The Usefulness of Doubt

Apr 14, 2022

As a writer I exist in a constant state of doubt, and this is not the impediment to my art, it’s the precondition of it.” -Stacy D’Erasmo

As a young director, I watched actors improvise for hours on end without stopping them. I was apprehensive about interrupting, and thus stepping upon what seemed to me to be their glorious spontaneity and inventiveness. I was afraid of destroying the freedom and life that I saw unfolding in front to me. Also, I was unsure of the right thing to say or do, or “set.”  I doubted my own abilities and intuition.

And then, inevitably, the moment arrived when we would all realize that opening night was upon us, an audience would be joining us, and nothing had been set or agreed upon. And at this moment I had to leap into action, become decisive, and work intuitively with the actors to make definitive choices.

Finally, over time, I began to understand that until specific choices and mutual agreements are arrived at, it is hard for any actor to deepen their performance. To put off decisiveness only delays the actor’s necessary work of resurrecting moments, interactions and interpretations that have been slain by the initial act of setting them.

As a young director I was filled with self-doubt. As I grew older and more experienced, I was surprised to learn that my insecurity did not dissipate. To this day at the beginning of any rehearsal process, no matter how much research and preparation I have done beforehand, I am convinced that the actors and designers secretly wish for a better director, for one who really knew what they were doing.  I doubt my abilities constantly.  But I also have learned that, if wielded properly, if turned outwards towards the task at hand, doubt is a useful tool in the artistic process.

Doubt involves a conscious commitment to uncertainty. It requires courage. But doubt is not mistrust. In fact, doubt must work hand-in-hand with faith and trust. I must have enough belief in a process to allow doubt to do its work. First of all, doubt keeps me from jumping to conclusions and from relying on old assumptions and previous solutions. It requires me to test and to experiment. The job of doubt is to shift my perspective and to break down the old and the rotten. When applied correctly, the outcome is far richer, more vivid, and more meaningful.

Doubt is an attitude and a skill and can be brought to bear on any subject, but it is most useful when turned outwards towards the given material. Doubt turned inward, self-doubt, can become paralyzing, crippling, destructive, and may end in dysfunctionality. Self-doubt leads to a persistent need for reassurance, to looking towards others in order to alleviate anxiety. Our minds have the tendency to default to that which is safer and easier.  Self-doubt is one of those defaults and can become a form of self-preservation, a protection from vulnerability. But when we constantly ask for reassurance, it holds us back.

Unlike self-doubt, turning doubt outward and towards the action required at the present moment is a useful tool that can challenge our ways of thinking and operating. I begin every rehearsal process by asking, “what is it?”  And then we start to work together to search for an answer. Just as we arrive at a solution, the next question inevitably arises, usually from one of the collaborators: “Yes, but what is it really?”  Again, we dive in again to search for yet another solution and then inevitably the same question arises. “Yes, but what is it really?”  These questions and our application of doubt towards a deeper understanding is what keeps us moving forward.

The documentary entitled Gerhard Richter Painting follows the German visual artist Gerhard Richter into his vast studio. At first, he stands for a long time in front of a giant blank canvas. And then, all of a sudden, he moves swiftly. He picks up a paint brush, dips it into a color and begins to paint with bold, physical strokes upon the canvas. His movements are kinetic and active. He keeps going and going. The results are quite compelling. The painting takes shape.

The next morning, Richter re-enters his studio and stands in front of the same canvas from the day before and once again stares at it for what feels like a very long time. To me, the painting already looks finished. After an extended period of contemplation, he suddenly moves, picking up a brush, this time painting completely over the top of his work from the day before. The painting takes on an increasing density and becomes complex, beautiful, and quite compelling. The days go by and every day he repeats the long period of silent scrutiny, and then what feels like a savage attack upon the canvas. Until it is done. 

I am curious about what is going through Richter’s mind as he stands contemplating the painting. I imagine that his initial detachment allows him to ask, “what is it really?” or “what does it want to be?” I believe that his doubt in what he rendered the day before is what contributes to the eventual magnificence of his paintings. 

From personal experience, I know that in midst of making a definitive choice in rehearsal, I have often not figured out the solution beforehand. It is the event of choosing that starts to generate useful feedback about what right for the particular moment. Creating is not about having the right answer, rather it is in the exactitude of the execution that real solutions arise. An intuitive choice requires the courage to act without any guarantees. The act of making an exact choice matters more than the assurance of having the right solution in advance. It is the exactitude of execution that imbues a sense of reality to what is created. It is the doing that provokes the truth.

Doubt and skepticism are cousins. Skepticism, as a quality of doubt, helps us to get to the truth. Skepticism is doubt with attitude. Healthy skepticism can be useful, but it must be used sparingly and should not be confused with cynicism. Skepticism is a positive tendency that requires us to reframe our beliefs, whereas cynicism is a negative phenomenon. Skepticism raises questions and questions are how we learn. Cynicism, by contrast, arises from a general attitude of suspicion and the belief that people are motivated purely by self-interest. Skepticism engages questions and allows us to doubt accepted facts and opinion. We are no longer being controlled by old beliefs that we did not choose.

How to work efficiently while wielding doubt as a tool?  To begin with, everyone involved must agree that the questions are far more significant than any of the answers that might be arrived at. Doubt can create heat and fire. Rather than accepting solutions too swiftly, doubt will give us the time to consider before something becomes a choice. Being fortified by doubt keeps us from making knee-jerk, automatic decisions. The desire to settle something too swiftly is often the wish for security. As the director, I detach and delay as a way to maintain both freedom and control. To constantly ask, “what is it, what is it really?” is a technique that can widen and deepen moments onstage.

Bertolt Brecht’s beautiful poem about doubt, In Praise of Doubt, culminates in an astonishing notion:

But the most beautiful of all doubts

Is when the downtrodden and despondent raise their heads and

Stop believing in the strength

Of their oppressors.

My wife Rena Chelouche Fogel is always deeply occupied with the news of current events.  Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she wrote the following piece about meeting Vladimir Putin.  I hope that you will find it as interesting as I did. Here it is:

The Day I met Vladimir Putin

In 2003, I was an older BA student at Columbia University in NYC.  A couple of weeks before President Putin was due to speak at the World Leaders Forum, I received an email to invite me to attend an address by Putin “On the global benefits of keeping close ties between the United States and Russia.”  I was surprised and flattered.  Earlier I had taken four courses in Russian literature but otherwise I had no connection to Russia or Russian studies.  The University knew that I was not a political science student.  Anyway, I filled out the reply and became excited at the prospect.  I had met many famous authors at Columbia, being a literature major, but never such a political leader. 

I was told to turn up to a side entrance to Low Library with as little as possible in my bag.  Books, identification and water.  Low library is a symbol of free speech, dedicated to encouraging students and faculty to analyse data, think, explore.  Outside I encountered many political science students who were outraged that they had not been invited and could not go in. They became increasingly frustrated and angry at the university and slightly at me, a mere literature student, when I would not give my invitation to them.  I pushed forward towards the entrance meeting some of my fellow students that I had been in class with.  At the entrance there were many views of my invitation, the acceptance list and my identification.  Then further checks through a metal detector.  We were ushered into the Rotunda of Low Library and into the front row.  I was seated directly in front of the podium.  Exciting.  There was still about an hour to wait.  I pulled out a book, but the bodyguards hovering at the edges of the library caught my attention. I adjusted the earphone for the interpreter’s voice. They watched my movements. Silently I yelled at them that we, in the front row, had been meticulously scanned, but I felt that I had to contain my body movements.  Be still, I said, be still.

            Eventually Lee C. Bollinger and President Vladimir Putin came in.  I felt as if I could have reached out and touched Putin at the podium.  From my proximity I saw him blink, swallow and breathe.  His taut body moving beneath his suit felt like an animal’s.  After a few perfunctory words in English, he switched to Russian.  I sat so closely that I could hear every word he spoke.  His voice was even and low and without effort or hesitation. Commanding.  I listened to the interpreter but the rhythms and cadences of Putin’s language drew my attention.  I reached down for my bottle of water and two large bodyguards rose up behind him.  I felt rebellious, I drank, they retreated. I regretted that in order to progress further in my studies of Russian literature, at that point, I would have had to learn the language and to get to the point of being able to read the great books in the original, it would have taken me years.  So I did not. Too quickly the question-and-answer section came and nothing incendiary or provocative was posed.  Until one plucky person asked, and I am paraphrasing, “Many of your critics accuse you of infringing upon free speech in Russia and I wonder how you would answer them.” He paused, he ramped up his steely cold expression, and I was struck by part of his longer response “There is no free speech. Get over it.”  That was it.  That was his message. 

Soon after that moment, the event was over.  Bollinger and Putin left.  The entourage left. But we had to stay in that room until Putin had left the campus.  I begged a guard to let me go to the bathroom, but no. No. No.

An hour later I emerged onto the sunlit campus, where there were many disgruntled students and faculty outside. But I felt that I had experienced an extraordinary moment in my life.  But what he said still haunts me 19 years later.  President Putin still enforces “There is no free speech. Get over it.”  Nothing has changed.  I am not over it.

P.S. The Kremlin’s transcript of the event has been “edited.” No surprise there.