Composer, music theorist, writer and influential artist John Cage, known for his delight in the unplanned and the unexpected, nevertheless recognized the necessity for an artist’s rigorous preparation and training. “Energy at its highest level,” he said, “energy that can be expressed by the movement of the human body, will not burst forth unless the dancers have had the courage to train themselves with extreme meticulousness.”
The human body contains enormous quantities of energy. In fact, the average adult has as much energy stored in fat as a one-ton battery. This energy exists in the form of heat amassed in the body and it fuels our everyday activities. Movement produces kinetic energy, which can be converted into power and action in the world. But this heat can also be easily wasted and can dissipate and diffuse rather than collect and concentrate. The wasted and dissipated energy brings about entropy. As I grow older, I am increasingly aware of the need to shepherd available energy and employ it effectively. Is it possible to concentrate and magnify one’s energy and use it efficiently both in life and upon the stage? The answer, it turns out, is yes!
In the attempt to unpack John Cage’s notion of “energy at its highest level,” I look for inspiration to others who have studied the phenomenon. In his recent writings on theater, my friend and colleague Leon Ingulsrud points out in that in the United States we often speak glowingly about the quality of an actor’s energy in performance but we rarely speak of an actor’s energy in rehearsal. Leon laments this situation and then proceeds to discuss the materiality of energy, emphasizing the fact that energy is not an abstract notion, but rather “fundamentally and specifically physical.”
The fact that energy is not a subject of constant attention in rehearsal is indeed odd. It begs the question: what is a rehearsal for? Is rehearsal an activity in which one simply stages a text or, alternatively, is rehearsal a time and space to identify and stimulate the energy required to meet the audience? What are the components of human energy and how can one train to implement it successfully? How do actors adjust their energy in order to communicate articulately via physicality and voice to other actors and to the audience? Does an audience return the energy that actors give them?
Perhaps our lack of sensitivity to qualities of energy in rehearsal in the United States arose around the same time that Lee Strasberg, inspired by the early innovations of Konstantin Stanislavsky, began to experiment with affective memory in the early 1930s. Due to the success of these experiments in the realm of film and television, theater actors gradually shifted their attention from the physical and emotional feat of encountering an audience to an increasingly internal focus in order to tap into their rich emotions via personal memories.
Questions concerning the successful deployment of human energy are not only pertinent to me in the realm of theater, but they are also highly personal in relation to my own day-to-day functioning. I notice, for example, that I am full of energy, willpower and appetite for work early in the day but as the day proceeds I loose the inspiration and will. I run out of steam.
There is an ongoing debate in the psychological research community about the relationship between stress and ego depletion in relation to willpower, which, in turn, reflects energy levels in the body. On any given day, we only enjoy a finite amount fuel that allows us to focus and provides us the mental energy to tackle the world. Some of the activities that can sap the fuel are making decisions, weighing options and exercising self-control. President Obama notes that he wears the same style blue suit each day because it cuts down on his amount of his decision-making. He simply does not have to think about what he will wear and this literally leaves him more energy for other decisions.
For the twenty-three years of SITI Company’s existence, I have watched the actors train at the start of each rehearsal, in workshops and before performances. They generally begin with the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and then proceed to an open Viewpoints improvisation. Watching the actors struggle with issues inherent in the language of theater is physical for me as well as it is for them. I find the experience of watching always instructive and valuable in the process of a rehearsal. I can feel as well as see the actors’ inclinations and I am drawn closer to their instinctual moment-to-moment decision-making. While watching, I consciously allow the actors to alter my breathing, thereby discerning varying degrees and qualities of energy.
The Chinese martial art T’ai Chi Chuan has provided me the opportunity to explore the myriad qualities of energy in my own regular physical training outside of the theater. Over the forty years that I have practiced, I have also dipped into Aikido and yoga, but I always return to T’ai Chi, for me the foundation for all other study. Over the years, and thanks to the wisdom of this ancient form and an ever-deepening study, I am brought gradually closer to physical understandings of the myriad qualities of energy.
Through the study of T’ai Chi Chuan, I learned that Taoism and the Chinese internal martial arts distinguish between three essential energies that sustain human life: Qi, Jing and Shen. These three cornerstones are known in Taoism as the “Three Treasures” and in Buddhism as the “Three Jewels.” I have found these three aspects of energy useful in exploring my personal relationship to energy as well as looking at the actor’s approach to training. With sensitivity to these three essential energies, I can train the body to use energy more efficiently.
Qi is breath energy. Jing means an essence. Shen is a divine or human spirit. Think of a candle. The Jing is the wax and wick, the Qi is the flame and the Shen is the radiance given off by the candle.
Qi is the invisible life force that we are all born with. It comes and goes in intensity depending upon one’s physical, mental and emotional state. Jing is the material in the body that governs the body’s growth and development and is gradually burned up as the body ages. The loss of Jing is hastened by stress, overwork, illness, poor nutrition and substance abuse. Shen, equated with spirit or mind, is a manifestation of the higher nature of a human being and is expressed as wisdom, compassion, generosity and tolerance. Unlike Jing and Qi, one is not automatically endowed with Shen, rather one can achieve an augmented Shen through self control, training and mindfulness. Shen can also be developed by means of physical disciplines such martial arts, dance and music and other creative activities. The Shen can be seen in the eyes, which classically mirror the soul.
Shen exists upon the foundation of a strong Qi and a sound Jing. As you get older, the strength of the muscles lessens. However, if you learn to concentrate your mind properly, the Qi can be generated in the local area that used to require muscle strength. This requires a deep relaxation of the muscles that in turn allow the blood flow to intensify.
Despite my interest in and study of the varieties of human energy, I struggle with the subject on a daily basis. Mismanagement of energy often leads me to lethargy and collapse. Sometimes I exert copious amounts of energy in directions that do not ultimately pan out: projects fall apart. Friendships disintegrate. The body weakens. And yet, thanks to a regular practice of T’ai Chi Chuan and my ongoing activity in the rehearsal hall, I have learned to value rather than avoid the obstacles that arise daily. I am learning to appreciate the relationship between wrestling with obstacles and the cultivation of energy. If I want the benefits, I also have to want the costs. In the end, it is the struggle rather than the rewards that matter. For example, I cannot simply be happy. Happiness arises from engagement and engagement requires qualitative amounts of energy.