- Bridging the Gap:Toward a Reunification of Actor Consciousness
A production of Hamlet. An actor enters. He begins to speak: “To be, or not to be – that is the question.”1 Now a doubling is occurring. The audience sees Hamlet contemplating oblivion. Simultaneously, they see an actor playing Hamlet and are more or less aware of their immersion in a fiction. Throughout history, this duality has prompted theorists both within and outside the theatre to consider the nature of actors’ minds when they perform. From the earliest discourses on performance, the notion of multiple potential levels of consciousness has been advanced and explored. The question has been resolved by incorporating the actor’s duality: divided consciousness is seen as desirable and arguably necessary in performance. Though couched in a panoply of terms, discourse on divided consciousness has tended to focus on theoretical constructs (actor versus character) or performed effects (emotional identification versus representation) rather than practical execution. Can divided consciousness be considered in a different way: as a result of the mechanics by which performances are made and executed? If this consideration is possible, what might it reveal about the nature and consequences of divided consciousness?
This article considers the question from the perspective of flow (the psychological state associated with “being in the zone”). By using flow theory to analyze performance practice, a different picture of divided consciousness emerges. Specifically, in identification-oriented performance practice, divided consciousness may be seen as a schism between two flow dimensions: clear goals and immediate feedback. It emerges as a result of simultaneously seeking two conditions. First, actor-character merger, the assumption that a role in performance results from a joining of the actor and the character he is portraying. Second, the creation of and adherence to a “pre-agreed-upon” performance structure, which is here defined as any planned performance output, regardless of its form or content, whose purpose is to communicate a specific and preselected meaning to an audience. The implications of this understanding prompt several questions: is divided consciousness desirable for actors? If not, can it be successfully minimized through the deployment of alternate rehearsal and performance techniques? Starting from a contextual overview of flow theory, performance structure, and divided consciousness, these questions will be considered in turn. [End Page 147]
Flow in Context
Flow has been described as “a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions,” and “a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred.”2 Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first identified the flow state and subsequently developed and refined flow theory. Flow consists of nine dimensions: (1) A balance of challenges and skills; (2) the establishment of clear goals; (3) the presence of immediate feedback; (4) the merging of action and awareness; (5) participants’ sense of control; (6) the exclusion of distractions from consciousness; (7) the elimination of self-consciousness; (8) a distortion of participants’ sense of time; (9) the experience being as “autotelic” or enjoyable in itself.3
Flow has been studied in numerous contexts including daily experience, athletics, professional dance, work and leisure environments, and family life.4 The application of flow theory in multiple contexts is possible because it is neither an artificial construct, nor the discovery of a new psychological state. Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that “to call it a ‘discovery’ is perhaps misleading, for people have been aware of [flow] since the dawn of time.”5 Studies have also shown that flow experiences are not limited to specific cultural contexts, but are instead a universally recognized feature of human life.6
Flow’s universality facilitates the application of flow theory in theatrical contexts. Its incidence in training actors has been studied by Jeffery J. Martin and Keir Cutler, who concluded that flow experiences were neither common nor rare for their sample group: respondents experienced flow approximately four times per year on average.7 Similarly, John Gruzlier, Atsako Inoue, Roger Smart, Anthony Steed, and Tony Steffert conducted an experiment in which actors were provided neurofeedback training. In analyzing their results, Gruzlier et al. found a...