Actors See Status

Impro, a classic book on theatre improvisation, convincingly shows that people are better actors when they notice how status moves infuse most human interactions.  Apparently we are designed to be very good at status moves, but to be unconscious of them.  So to be more self-aware of how you really treat those around you, learn to see your status moves. Some quotes:

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn’t reproduce `ordinary’ conversation.  They said `Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. …

I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard.  Everyone on stage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motives for each action. … The effect was ‘theatrical’ but not like life as I knew it.  I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had.  When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises.

‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal.  The actors seemed to know exactly what  I meant and the work was transformed.  The scenes became `authentic’, and actors seemed marvelously observant.  Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’.  It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming.  All our secret maneuverings were exposed.  If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked.  No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it.  Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict.  In reality status transactions continue all the time. …

Status is a confusing term, unless it’s understood as something one does. You may be low in status, but play high, and vice versa. … We always like it when a tramp is mistaken for the boss, or the boss for a tramp. … I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I’d create a resistance.  Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to `dominate’ or `submit’. …

A further discovery is that there’s no way to be neutral.  You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. They pose with arms folded or close to their sides as if to say `Look, I’m not claiming any more space than I’m entitled to’, and they hold themselves very straight as if saying `But I’m not submissive either.’ …

Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together.  … If I take a cup of tea to a friend then I may say `Get up, you old cow’ or `Your Highness’s tea’, pretending to raise or lower status.  Once students understand that they already play status games with their friends, then they realize that they already know most of that status games I’m trying to teach them.

We soon discovered the `see-saw’ principle: ‘I go up and you go down.’ … The exception to the see-saw principle comes when you identify with the person raised or lowered. … When you claim status because you know some famous person, then you’ll feel raised when they are.  …

Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them killing each other for food, mates, and so on.  Such animals confront each other, and often fight, until a hierarchy is established, after which there is no fighting unless an attempt is made to change the ‘pecking order’.  This system is found in animals as diverse as humans, chickens, and woodlice.  I’ve known about this ever since I was given a book about social dominance in kittiwake colonies, yet I hadn’t immediately thought of applying this information to actor training. This is because normal people are inhibited from seeing that no action, sound, or movement is innocent of purpose.  …

In animals the pattern of eye contacts often establishes dominance.  A stare is often interpreted as an aggressive act.  … Visitors to zoos feel dominant when they can outstare the animals.  I suggest you try the opposite with zoo animals: break eye contact and then glance back for a moment.  Polar bears may suddenly see you as food.  Owls cheer up perceptibly.  …

My belief (at this moment) is that people have a preferred status; that they like to be low,o or high, and that they try to manoeuvre themselves into the preferred positions. A person who plays high status is saying `Don’t come near me, I bite.’  Someone who plays low status is saying `Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.’  In either case the status played is a defence, and it’ll usually work.  It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you’ve found an effective defense.  You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other. …

I’d suggest that a good play is one that ingeniously displays are reverses the status between characters.

Read the whole thing for far more detail.  A huge thanks to Kevin Simler for sending me the book, out of the blue.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL: