Memories of my late mentor were keeping me company last Monday night. I choose the word “cauldron” to wink back at him. A cauldron… a vessel in which magic is allowed to awaken.
I am a cauldron.
My imagination is a cauldron.
My students, and their imaginations are cauldrons.
The Monday Night Acting Lab is a cauldron.
And hip-hip-hooray! The Monday Night Acting Lab is back in session for this (15 March to 12 April) cycle, and last Monday, fifteen courageous actors and acting-curious souls spirited themselves into the Zoomiverse. It has been a year since The Lab transitioned to an online process. I am so grateful The Lab’s little community has managed to stay connected and grow during this time.
As always on a first night, my imposter syndrome boiled over and blasted me in the face. I dearly hope that is not what it looks like from the outside, but it always feels that way inside me.
In this group, most participants joined from the Pacific Northwest, which is my own neck of the woods. However, I was pleased to see South Dakota newly represented among the ranks as well.
That element is exciting for me. Teaching and learning remotely is a necessity in this Covid-19 world. I know some people love Zoom for the relative ease of participating in something without leaving home. There is no need to put on a coat, or fret over making it somewhere on time. But I also know folks who miss working in all the vividness of a shared space, where people look three dimensional, have smells, and walk with footsteps of varying weights and rhythms you can hear and feel around you. Whatever its shortcomings, the blessing of online conferencing, for me, is the bridge it provides. I can collaborate with people from beyond my own regional neighborhood. California. Montana. South Dakota… how exciting! Where next?
After everyone exchanged greetings and gave introductions, I posed—as I always do on the first night—the essential icebreaking question… Acting, what is it? What does it mean to you personally?
It is not an easy question.
How might someone describe the color red to someone who has not seen it? Or describe, to someone who never has, what it might feel like to make love? How does one describe the indescribable?
It doesn’t matter how carefully or casually the describer chooses their words, the words will stem from their experience and perspective. The describer might say the color red is ‘vivid’, or ‘punchy’, or ‘deep’, or ‘bold’, or that ‘it has heat’, or still many more things to try capturing or explaining the redness of red. And although the describer’s ideas might each be truthful in a way, the words themselves will resonate differently for the recipient. What ‘bold’ means for one person will carry a different association—however slightly—for another.
Communication with words will always be marred in this way. However, we have to do our best to offer what we mean, and receive what is meant. In spite of their imperfection, words remain one of our most widely accessible tools for exchanging our most abstract thoughts and feelings.
Admittedly, ideas about acting are difficult to discuss effectively. The work actors do is at once utterly simple, yet mind-bogglingly mysterious. Writing, speaking, or learning about the work actors do can feel full of frustrating paradoxes.
So, it was inspiring, to me, that despite the wildly diverse backgrounds, ages, training and performing experiences among the participants in The Lab, slowly, intuitively, people began to identify with what others were saying, and a sense of shared perspective began to brew.
The spirit of Meisner’s observation that “acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances” seemed to find a stronghold in this particular group. However, some other dazzling comments also bubbled up and caught my ear:
Acting is “…time travel…”
Acting is “…an opportunity to change my own lenses, or how I see the world…”
As well as many comments tipping the hat to empathy.
That is encouraging, to me. Not only in anticipation of the work that may occur over coming Mondays of the Lab—empathy is an essential tool for actors to develop! —but also in sheer appreciation for the people in the group. Empathy is a splendid skill to discover in the humans around us, so let’s celebrate it!
Before the end of the evening, I encouraged people to think about using their whole environment as their acting space. I am hoping they might feel empowered to get up on their feet.
I am concerned and curious about how we can keep our vulnerability and our presence healthy during this time of confinement—both by self-imposed quarantines and also by those little Zoom boxes on screens.
In Letters To A Young Artist, Anna Deavere Smith offers a beautiful and simple definition for the idea of presence. “…[P]resence is that feeling that the person onstage or in a film is standing right next to you. In film the presence blasts across the screen. Presence defies the limits of a person’s body, defies the limits of the actual space it takes up.”
The Covid-19 pandemic may be ruling over our circumstances for now, but it will not always be so. In Shakespeare’s brief lifetime, theatres closed several times due to plague, just as our theatres are closed now. They reopened when it was safe, and so will we.
Forging tools for right now to nourish our presence and exercise our vital imagination-body-voice connections during these moments of fragmentation and stillness strikes me as necessary work. We owe it to each other, and we owe it to ourselves to not sink inward, but to keep shedding our skins, courageously and vulnerably available to our own creativity, and what we might achieve.
I am not without hope. Some of the work I have witnessed in these virtual cycles of The Lab this last year has felt like it shot through the screen and put its hand on my heart. That is exciting, and I cannot wait for next Monday!
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!
© Jeffrey Puukka, 2021.