The Art of Adjustment

Mar 24, 2015

The Taoists describe the art of life as the art of constant adjustment to the current surroundings.  Similarly, nothing could be more central to a successful creative process than the ability to adjust to what is happening in the moment.  A painter continually adjusts to the previous strokes on the canvas.  A musician adapts to the room and to the choices of other musicians.  A theater artist is sensitized to the constant spatial and temporal changes that are taking place from moment to moment.  Clearly the practice of adjustment is essential to artistic training.

And yet, in the midst of split second adjustments one must also concurrently summon the courage to make bold and committed choices that exude presence and meaning.  How is it possible to execute fully committed choices and simultaneously be open and available to change?  This is the paradox that lies at the heart of all art making.  It is also the skill that the practice of the Viewpoints can help to cultivate.

The Viewpoints provide a constant practice, in the guise of improvisation, in adjusting to spatial/temporal vicissitudes while making clear, committed and watchable choices.  Embodying the possibilities of the Viewpoints provides the opportunity to join structure and form to spontaneity and intuition.

In the moment of making a strong, committed choice, one is choosing to control that moment.  And to be open to the possibility of change at that very same moment requires the courage to let go.  But this letting go, this sublimation of will in service of receptivity, is a key ingredient in the Viewpoints as well as in the creative process.

In order to embody the paradox of control and relinquishing control simultaneously, it helps to concentrate upon the empty spaces and on the void between things.  How is it possible to allow for space and place for others without losing one’s own position? The key is to learn how to make space for others by looking for the void, both internally and externally. Any situation contains a void.  Is it possible to make space inside oneself and in the space that you share with others so that they might join you?  It helps to understand that what most matters is the space created by the situation rather than the situation itself.

Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I’m given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one’s own vision.
(Kiki Smith, mixed-media artist)

The theater inhabits the realm of fiction and metaphor and is radically different from performance art, which deals with only the real. In performance art, blood is blood and pain is pain.  In the theater, blood and pain are not literal; rather they are represented.  The theater deals with fiction in the word’s original meaning: presenting a possible world.  Within theatrical fiction, time is modified, a plastic reproduction.  A possible world is invented and artificial, feigned and imagined.

Time is the theater’s most powerful expressive tool. Time is to theater what color is for painters or marble is for sculptors and what words are for writers.  Within the field of theatrical fiction, time can be exploited, amended, expanded and collapsed.

Perhaps it is useful to consider the term “code switching” in relation to adjustment in acting and stage movement.  Code switching is a linguistic notion that describes the ability to alternate between two or more languages or two or more ways of speaking within the same language.  Bilingual persons switch from one language to the next with ease. But even within the same language, code switching can be employed effectively. The way a person speaks to an employee, to a boss or to a child, changes.  The syntax and vocabulary adapt to the situation.  These adjustments are considered by linguists to denote code switching.

At each moment in daily life we choose an attitude in relation to the world around us.  We shift our attitude, shift stance and shift footing based upon what we are receiving back from our forays out into the world.  We switch our position in relation to others.  We switch the frame in which we exist and we can also switch the way we think. We may switch codes in order to meet others on a more level playing ground or to get approval or to create distance. Physically and vocally it is possible to switch codes by changing speed, altering tempi, pitch, rhythm, stress or tonal quality or making unexpected spatial choices.

The theater’s dramatic force is animated by the symphony of code switching that happens persistently in social situations. The motivations and impulses that stimulate code switching originate the human desire to adapt to variable social situations. This human proclivity to adjust can be studied and practiced.

Acting is consciousness and action joined together. An actor’s job is to awaken habitual, unconscious daily behavior. The gorgeous, complex density of an actor’s presence onstage is shaped by the actor herself, who sets up a complicated field of contradictions and attitudes in her own body.  Complexity originates in the presence of a central contradiction inherent in the art of adjustment: the necessity to stand firm and dig a stake deep into the ground while being simultaneously ready to adjust instantaneously. Attempting to make strong, ambitious and courageous choices while, at the same moment, being receptive to change generates a compelling and watchable presence.