collapses, or is destroyed, then the most primal feelings are unleashed – anger, terror, grief. Surrender is allowing those feelings to be expressed.
So remember the feeling. It’s real. Use it. Identify the shape of the character, consider how deeply they need and rely on their world view to make and keep them whole and sane. Bring your new, deeply felt awareness of that wounded core, to the work.
And finally I want us all to think about the other “other.” The other side. The others that voted for Trump. There really are millions of people who, collectively, have felt devalued. They lost jobs and income. They lost respect and prestige. They saw their own worldview come under attack by “Liberal elites” and “the media” and their powerlessness was also felt on an existential level. When people feel that way they are most susceptible to someone who comes along willing to make them great again. It’s one of most powerful forces on earth. And honestly it’s how we got to Hitler. So we cannot and should not forgive or excuse the racism, misogyny, xenophobia. But we can at least understand it, if for no other reason than that it will help us fight back. ... See MoreSee Less