Jun 27, 2013

Successful theater requires a combination of technique, content and passion.  Like a three legged milking stool, if one of the legs is missing, the entire enterprise collapses.  No one cares about the content of an endeavor without the ingredient of the artist’s requisite passion for the material as well as the craft or technique to express it articulately.  Similarly, without having something to say and a point of view, neither passion nor technique is sufficient. 

What is passion and how can it be cultivated?  Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal, inspired by the ideas of Lope de Vega, insisted that, “Theatre is the passionate combat of two human beings on a platform.” He proposed that passion is a feeling for someone or something, or an idea that we prize more highly than our own life.  Clearly Mr. Boal was a passionate Latin American with high ideals.

Generally about conflict, confrontation, defiance and contradiction, the theater is largely chock-full of heat and passion. The art form tends to examine multiple interrelations of people within social systems. And the drama normally unfolds in a symphonic interplay of opposing forces and actions in which the characters have an investment in situations for which they venture their lives and their passions as well as their moral and their political choices.

Derived from the Latin verb pati, which means to suffer, passion indicates intense feeling, enthusiasm, compelling emotion or desire.  Passion can also be generated by restraint. When animal instincts run high, when adrenalin and the fight-or-flight instinct are elevated, we can put the imaginative or higher aspects of ourselves into self-control and into form.  Chivalry and the chivalric code, for example, were born from conscious restraint in the face of danger. 

In the theater an actor must be capable of converting movement and speech into expressive, repeatable forms that are articulate, communicative and awake. What are the techniques to practice the transformation of habitual, daily activity and speech into reified theatrical action all the while generating and shaping personal heat and passion through restraint?  A musician knows that daily practice is necessary to create the conditions in which heat and restraint (passion) can be successfully cultivated through repeated action. Perhaps an appreciation of the Japanese notion of kata might propose an efficient mode of both generating heat and, simultaneously, exercising restraint through an embrace of form.

The Japanese word kata refers to form, choreography or specific ways of doing things, with an emphasis on form and sequence.  Other connotations imply training method or formal exercise or mold. Originally kata were teaching and training methods by which traditional Japanese theater forms like Kabuki and Noh, as well as tea ceremonies and various martial arts, could be transmitted from one generation to another. The goal is mastery. In other art forms that share a similar philosophy, the painter’s practice merges consciousness with the brush. The gardener becomes “one” with the garden tools, the potter with the clay.

Most art forms require rigorous ongoing practice of technique. Intense and conscious practice generates physical heat, thereby changing the actual makeup of the body. What happens to the body, the changes brought about by practice and heat, are real and lasting. Through practice, new neural pathways are forged.  If the practice is effective and if it is deep practice, the neural pathways that are created have more of a chance to sustain.  Image and emotion is the potent combination that helps to create the kind of sustained energy needed to get through the difficult moments of this particular kind of practice.  Energy is generated in the heat of practice. 

The influence of emotions on the nervous system is immense and lasting. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio proposes that while emotions and feelings can cause havoc in the processes of reasoning, their absence is no less damaging.  The passions, he concludes, “have a say on how the rest of the brain and cognition go about their business.”  Emotion and heat seal the experience and create lasting memories.  Memory proteins created in the heat of experience become stable and in turn generate personal morals and ethics. 

In the United States, theater seems to be the only art form that does not require daily training and practice after graduation from school.  And the actor training generally available is not rigorous enough to generate significant heat and restraint regularly. And yet, passion and heat are essential in the creative process. Without a challenging practice we are inclined to become victims of habit and assumptions.

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our
personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.

(Jonathan Safran Foer)

Passion and restraint are generated by physical practice but also by investment. The act of engagement creates heat. Meeting challenging obstacles creates heat. Practicing commitment generates heat.  Action arising from authentic curiosity produces heat. Taking a risk, or hazarding your life for moral or political choices requires passion and creates heat. Significant action in the world that requires restraint generates heat.  Passion is engendered, not by feeling and emotion, but rather by action.