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The Craft

Thought Control

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Thought Control
Recently I found myself thinking about…well, about thinking. What should or shouldn't be in your mind when you're acting? How do you control your thoughts? How do you not think about a pink elephant?

Then I happened to see a production of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing). At times in this solo show, which is a monologue delivered to the audience, the title character (and thus the actor I saw, Jonathan Bock) pauses silently and thoughtfully for a long time. Something was going on inside Bock's head—but what?

I called him to find out. Early on, Bock says, he was thinking entirely too much: "Why is this person coughing? This must mean he's not into it. I should speed up." But eventually he managed to get out of the way of his own distracted thought bubbles. Trusting that he'd done enough homework to understand the character of Thom Pain, Bock focused nightly on listening to everything, including noises outside the theatre, and observing—even what audience members were wearing—without allowing himself to be distracted from his character's intentions. "As the show has gone along, Jonathan and Thom have gotten closer together," he says, so whatever thoughts he's having feel okay in the moment.

I called another Thom Pain: Michael Milligan, who played the role in New York. What was going on for him in that moment when he had to just stand and think for about a minute and a half? "It's not 'What am I thinking about?' It's 'What is my attention on?' " he says. "I'm allowing myself to be present to my need for the audience to like me. To the nausea I feel at being exposed to the audience. But it's a little subtler than thought. I can put my attention on the feeling of power it gives me, or my feelings of inadequacy. By putting your attention on something, you're amplifying it, and then thoughts will come to you."

Milligan is currently in August: Osage County on Broadway, and in one 25-minute scene he has nothing to do but stare out at the audience, supposedly watching TV. He says he constantly monitors his body for excess tension, and if he's lost in inappropriate thoughts, there is usually some kind of inappropriate muscular tension as well. So what does he actually think about during that scene? He certainly doesn't try to imagine he's watching TV. He says he gives himself a little topic to focus on that will prepare him for the scene that follows, which requires some emotional investment. One week, for example, he called up images of a place where he grew up in Ohio, with a barn and chickens and a horse.

"I visit these places in my mind, and images and memories and sensory things pop up," Milligan says, "and inadvertently something will come up that somehow has to do with my character in the play. It keeps my attention and imagination engaged, so I can forget I'm staring out at the audience." He usually changes topics weekly, and so far none has left him unprepared for the emotional requirements of the next scene; he knows unconsciously where he needs to be for that scene, and his imagination guides him there.

Think Real Thoughts

San Francisco Bay Area actor Gerry Hiken tells a story related by Lee Strasberg in a class. Strasberg was directing Three Sisters, and Shirley Knight as Irina was making a long cross. Strasberg told her she needed to take less time. Knight told him that Irina had so many thoughts to process, she needed that much time. Strasberg replied, "Never think in character. Characters are words on a page. Characters don't have thoughts. Think real thoughts."

One of my own teachers, who'd studied with Strasberg, once told us, "Think anything. Think the multiplication tables. The audience won't know what you're thinking, but they'll see that you are actually thinking." Hiken says the answer to what we should be thinking when we're acting is "anything that will bring more life to our performance."

Lisa Ramirez, who plays 10 different characters in her solo show Exit Cuckoo in New York, says that if she thinks about the audience—as in "Why aren't they laughing?"—or anything outside the world of the play, she gets in trouble. In fact, part of the joy of acting is inhabiting an imaginary space for a period of time. Multiplication tables, she says, wouldn't be fun at all.

But another actor, Linda Jones, has a different approach. "I think you have to be hyper-aware," she says. "There are probably things you don't want to be thinking about, like 'What's my next line?,' but my feeling is I need to be alert like an athlete and not only know what's going on with my scene partner but also what's going on in front of me, behind me, in the audience."

Once, in Charles Mee's The Trojan Women, Jones had a long cross supposedly in a catatonic state: "I remember being very conscious of how my torn dress looked, being very present in my body, how I fit into the picture, what the audience was seeing." It was almost an out-of-body experience, she says, but at the same time she felt utterly present, in the zone.

Like meditation?

Ramirez and I discussed the similarities between meditation and acting. I don't meditate, but I remember hearing it's okay to have distracting thoughts while you're meditating—everyone does. You just have to toss each thought, as it arrives, into an imaginary river and watch it float slowly away. Jones agrees that in acting there's always a moment when you think, "Whoops, I shouldn't be thinking this thought," at which point you need to metaphorically throw it in the river and focus on listening. "A lot of it is just being tied into the world around you," she says.

We discussed the obligatory pauses in Pinter plays. "You have to be constantly listening and honoring the silence," she says. "What are others doing? What is the sound of breathing? What just happened?"

Uta Hagen, in A Challenge for the Actor, reminds us that "thought moves with the speed of lightning" and cannot be deliberately slowed down; it's "not based on verbally organized ideas," and it's inevitably connected to actions (or behavior). She advises against writing down your character's thoughts, which will result in indicating. Keep your actions going, and your thoughts will think themselves—that is, they'll be alive in the moment in relation to what you're doing, to your intentions. When your objectives and obstacles falter, that's when your thoughts will stray in distracting ways.

That's true for Bock, who says his onstage thoughts are dictated by the actions he's playing—the actions that he decided earlier, in his homework, he needed to do. He says the actions are the same every night, but they come out differently, and he figures that any thoughts he's having that don't interfere with his actions are acceptable thoughts. He was into Buddhism for a while and did a lot of meditating, and he does see a connection: "The times I've felt that I expressed the character most, it feels like a certain type of meditation." The nights when unwanted thoughts crowd into his head, he says, are the nights when he knows he's overacting, pushing.

If your preparation is thorough, says Milligan, you should be able to just let go and act. His own preparation involves relaxing and visualizing his performance in detail. "It's like any activity you might have to do," he says, "like following a recipe. You visualize the ingredients you'll need, then the steps in the order you're going to do them. You remember the pots and pans; you lay them out—then you just do it. If you start thinking about your bills, your life, you might not notice the garlic is burning. It's a matter of letting go of distracting thoughts and focusing on the cooking." And then—bon appétit!

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