Memory, the Present Moment, and the Imagination

Jun 13, 2022

I began writing this blog in Rijeka, Croatia, a town on the Adriatic Sea, while re-staging a production of Richard Wagner’s TRISTAN AND ISOLDE that we had premiered shortly before Covid shut down most of the world. I was staying in the exact same apartment that I was in during our February 2020 rehearsals and each morning, guided by memories of the last time I was in Rijeka, I easily knew which way to walk, through the open-air market, to the theater. Memory. Once at the theater, the singers and I leaned into the videos of our previous production to remember how we solved all the monumental problems posed by the opera. Memory aided by technology.

Perhaps at any given moment, my experiences arise from three vectors:  memory, the present moment, and the imagination. Of course, these three are intimately linked in the undergoing processes of the body, the environment and the coming and going of moments-of-being. Perhaps the quality of my experiences is rooted in the dynamic relationship between these three human attributes.

Memory has its roots in the past, but memories can be unreliable because the act of remembering again and again tends to reconstruct and recreate what is remembered. But memory does furnish me with context in the present moment. Imagination, on the other hand, is speculative and often caught up in creating expectations and fantasies about the future. Imagination moves through the present moment, stimulates me, perhaps to action, and then it too becomes memory.  Both memory and imagination greatly inform the quality of the present moment.

In the theater our job is to bring the best, the highest aspects of being human and being part of a group to bear in both rehearsal and performance.  We activate memory, the imagination, and the present moment as effectively as we can in order to create meaningful stage moments to share with audiences.

Often, the first question at a post-show Q and A is:  How did the actors learn all those lines?  Well, yes, of course memorizing lines is one aspect of memory. But the dance of memory extends into profoundly interesting territory. Many memories are hidden from us, but they can resurface in unexpected ways and times. Our histories are not one thing, but rather a mesh of interconnected tendrils ever growing beneath the surface and linking us all and influencing our individual and group decisions.

The journey from my apartment in Rijeka to the theater is activated by memory. The directing techniques that I have learned and practiced are part of memory. But memory also links my mind with other peoples’ minds, with colleagues and with loved ones. SITI Company rehearsals are informed and influenced by many decades of shared memories, struggles, achievements, and insights. Our rehearsals can become surprisingly fluid with solutions and insights, resulting in resonant stage moments, fortified by our shared past experiences and the memories they engender.                                         

Perhaps genius does not reside within an individual or belong to any one person, but rather it arises between people in the midst of their shared memories and imaginations in the context of the present moment. For example, Paul McCartney is a talented musician and composer, as was John Lennon. But it was when they were together, collaborating on writing songs, that genius surfaced. Perhaps genius exists in the space between people.

Recent research has revealed striking similarities between remembering the past and imagining the future, including the finding that a common brain network underlies both memory and imagination. Past and the future events draw on similar information and rely on similar underlying cognitive processes. Neuroimaging studies have revealed that when people remember the past or imagine the future, similar levels of activation are observed in various regions of the brain.

Allow me to propose a technique that can activate memory, imagination, and the present moment in service of innovation, making or creating. The process starts with the formulation and articulation of a specific question or a problem. Once the question or problem is stated clearly, get out of the way. Stop trying to resolve and control the issue. Instead of focusing on the problem and forcing a solution, do not even think about it. For example, I can ask myself, “What will my blog be about this month?”  Then I shift my attention to the present moment, to the actions or tasks in front of me.  Memory and imagination go to work “behind the scenes,” without my interference. Suddenly, at the most unexpected moment, a solution simply arises. It evolves from the potent combination of memory, imagination, and the present moment. 

Within the context of a group, in a rehearsal process, I also start by posing a question or stating a problem to my colleagues. I might suggest one or two possible ways to address this question or problem and then, for just a little while, we ruminate together, thinking laterally about the subject. Then, we get out of the way. We focus upon the physical, upon the technical, upon space and upon time. The solution eventually emerges “on its own.”  The solutions that arise can be quite surprising and far more effective than anything that we can imagine without this process.

Memory and the imagination engage in a process that scientists call “scene construction,” which entails retrieving and integrating perceptual, semantic, and contextual information into a coherent spatial context, binding together disparate types of information into a coherent whole. Memories are born out of experience. But the memories seem more like outlines filled with fragments, flashes, or like GIFs. Past experiences are used to imagine perspectives and events beyond those in the immediate environment.  Scene construction creates mental simulations, whether of the past, future or the purely fictional, but framed within a spatial context. 

I am happy to report that the Tristan and Isolde in Croatia opened successfully, and I am now back now in the United States, in Saratoga Springs, to be specific, helping to launch SITI’s final summer intensive training program at Skidmore College. Due to the not-yet-over pandemic, our 62 participants are online. But the company is, for the most part, together here in Saratoga. I look forward to occupying the upcoming clusters of present moments with SITI Company and with the brave individuals who join us from around the world. Despite the technical challenges, we will do our best to bring our collective past experiences and our imaginations into each present moment.