Why Actors Need to Explore Their Curiosities

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An experiment was once conducted with five chimpanzees in a cage. A banana dangling above them and a staircase placed beneath it.

When one curious chimp attempted to climb up and grab the tempting fruit, a sensor was triggered, spraying the rest of them below with ice-cold water. The curious monkey was removed from the cage and replaced with a new one, and the experiment repeated. Next time, a monkey attempting to reach for the hanging banana was set upon by the others to avoid being sprayed with the water. Soon after, another monkey was swapped out, the water switched off, and the test run again. And so on, until none of the chimps in the cage had been present during the initial experiment. Each one had now experienced the harassment for following their curiosity, but by now, understandably, none of the chimps were willing to reach for the banana for fear of being attacked by the others.

It turns out that this allegedly real “experiment” is likely only apocryphal, but it’s no stretch to imagine it to be true. It also poses an interesting question about the minds of chimpanzees’ closest relatives, human beings, when it comes to the fear of taking risks, and even more specifically to us as actors in our work.

Declan Donnellan, in his highly recommended book, “The Actor and the Target,” suggests that, “curiosity is a closer friend than creativity.” His suggestion is that being curious to a range of possibilities is much more useful than “inventing” something specific in the hope that it will be interesting. Without curiosity, he argues, an actor’s work is mannered, and lacks the fascinating and often surprising nuance of real life.

But how do we encourage the pursuit of curiosity in acting?

The most fascinating aspect of the experiment above is that the subjects’ aversion to being drenched with chilly water had been superseded by the terror of being attacked by the other chimps. And yet none of them had ever personally experienced it. Imagine it. The very thing that they initially feared (cold water) no longer existed as a threat, and yet a mechanism had evolved among them to prevent them all from ever having to experience it—attacking one another. Sadly, this mechanism also prevented them from ever attaining exactly what they wanted in that arena: the banana.

Does this sound at all like the fears we experience as human beings?

Have you ever felt a jolt of panic when asked to jump up and perform a scene in class, because you so often feel that you are doing something wrong? Have you ever been hesitant to make a choice on the job for fear of being judged as a “bad actor”? If not, congratulations. You are a lucky minority. If you have, then your fear is less likely to be of failing to being a brilliant actor, and more likely the fear of ridicule, or being told that somehow you are flawed, or ineffectual, in your attempt to follow all those paths which draw your curiosity.

If you give in to the attacks, then you are just one of the chimps in the cage with the rest of them, gazing longingly up at the delicious banana, without the bravery to go and find a way to get it. If you are willing to keep trying, and brave the obstacles, you may just end up with the reward. And that sometimes can be as scary as failing.

It is easy to assume that the world around us determines what will happen in our lives, but it is more likely that the way we deal with adversity is what determines our fate.

Even if one brave chimp had been able to grab the banana, peel it, and discover it to be rotten, then he would have had an invaluable experience. In the anecdote though, he didn’t even get to see why eating a tasty ripe banana could be worth fighting for. Having never tasted success (literally, in this case), what could possibly motivate him to seek out the potentially delicious fruit next time in the face of certain painful attacks from those around him? What possible reward could his curiosity offer, when the result is always overwhelmingly negative?

So too with acting classes, and feedback that is not constructive.

Fight through the threat of embarrassment, and even the metaphorical “drenchings" and attacks from your peers. Don’t be just another scared chimp starving at the bottom of the cage. These challenges are there to see how badly you want success.

Curiosity may have chilled the chimp, but it didn’t kill him. And neither will it kill you to follow the paths that draw your curiosity. Quite the contrary, in fact; you may just get the banana for which you’ve spent your life reaching.

Like this advice? Read more from our Backstage Experts!

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.
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