The Biology of Acting; Lucid Body Unmasked
“Emotions are functional states of the entire organism that involve simultaneously physiological (organic) processes and psychological (mental) processes.” from Susana Bloch’s book, The Alba of Emotions
The pianist sits down at his instrument, the artist gets out her paints, and the chef tends to her ingredients. The actor, however, walks into a room with nothing but him or herself. That’s it. An actor’s expression is not assisted or created from external tools or supplies. The expression comes from, and is part of, the actor’s body.
As a physical acting teacher, my effort is to train bodies to be versatile – physically, emotionally and vocally. Yet I have always been aware of the danger inherent in art of transformation. The trained actor needs to transform himself to fit the given circumstances of the character. Yet the body is not separate from the mind. The actor’s imagination creates images that set off physical reactions and bodily changes.
Yet once the body is transformed, and triggers the autonomic nervous system, how does the body then come back to home? How does the mind separate itself from the images it has observed or created?
Let’s first look at what is involved in this transformation biologically and physiologically. In my Lucid Body work, the anatomy of the actor is approached first, both bone alignment and muscle flexibility, to see where there are physical limitations that will block blood flow and ease of breath.
Next, the chakra energy centers are examined and explored as markers that can distinguish the various possible impulses of human behavior in the actor. These vortexes, or “centers” become an extremely practical tool for actor transformation, as they relate to the senses as well as differing psychological states.
In Lucid Body work, we begin by exploring the centers through improvisational exercises connected to body intention. So, for example, if we are working with the solar plexus center, or third chakra, we will work on igniting the intention to control, and being aware of the inability to control, or the sense of failure.
If we are working on the pelvis center, we will work with the intention to seduce and nurture as well as the inability to be intimate. Each chakra center connects to the organs, endocrine glands and nerves that affect the reflexes related to enacting the actors’ intentions. By opening up different nerve pathways than those that are already familiar to the actor, we increase the range of reflexes available.
Yet in order to train actors how to transform, it is also vital that they be given the tools to come back to a healthy stasis in which they can feel whole or feel “themselves” again. Therefore, the Lucid Body work was specifically designed to give actors tools to self-regulate in the face of extreme demands. As the neuropsychologist Susana Bloch says in her research on emotions, “it is possible to learn to live an emotion, and to learn to leave it at will.”
The chakra centers are governed by the endocrine glands from which they emanate. The endocrine glands, the densest tissues in the body, secrete hormones that affectmental and physical changes throughout the body, allowing for the sensory awareness of a full range of emotions. Using the chakras in actor training includes but is not limited to the following: Root: adrenal glands, pelvis, testicals and ovaries, solar plexus, pancreas, heart, thymus, throat, thyroid and parathyroids, Brow: pituitary, and Crown: pineal.
Hormonal imbalance can be extremely detrimental to anyone, and even more so to an actor trying to sustain a career in transformation. This list, from top to toe of the human body, suggests once more that it is essential for bodywork with actors to have a way back to stasis as powerful as the exploration of using chakra energy to enable new expressiveness by performers.
In this brief introduction to the biology of acting, I would like to look at just one center, the Base, or Root. At the base of the spine, the nerve plexus connected to this center is governed by the adrenal glands, which rest on top of the kidneys. The pituitary is the master gland in the brain, and it has two parts. The outer cortex produces three different hormones in response to the secretion of pituitary hormones. These hormones affect sodium and glucose levels as well as the production of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
The second part, the inner medulla of the adrenal gland secretes adrenalin, and noradrenaline, which produce a rapid body response to extreme stress. This is the fight or flight response connected to our survival as a species. In extremely stressful situations, the hypothalamus (centrally located in the cerebral cortex) will transmit a nerve impulse to the adrenal medulla.
In response to this hormonal alarm, the body will prepare itself for extreme activity. Breathing is stimulated, and the heart rate increases along with the blood levels of glucose and fatty acids to maximize muscle use. If the cause of adrenalin release is in response to an actual physical threat, then the physical exertion of the fight or the flight will efficiently use the adrenalin, allowing the body to then return to its normal stasis.
But if the adrenalin response is connected to emotional stress, and is not followed by physical exertion, adrenalin will continue to pump into the system, which will often start to break down due to exhaustion. Then repeated elevated blood sugar levels will overload the pancreas, leading towards diabetes and other blood sugar related problems.
So back to acting. Let’s say our heroine is in a fictional war. The state of readiness to fight or flight is very much needed. She performs on a stage with sound effects and weapons, but clearly no real physical danger. In order to be present on stage with a body whose impulses are coming from an organic place of survival, she has to imagine the danger and create a body stance and movements that will spark the adrenal release into her system.
The text, and the choreographed physical fighting, will be the tools to stimulate her body’s suspension of disbelief, causing this biological reaction. This kind of organic response to the given circumstances creates colorful, visceral acting which will transport the audience into self-recognition. Her enacted fear will be felt, communicated to the audience, and transformed in that often magical emotional and psychological exchange.
In 1884, William James wrote pertinent observations about such emotional experiences being secondary to bodily changes: “Without the bodily changes that follow the perception of an external event, our emotional life would be purely cognitive in form, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth.” from The Alba of Emotions
Let’s return to our actress, however, to discuss what happens when such emotional and bodily experiences are less authentically combined than they can be through Lucid Body work. If her imagination does not convince her body that she is in a state of alarm, then she will have to manifest her body reactions and force her voice in an unhealthy state of disconnection.
It is clear to audiences when such body and voice experiences are only going through the motions of emotions when their bodies themselves have not transformed organically. This actor could walk off the stage with no noticeable physical repercussions except for a sore throat from being disconnected to her intention, as her body never truly engaged in the truth of the given circumstances.
But let’s suppose that the actress does engage, and manages to convince her body that she is in alarm, setting off the pituitary to send signals to the medulla cortex, which releases adrenalin. Her behavior on stage will feel real, as her body’s impulses are coming from a place in tune with her given circumstances. Her body and mind will be integrated as they work together, even in a fictional environment. The play is a short period of time, relatively speaking, so the biological changes should also be short lived. There is the rub.
Now the play is finished. How does she relax her body, convince itself that she is not in a state of alarm, and that she did not suffer wounds or lose her war buddies? How does the stress of the play not set off her own personal stress about her own life, memories, or fears? The personal stability that she has worked hard to achieve in her personal life perhaps now feels gone. She needs to develop the tools to come back to a place of stasis.
The Lucid Body technique teaches the physical ability to reverse these hormonal changes by practical means.
First, she must allot time for this process, and not assume she can bounce back. Young actors, in particular, often believe their bodies are invincible and can jump from one state to another. A transitional time period will give the body a chance to calm down. Then, her mind must make an effort to change the internal images that were serving the play and replace them with images that serve her life.
She must make an effort to ground mentally and physically, by sitting still, feet on the ground, and focus on the awareness that her survival needs are not in question. The breath can be slowed by actually counting inhales and exhales, and if possible, an immersion in water, a bath or shower, that will calm the nerve endings on the skin which will alert the sympathetic nervous system to lay down the guns. The war is over.
When the actor has been trained from the beginning to come back to center, after every class, after every rehearsal, after every performance, then the body starts to have the courage to transform further out into the extremes of human behavior, and sustain the impact of physical and mental transformation, because it knows it has a reliable way back home.
I am actually working with a group of veterans and actors, on Lucid Body Company’s Project: “Homecoming.” We will present a piece of theatre to The Manhattan VA Center and dialogue with the audience about the issues we will raise.
Experiencing the tightly-strung bodies of the veterans whose state of alarm is still on their bodies, and guiding the actors to recreate, with as much honesty as possible, similar physical state on their own bodies, is very tricky, but rewarding. The actors are able to feel the physicality of the veteran’s close-up, and the veterans can learn how to relax the adrenals by watching the actors step in-and-step out of character. If the actors can learn to come home, maybe the veterans can as well. •2015
Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”
FAY SIMPSON has been the Artistic Director and co-founder of Impact Theatre since its creation in 1990. She is the founder of The Lucid Body, the author of The Lucid Body; A Guide for The Physical Actor, and has trained seven teachers. Informed by her work in the rehearsal room, the teaching studio and onstage over the last 20 years, Ms. Simpson developed a unique physical training method for the actor called The Lucid Body. An Associate Arts Professor at NYU Graduate Acting Program at Tisch School of the Arts, she has also taught at The Yale School of Drama, the New School’s Eugene Lang, Michael Howard Studios, The Studio/NY, Marymount Manhattan College, and at the Actor’s Center. She currently teaches privately at the Lucid Body House. Ms. Simpson has a two-year Lucid Body Teacher Training program now in place. The next teacher training will be in the fall of 2016. www.lucidbody.com