Expectations Create Experience

Dec 17, 2012

Human beings are expectation machines. We are constructed physiologically and neurologically to anticipate what will happen next.  This human trait, which almost certainly originated in ancient survival tactics, makes time-based performance a fascinating field and suggests that every theater person embark upon a lifelong study of how human beings perceive events. Alfred Hitchcock, in an interview with Francois Truffaut, explained that if a character appears screen-left, the audience tends to trust and like the person.  If the character arrives from screen-right, we worry that he or she might be dangerous.  These expectations are physiological and probably originate in the fact that in the west we read from left to right. In his film Rebecca, the forbidding Mrs. Danvers always appears unexpectedly from screen-right and then is motionless.  We worry about her.  We expect something bad from her.

Every moment of a play, as every moment in a piece of music, sets up expectations about what will follow.  The artist is therefore confronted consistently with two choices:  to fulfill the expectations that have been set up, which can be very satisfying for an audience, or to break the expectations, which can engender surprise, wonder and discomfort.  

An image, an action or an object that is not immediately recognizable arouses curiosity and vigilance and therefore tends to become inexplicably vivid in the audience’s imagination.  A plot point that is too easily predicted might also be too easily forgettable.  For an audience to sweat a bit amidst the syncopations of expectations fulfilled and broken may lead to a more compelling journey.

In life, expectations tend to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Expectations that I bring to a situation are apt to be fulfilled simply due to existence of my own anticipation. If I expect a task to be complex, it will most likely be difficult for me to do.  If I expect a task to be easy, that is probably how it will be for me.  In addition, I am inclined to fulfill the expectations that others place upon me. I am apt to act and make decisions based upon how others expect me to behave and perform.  I do this mostly unconsciously in order to gain respect or acceptance from those who expect certain things from me.

But these days I am interested in policing the expectations that I bring to an encounter, relationship or situation.  I want to mistrust the standard default anticipations that can come into play all too easily without my vigilance. I want to be wary of the expectations that I assume about the outcome of any particular encounter.  In the moment that I begin to retreat into the default anticipation of what I have pre-decided, I would rather change gears and enter into the fire of uncertainty.  I want to sit in that fire and accept the fire. Ultimately I know that the fire is part of regenerative creative heat.

If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that. (Goethe)

As a director, I feel how my expectations can affect a room. If I expect the best from an actor, he or she can sniff that out and respond accordingly. If I expect failure, I am to a great extent responsible for that actor’s failure. If I expect excellence from a group, the group can usually sense exactly that.  I want to be responsible for the force of my own expectations.

If we expect the best will only good things happen?  Well, no, not at all. Horrific things happen to many people who are expecting wonderful things. We cannot do anything to prevent this.  But on the other hand, our expectations do influence our posture, actions, gestures and facial expressions. Our physical shapes and expressions cause distinct reverberations in others.  Apprehension and expecting the worst from others or from what is about to happen can trigger stress chemicals in the body from the adrenal gland such as the hormone cortisol, which in turn engenders tension and panic. The apprehension can spread from one person to the next.  The effect is viral. It turns out that we are responsible for our own expectations because they are not limited to our own bodies.  They travel outwards into the world and have an effect upon others.

I am particularly encouraged by the example of the young Danish superstar-architect Bjarke Ingels who has managed to realize a phenomenal number of new projects because of his particularly expansive and inclusive attitude towards design, politics, environmental responsibility and quality of living.  His expectations of the world are positive.  He is not defeated by the problems that confront him.  He is jazzed by the challenges of inventing sustainability and environmental responsibility. He wrote a book entitled Yes is More in which one can feel the breadth of his imagination and ideas.  He does not throw away models. Knowing that far more ideas will be rejected than accepted, he recycles rejected ideas into new projects.  He believes that his buildings are the result of the constraints and rules placed upon them. He is presently constructing a building on 57th Street and the Hudson River in the shape of a magical pyramid that I hope will refresh our expectations about what the Manhattan skyline can be.

As we approach the end of 2012 and move into the coming year, I hope you will cultivate grand expectations of SITI Company.  We could use the force of your attention and anticipation. Please consider making a gift in support of our 20th Anniversary season. We are endeavoring to raise $20,000 by the end of the calendar year and thanks to a $10,000 challenge grant from a generous friend of SITI we are well on our way. But we still need your help.

By making a gift before December 31st, it will be matched dollar for dollar — thereby doubling its impact on SITI Company’s initiatives.