Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • Rethinking the Actor's Body: Dialogues with Neuroscience by Dick McCaw
Rethinking the Actor's Body: Dialogues with Neuroscience. Dick McCaw. London: Methuen, 2020; pp. 274.

British acting teacher and theatre practitioner Dick McCaw's Rethinking the Actor's Body: Dialogues with Neuroscience is intended as a companion piece to his 2018 movement training manual, Training the Actor's Body: A Guide. It provides some useful insight into the theories of the body that underlie McCaw's practices and their attempt to bring the training techniques of Stanislavski and Feldenkrais—rooted in an early twentieth-century understanding of behavioral psychology—in line with contemporary understandings of neurological processes. In undertaking such a project, McCaw also places the book in dialogue with other attempts to define the relationship between the actor's work and the physical operation of the human brain such as Rhonda Blair's The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and Cognitive Neuroscience (2008). Blair argues that there are significant gaps between the techniques actors use to create representations of action onstage and the cognitive processes that actually underlie human behavior. For Blair, those gaps are useful in creating performances that the spectator's brain can easily interpret. Conversely, McCaw contends that these gaps are not so great and that actor training should be working to bridge what remains of them.

Rethinking the Actor's Body is divided into two parts. The first part is made up of four chapters in which McCaw defines "the actor's and the everyday body (which are, of course, the same thing)" and explains how he conceives of "the interrelation between brain and body" (10). These chapters rehearse well-trodden critiques from the last several decades that actor training relies on Cartesian verbiage, which incorrectly theorizes the body and mind as separate entities in a hierarchical relationship. Beyond that, McCaw's first chapter explores different possibilities for conceptions of the body and the nuances of considering it alternately as subject and object. From there, his second chapter outlines how the "everyday body" is transformed into the "actor's body" through training. He argues that the leap from the actions of simple organisms like ticks and sea slugs to the precisely rehearsed dramatic actions that actors engage in is much smaller than we might expect on account of their common basis in action with purpose informed by sensory information. Chapter three explains that the creation of the actor's body is never complete, that it is constantly in the process of converting cognitive processes into instinctual or habitual ones through practice. According to McCaw, "The ego … gets in the way of the source of creativity" (85). For McCaw and the neuroscientists, this source of creativity is the subconscious activity of the brain unhampered by cognitive oversight. McCaw suggests that this is what Stanislavski means when he describes proper acting technique as "nature working freely" (85). Readers cannot help but be reminded of similar arguments from the long nineteenth century that positioned naturalism and realism as the ultimate forms of artistic expression due to their supposed scientific accuracy.

The argumentative structure of part two is less clear. It is instead more of a series of essays that seeks neurologically informed answers to some of acting theorists' classic questions: what does it mean to be "present" or to have "presence?" Does the body have a true, stable "center," or is the notion of "being centered" merely a useful metaphor? How does our mental image of our bodies correspond to the way we move through space, and can we reconstruct our way of moving by changing that image? By what process do we make emotions legible to other people, especially when so many of the symptoms of emotion (heart rate, pupil dilation, etc.) are outside our conscious control? McCaw concludes by acknowledging that being informed of the latest developments in cognitive science is unlikely to make the actor's job easier, but he hopes that his readers "think again about their own physical resources and potential, and in this act of rethinking to find new ways of doing" (224). Throughout the text, the author refers to his previously published practical guide as a way of suggesting his own "new ways of doing." This volume, however, is more concerned with providing justification for old, familiar ways.

Despite McCaw's stated intentions, a major project of the book seems to be retrofitting twenty-first-century studies of the brain/body to twentieth-century actor training practices. Stanislavski and Feldenkrais dominate as McCaw's interlocutors on performance training, and they are occasionally supplemented or countered by references to Meyerhold, Grotowski, Artaud, Alexander, Laban, Michael Chekhov, Clive Barker, and Peter Brook. This list, though not exhaustive, gives a sense of the book's exclusive focus on European practitioners. Aside from a paragraph on Tadashi Suzuki, mentions of practitioners from other parts of the world are absent. In a chapter devoted to the virtues of getting actors "out of their heads" and acting on preconscious impulse, it is strange (at least to a US reader) to see no mention of Meisner. The same is true of a section on the relationship between mirror neurons and emotional memory where Lee Strasberg is only invoked in a derisive quote from Olivier. It also applies to frequent discussions of "soft focus" and concepts such as spatial relationship and kinesthetic response that do not acknowledge their foundational importance to Anne Bogart's Viewpoints training. Vague references to theatrical styles such as Kathakali, Noh, and Peking Opera without examination of their continued impact [End Page 53] on performance in their respective cultures or on practitioners thereof seem equally strange. Even if all of this work had been done to expand the book's frame of reference, the text would retain the sense of being a historical account rather than an invitation for innovation.

None of this, however, should diminish the substantial achievements of Rethinking the Actor's Body. It integrates highly technical discourses on the body from theatre studies, cognitive science, anthropology, and philosophy into a cogent narrative that is accessible across disciplines. For actors and acting teachers looking to deepen their understanding of the mimetic function of the actor's body and the efficacy of psychophysical acting techniques, McCaw provides a fresh perspective on many compelling questions and poses some intriguing new ones for future consideration. It is the most up-to-date theoretical explanation of why theatrical realism endures as the dominant system of actor training in the West, and anyone who works in that style would benefit from McCaw's insight.

Dan Cullen
Independent Scholar

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