Archive for the ‘Acting and Performance’ Category

Should I Be Doing This? – Unraveling Passion, Talent and Practice

January 24, 2014 5 comments

TalentI show you three groups of recent college graduates. The first group has been identified as intrinsically talented at a certain discipline. The second group identifies themselves as very passionate about a certain discipline. The third group engages in tough, technique-oriented practice for an hour a day, but otherwise has no extraordinary talent or passion for any particular discipline. You are asked to bet $100 on which group will yield the highest average level of success in ten years. On which group do you bet?

When I was in drama school, I had to take some design courses. We had a particularly excellent artist named Curt who headed our design department, and the school routinely produced beautiful production sets and lighting. I remember during a fundamentals class asking if I (or anyone) could teach myself to draw like he could, given enough practice. His understandable if disappointing response was, “I could always just draw.”


I had a lot of professional doubts during that time which were never fully answered, even to this day. I liked many aspects of theatre–such as acting, lighting design, music composition and direction–none of which I executed with particular distinction back then. Advisors told me that I needed to figure out who I was, and they were glad when I told them that my strategy involved hedging an acting career with some slightly more lucrative technical disciplines. Of all those disciplines I tended to like acting the best, but I don’t think they saw in me any real signs of promise. I couldn’t “just act” the way Curt could “just draw”. Knowing how daunting it would be to try and “make it” as an actor, I spent a lot of time asking myself, “Should I be doing this?”

My father–who very graciously supported me in a theatrical education–gave me very practical career advice: “Find what you love to do, and then find a way to make money at it.” He had a very progressive attitude about professional success: that fulfillment should be the primary consideration. My roommate’s father also had some sage advice, quoting Stephen Covey: “Begin with the end in mind.” He was trying to emphasize the importance of goal orientation and focus.

What was confusing to me–and I later learned confusing to a lot of people–is that I had a very hard time at that age isolating what I loved to do, and therefore had no real vision of “the end” to keep in mind. When I was feeling good about myself, every discipline seemed exciting. When I was feeling unaccomplished or low, every discipline seemed like a different flavor of drudgery.

I developed anxiety about not following the “right” path, the path that was supposed to best leverage my talents. I didn’t really even have a sense of what those talents really might be, and personally and strength-finder testing never gave much direction. I was hungry for a concrete calling; something I could settle into with the assurance that I was mastering the best thing for me to master, and therefore I could engage it with full conviction rather than always having one foot out.

Then I read a very interesting book by Cal Newport called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport turns the idea of preexisting passion on its head. Rather than trying to match a professional end goal to a preexisting passion, it’s actually the mastery of a discipline that brings about the passion. We already know that accomplishment and excellence within a discipline is intrinsically motivating. We’ve discussed this in a previous article about Daniel Pink’s book Drive. Read more…

Think Acting Is About Emotional Empathy? Science Says No.

July 29, 2013 7 comments
Cover of

Cover via Amazon

David Gergen was a staffer to four presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. In his book Eyewitness to Power, he said of Reagan that his previous acting experience gave him a coveted public speaking skill: controlled access to one’s own emotions.

Acting is understood, particularly by outsiders, as an emotional exercise. Presumably, you build a character by feeling the same emotions that a fictitious person would have felt under certain circumstances. It follows that acting requires a talent for empathy, the ability to feel another’s emotions. Those who are most predisposed to empathize with others could therefore summon the proper emotions when required, and portray characters most believably.

It turns out, no.

Thalia Goldstein is a social science researcher from Pace University who studies the relationship between acting and psychology. Her research has been used in the development of acting and role-playing therapies for emotional suppression. She recently published a fascinating article in Imagination, Cognition and Personality called “Actors are Skilled in Theory of Mind But Not Empathy“. This article gives us important insight into what actors actually do when they practice their craft.

Goldstein discusses a psychological concept called “Theory of Mind.” Theory of Mind is the understanding that “two people can hold different but equally valid interpretations of the same object or image,” and the term describes one person’s ability to understand someone else’s interpretation – their take – on the situation.

Theory of mind (the ability to understand another’s mental state and motivations) is very different from empathy (the ability to put oneself in someone else’s emotional place). How do we know this? We observe psychopaths and bullies. Psychopaths and bullies are extraordinarily socially attuned, and manipulate people based on this acuity, but have little or no empathy. This distinction is important.

Pace University

Pace University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Goldstein administered batteries of Theory of Mind and empathy tests to groups of actors and non-actors. Actors are ideal candidates for the study of these attributes because “Actors think deeply about the motivations, beliefs, and value systems of the characters they enact, and then must make these internal states come alive…” She hypothesized that training in acting was associated with both heightened social sensitivity and heightened empathy.

Goldstein conducted two separate studies to this effect and found similar results: acting training was significantly associated with heightened Theory of Mind (social perception) skills, but not heightened empathy skills. Her study could not give us an idea of causation for this effect: we do not know yet whether the practice of acting heightens social awareness, or whether the persuit of acting attracts those who are already highly socially aware.

One retrospective study supported this distinction:

…actors reported a separation between feeling empathy for someone and analyzing their mental state at the same time. One actor reported “I’m having a discussion with someone and they’re really having an emotional kind of experience and I’m listening and I’m being empathetic, but at the back of my mind I’m like, my God, that’s so interesting.”

We can, however, begin to better understand the practice of acting: not as a touchy-feely show of emotion on queue, but as an exercise of reading other people and cultivating authentic reaction. The lack of association between acting and empathy may cause us to rethink the techniques that we teach, as it may turn out that empathy-intensive techniques like Method Acting are less useful than previously assumed.

We need further study in this area to flush out more details, such as:

1. Whether heightened social perception is a cause of, or effect of, pursuits in acting

2. If the latter, whether the lack of heightened empathy is explained by the acting techniques commonly taught (method vs. non-method styles)

3. Whether either heightened social perception or heightened empathy corresponds with more believable portrayals

Institutions like high schools and magnet schools who teach young actors could easily set up experiments to this effect. I’m sure Dr. Goldstein would welcome contact from institutions in the New York area, and might have a chance to contribute to the science more directly. Understanding exactly what actors do when they practice their craft would not only help us improve the art (say, by developing more effective teaching methods and exercises), but would also help us better understand the psychology of putting oneself inside another’s head.

The Sine Qua Non of Theatre, and the Two Hours I Want Back

March 26, 2012 2 comments

During the last half hour of The Goodman’s Camino Real, while I was trying to paper-cut my wrists open with the edges of my program, I was asking myself, “How much of what we consider theatre can you strip away before you can no longer call it theatre?”

Camino Real is the Goodman’s current ultra avante garde adaptation of a surrealist Tennessee Williams play. The entire experience of the show can be encapsulated in one telling moment: at the end of the play, the company of actors took their curtain call to only tepid and polite applause. The cast, showing no sensory acuity whatsoever, decided to take an unsolicited encore bow…probably out of sheer habit, but in that moment it seemed obliviously pretentious.

My wife and I are frequent theatre goers and we both have a good deal of patience for avante garde theatre, provided it ends up having some value or merit. After the hour and forty five minute time limit before the Goodman decided to be merciful and let its audience exit from Camino Real, the only point of debate between us was whether the show literally had no redeeming value, or whether we were not the intended target audience. I typically steel myself from declaring that a show is outright bad because I admit the possibility that I did not understand the point. When I was in college, I saw Ionesco’s The Chairs in New York, and I left the play baffled. It wasn’t until later when I learned more about the context of existentialism and also grew up a little bit that I finally understood the point. The Chairs is an example of a play that would baffle contemporary audiences only to be better appreciated in time, which is a quality that often suggests artistic merit.

We know from the history of theatre that you can strip away many of the elements that are characteristically associated with the genre and still produce high-quality art. We know for example that you do not absolutely need realistic or even eye-catching sets and technical aspects. The best production of Romeo and Juliet I ever saw consisted of five RADA actors and five chairs. Read more…

From Study Hacks: Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

December 9, 2011 5 comments

This is from Study Hacks, a blog that’s so popular, chances are you’ve already read the article. I’m a huge enthusiast in the whole talent vs effort debate, and so this was immediately interesting to me:

Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

Here’s the gist:

Many popular authors have recently cited correlations between elite success in a field, and the amount of time, effort and skilled mentoring that contributed to that success. The most famous example is Malcolm Gladwell‘s observation that many preeminent successes have applied over 10,000 hours to their field. This has tilted the current talent vs effort debate in favor of effort, suggesting that disciplined practice and a supportive environment are better predictors of future success than inherent aptitude.

This belief has become very fashionable because it’s such an empowering thought, and appeals to our sense of just rewards. If you follow the logic to the end of the rainbow, then your first-grade teacher was being straight with you when she said you can do anything you want.

Not so fast, say David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, the psychology professors who wrote a recent New York Times op-ed called, “Sorry Strivers, Talent Matters.” The article is based on their research, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, which found that among sight-reading pianists, those with higher memory capacity (their proxy for “talent”) performed better on average than those with low memory capacity.

The blog Study Hacks, which posted and commented on the article, is authored by a vocal proponent of the Deliberate Practice Hypothesis (a phrase he coined). Here’s author Cal Newport, in his own words:

Recently, I’ve been exploring what we can call the deliberate practice hypothesis. This hypothesis says if you apply deliberate practice (a technique well known to athletes, musicians, and chess players) to the world of knowledge work, you will experience a significant jump in ability.

Being an expert in the field of performance improvement, Mr. Newport took a close interest in this op-ed and supporting research.

I’ll let you read Mr. Newport’s comments for yourselves, since they are well written and I would not be doing them justice to paraphrase them here. Suffice it to say that despite the conclusions of this particular paper, there are many reasons not to give up hope on effort and practice just yet.

It turns out, for example, that this same study found that those musicians who practiced for more hours performed significantly better than those who practiced for fewer hours, and that performance gap was much more dramatic than the gap based on working memory capacity.

In other words, the research does not conclude that talent is the most important performance factor; it merely concludes that effort is not the sole predictive factor.

None of this is going to come to any surprise to the rest of us. We all instinctively know that, while it’d be nice to be able to achieve elite status based on strife alone, there is also such thing as natural aptitude and it does have an influence on our performance. As long as research in this area attempts to prove absolutes (e.g. “There is no such thing as talent.” or “Knowledge and practice are not the sole predictors of success.”), it will not be useful to us.

What we would like to know is what improvements can be achieved through application? Could almost anyone be an athlete if they ate, breathed and slept it? How about a performer? How about a research professor?

While it seems logical that there are limits to everything, I also like Cal Newport’s philosophy. One of the most interesting points he makes about the Deliberate Practice Hypothesis is that few people really try it (especially in knowledge work). Few people really eat, breathe and sleep anything, so it’s hard to tell if such a person could have theoretically overcome a deficit of natural aptitude.

When I was in theatre school, I knew people with a great amount of natural gifts, whether it be height, charisma, vocal power, attractiveness, excellent singing voices, or a gift for compelling, believable line readings. I also met a lot of people who didn’t have these gifts…I was one myself.

What I did not see was anyone who was so intent on overcoming these shortcomings that he/she consciously racked up stage time any way possible, poured over new plays, practiced line readings from shows they were not in, took full advantage of professors available for monologue work, etc. I saw many actors who were dedicated, but none who were really relentless, even though the profession demands it by definition. So I can’t point to an example of someone who became an actor from nothing but sheer will.

For my own part, I was too busy being worried that I wasn’t naturally gifted enough for the profession. What would have happened if I had taken all that worry and applied the hell out of myself? I haven’t the foggiest idea. But it would have been helpful to have had some insight one how much that might have mattered. I’m sure many other people feel the same way.

Is it possible to will an aspiration into reality, no matter the natural aptitude? I have no idea. But after reading Cal Newport’s work, I believe that when we fall short, one of the last things we should blame is a lack of talent.

How Pressure and Stress Are Affecting Your Performance

April 19, 2011 130 comments
The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem

Some years ago, a Princeton psychologist named Sam Glucksberg brought a group of test subjects into a room. In the room was a table positioned against a wall. On the table was a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. “Your job,” Glucksberg told his subjects, “is to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that when it’s lit, the wax will not drip onto the table. I will be timing you, and I will use your results to establish averages and benchmarks.”

Some time later, he brought another group of subjects into the room. He showed them an identical set-up: table, matches, box of thumbtacks, and candle. He gave them the identical instructions, but added a twist: “I will be timing you, and you will be rewarded with money based on your times. If you finish in the top 25% of all times, you will receive X dollars. If you’re the fastest of all times, we will give you double that amount.”

All of Glucksberg’s groups were timed against one another. And what do you think happened as a result?

The groups who received the money as a reward were, on average, three-and-a-half minutes slower at coming up with the right answer. How could this happen? Read more…

What It Actually Means to be “In Your Head”

December 29, 2010 9 comments

What follows is one of the most important and fascinating lessons I’ve ever learned about performance. Any kind of performance.

Cover of

Cover of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

In his compilation book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell re-publishes his New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he discusses the psychology behind why people buckle under pressure. Here’s what he says about the process that we call “choking”:

“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.”

But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.

Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.

The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.

Way back when, I took scene study classes in college. Beginning actors come in to programs rife with bad habits and shitck that had served them in the past. Early scene study classes have two general purposes: 1) break actors of bad technical habits, and 2) get them thinking more thoroughly about what’s going on in a scene. During such classes, the acting quality starts to improve, but the actors become less free and expressive. You can see actors start to struggle and second-guess themselves, trying to do the scene “right.” Teachers would say about such students are “in their heads,” and needed to “get out of their heads,” but without further explanation or direction the students seldom knew what that meant.

Implicit Learning

Implicit Learning – Letting the subconscious get a “feel” through repetition

Lo and behold, being “in your head” and “out of your head” has a distinct physiological meaning, as we see from Gladwell’s work. When you learn an element of performance, whether it’s a sport, an instrument, a test, taking the stage, or anything else that creates an “event,” you use one part of your brain to train another part. The conscious, explicit-learning part of the brain can think through what it’s supposed to do step-by-step, but it cannot produce a quality performance. So we condition ourselves by practicing technique explicitly and technically, over and over, until our unconscious, implicit-learning brain “gets it.” For more information on instructing using implicit versus explicit activity, read this article.

This is not headline-grabbing science. But within this explanation lies a new idea: even superbly conditioned performers and athletes can fall victim to a take-over by their explicit-brains, and become beginners again. This is paradoxical: we typically tell those who have trouble performing to buckle down and try harder. But in this case, the performance trouble is actually caused by too much buckling down. Read more…

Five Behaviors That Communicate High or Low Status

October 15, 2010 6 comments

Previously, I have remarked on an area of interpersonal dynamics called the Status Transaction. This concept comes from one of the fathers of improv theatre. It says that humans, just like other pack animals, communicate in subtle behaviors that convey where they stand with regard to each other.  We establish an unconscious structure of deference and social value in order to keep our relations mostly harmonious. As Johnstone remarks, “In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.”

This principal is the key link between acting performance, marketing, and social psychology. It is the subtext of human life. It represents the unvarnished, true meaning of people’s communication. It is, either consciously or unconsciously, a crucial factor in honest and authentic acting portrayals, because it factors into a character’s key attitudes. It also factors into how we feel attraction to one another. Also, it has repercussions in group psychology, and therefore also in marketing messaging. People arrange their little worlds in ways that cultivate and communicate status. Status, recognition and validation play a central role in most people’s secret dreams and ideals.

We tend to associate high status with certain favorable traits, like wealth or physical attractiveness. People speculate that correlation came from evolution; in order to survive, we will tend to associate ourselves with those who have means, and signs of healthy DNA. Our conspicuous consumption is an example of a status-driven tendency.


Maximum status gaps make for some of the best comedy


What people may not know is that most status communications are conveyed through ordinary, everyday behavior. Johnstone discovered this through improv exercises. He started with large-gap status differences, like king and butler. He then reversed behaviors so that the butler behaved in a high-status manner, and the king deferring to the butler. And, improv comedy was born.

In real life, most status-communicating behaviors are hard to fake. That’s why we get the creeps when someone who has the appearance of status (e.g. wealth) behaves in a way that seems incongruent. Most people who try and put on a short-term game persona usually fail at it. Their insecurities “peek out” through the cracks.

Based on the search keywords that lead into People-triggers, there are a lot of people searching for a discussion on which behaviors communicate high status, and which communicate low status. Johnstone talks at length about this in his book, Impro, and there are many other status discussions around the blogosphere. One blog that shows a lot of insight into this subject is appropriately named, The Statustician, and I would recommend checking it out for a more in-depth discussion.

So, for your experiments in interaction on stage and in life, here is my list of the top five behaviors that communicate interpersonal status. Read more…