Seeing, Starting, Curiosity, and Rilke's question
NOTES FROM THE LAB
On Monday, checking in with everyone to kick off Night Two of this cycle of The Monday Night Acting Lab, one participant made an observation that caught my curiosity and attention straight away. “. . .The productions I’ve been involved in [recently] have not been things that I want to invite you all, or my friends, to see. So it’s kind of frustrating. And I have to just tell myself, ‘Okay, I’m doing this for me’.”
The spirit of this participant’s remark, ‘Okay, I’m doing this for me’ is very inspiring, in my view. As I mentioned in The Lab, it reminded me of one of Rilke’s most iconic and frequently quoted observations in Letters to a Young Poet*...
Rilke urges his correspondent:
“Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity (…).”
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
If we dare to try and make a profession from something that gives us joy, sooner or later we will likely bump heads with the letdown that on some days, it is work.
Ultimately, only you can pinpoint your own motives, or your metrics for success. Just remember, as we grow, move through life, and evolve, those metrics are allowed to change too.
Rilke’s question to his correspondent was straightforward enough. Must you do this thing? Are you miserable if you don’t?
After checking in, we picked up brainstorming where we left off…
The first week, we brainstormed around the idea of relaxation, and why it can be useful. This time we brainstormed around the idea of attention.
I’ll put to you the same question I asked The Lab:
What, do you feel, is the difference between concentration and attention?
We need both at different moments. But let’s start with what is not the same about the two... One key point our conversation touched on was the fact that while concentration moves toward something singular, attention casts a wider net.
Let’s consider the idea of seeing.
As we know, actors are acrobats moving not only through time and space, but through their imaginations, the human heart, and communication as well. This work requires fuel.
(A friendly trigger warning regarding descriptions of domestic violence between fictional characters in the following few paragraphs. Feel free to skip down to “MOVING ON” if helpful.)
In an early scene of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley is playing poker with his friends. He’s had far too much to drink, and at one point, he violently lashes out at his wife Stella, whom he feels has been interrupting his poker game.
When I directed the play in 2019, when we staged and choreographed this moment, we placed it in Stella and Stanley’s kitchen. Stanley pushed Stella. Stella fell down. Stanley grabbed Stella’s waist-high head, and hurled her face into the refrigerator, giving Stella a bloody nose.
Now consider: How might Stella’s relationship to the refrigerator change, after that incident? How long might it take before Stella can look at that refrigerator without remembering that incident? Stella might do all sorts of things with that memory—dwell in it, ignore it, and who knows what else. The point is that there is fuel for the actor. In our production, we opened the next scene with Stella vigorously cleaning the refrigerator door.
When an actor’s attention is in a free and flowing collaboration with the world in which the character is living, then that actor’s imagination can begin seeing through the character’s eyes.
The space around the actor will become rich with all sorts of resonant, stimulating fuel…
The actor playing Stella can look around the space… In the space is the table where Stanley plays poker on poker nights. On the table are the empty bottles of beer Stanley has gone through. In the space is the refrigerator…
But the actor won’t get use of these opportunities for fuel without attention, or to use a different word, noticing.
While concentration gives us a kind of exclusive tunnel vision, attention gives us a broad gaze. We notice things. And when we notice, we can see.
To connect the dots back to Week One, relaxation can help refuel our energy for attention…
Apart from Rilke, other words to be considered that helped me along this week...
“I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to.”
These words offer, I think, just the right dose of encouragement for gentle rebellion. We can think for ourselves, we can make our own choices, we can branch off and away from what doesn’t actually serve us, or inhibits us from being who we are.
“Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.”
To touch on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic again, one of the things I have most enjoyed about visiting its pages lately, are Gilbert’s amusing, mysterious, and moving stories about inspiration floating out of her life and into another artist’s life, if she didn’t have the attention or time to work on an idea, while someone else did… According to Gilbert’s stories, the gift of inspiration will move to the artist who will be ready to use it.
However you choose to look at it, the message seems simple enough… Get started. No one can give you permission…
Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Ask for help.
If you consider the people in your world deeply enough, you may just discover there’s already someone in your circle, hidden in plain sight, who can help you.
BEFORE WE GO
Lastly, I have a question for you. I have been pondering curiosity and I want to know…
When following your curiosity: do you feel shy about asking questions in a public space?
(My comments section is hungry for your experience…)
Until next week,
*Rilke: If you’ve been curious about reading Letters to a Young Poet, or if you’ve been curious about who Rilke was, we have an opportunity to make the vast realm of the Internet a little smaller. Fellow Substack author and once-upon-a-time Monday Night Acting Lab participant Ani Elizaveta has a stunning and probing book review at her Youtube channel. Watch for insight about Rainer Maria Rilke, an elevator pitch for the book, as well as her own criticisms and reactions.
© Jeffrey Puukka, 2021