Tuesday, December 8, 2009

and also

Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness, or fear. Compassion – not what we thought.

-- Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

When I used to teach performance, I learned how deceptive the words could be. I had a model of the theatre in my head, but when I wrote a book I didn’t want to name the parts. I didn’t want the reader to think, “Oh! I can do that!” I didn’t want that person to gather students and use my words, not having seen the events that my words describe. I knew that when others use your words for things you didn’t mean, they assassinate you in your name. It never happened to me because I was not famous enough. But it happened to Delsarte. It happened to Stanislavski. It happened to Grotowski.

So I fought with words, to make sure the words would not matter. It doesn’t matter, I said, what you say when it occurs. Forget my terminology; check my words at the door as you go out. They have no magic in them. You can say this or that, or another thing altogether, or you can point and grunt. As long as you’re consistent in your grunting – as long as you grunt every time the thing appears and never when it does not – you are teaching the differences that must be taught.

Take a word like “concentration.” Concentration is a good thing in an actor. One is not distracted from the work. One is not tortured by the audience, or by tomorrow’s mortgage payment, or by a lover’s rejection. “Concentration” has much to do with Stanislavski’s “public solitude;” one behaves in some respects as if alone while a multitude watches. Performers in many different arts seek to concentrate.

But words always tend to reify. Nouns sound like things, and verbs sound like actions. If I say that your personality makes you successful, it seems as though there’s someone else at your side who drives you to success: but there is only you, being successful. If I say that you need to concentrate on your work, it sounds like you’re supposed to do your work and also concentrate: but you’re only supposed to do your work. To concentrate is just to do what you’re doing, and nothing else.

I’ve seen that and also on countless foreheads, as if concentration were another thing to do. You’re trying to juggle, or tell a joke, or preach, or play the piano or Hamlet, and there’s also this furrow of your brows, this extra strain, this posture of your concentration. This Act of Concentration is distraction. Concentration is not what we thought.

I was of the generation of graduate students who took power – who voted on their own degree requirements and on which applicants would be admitted to their programs. I invented, when it was a novelty, one of those systems of Student Evaluation of Teachers that are everywhere now in place, studiously local and all exactly the same. All student evaluations of teaching ask the following question, and consider it crucial: “Does Prof. Kumquat care about his subject matter?” I now know that students cannot answer this question correctly. Students cannot recognize passion when they see it, because passion is not what they think it is, not what we thought.

The professors damned by low ratings on the crucial question, the ones deemed not to care about their subject matter, are usually the ones who care too much. They’re possessed by their passion, overwhelmed by their desire to impart it, constricted by the fear that they might fail. Their concentrated bodies tie them in conundrums: the point of the passion, the song of the discipline, the voice of their teaching can barely emerge. They’re too concerned lest they get it wrong.

The stars of the classroom, the glamorous and sexy teachers who get rhapsodic ratings on their campuses, are the ones who don’t give a damn. A star may have a syllabus, but when he takes the stage it’s off the table. She’s playing, knowing that you won’t stop her, because no matter why you think you came to see her, the playing is all you care about. The rules go overboard, the obligations torn to shreds. He’s not listening to you, to policy, to audience research, or to the lesson plan. She’s listening to what we might as well call Spirit.

Someone said about Olivier that you couldn’t look away from him because, if you did look away, the man might commit murder. Someone else said that when they asked him, “How do you do it, Larry?” he would answer, “I haven’t the faintest idea, dear fellow.” Such a person may be a very nice guy, except when he hears the Spirit. Then he won’t listen to reason. And you won’t want him to. That’s his genius. I’ve worked in a couple of art forms. Now and then I’ve shared a stage with such a person. I’ve known it’s best that I should go where he goes because, very politely, he shouldn’t give a damn what I think. And doesn’t.

And I must locate, live with, name and nurture, what there is in me that Spirit wants to enter. These words of mine, obscure and off the center, resting on a page or ringing in a chancel, are my so far truest voice. Perhaps they make you crazy. They help to make me sane. I’m always searching what I’ve written, looking for what I’m supposed to say. When I find it there, I delete it. Sometimes I let the truth come through. When I’m letting the truth come through, I can’t be reasoned with. Don’t mess with me, it’s my spirit talking, it’s best for all of us to let it have its say. The rest of the time I’m humble and kind, compassionate and sympathetic, a good listener and sweet companion. But much less interesting.

Nothing is what we thought. If I’m humble before the spirit, then that’s my arrogance.

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