The Science of Acting

I recently viewed a profoundly moving speech given at this year’s TED Conference in Monterey, CA – it was presented by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor on the fascination she experienced when able to study her own brain while she was having a stroke.

The speech has haunted me for weeks, not only because of my generally-hidden passion for science as related to quantum physics and the consequent implications on the human body and psyche; but because it finally provided a clear, scientific answer to what I experience while performing on stage – the interaction between actor and actor, and the interaction between actor and audience.

First, for context, an excerpt of Bolte Taylor's speech detailing the primary functions of the human brain:

Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It's all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.

My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it's all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we've ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It's that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It's that little voice that says to me, "Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home, and eat 'em in the morning." It's that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it's that little voice that says to me, "I am. I am." And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me "I am," I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you.

With these brain functions finally delineated in a way I could understand, I’ve been far more cognizant of how I experience the world – my surroundings, my relationships, my interactions. All in all, I tend to embrace and honor my right brain-ness, yet have a constant undercurrent of streaming left-brain narrative and evaluation.

That said, I found myself rather shaken after having what seemed to be a wholly right-brain experience at an audition the week before last. I was in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, participating in what turned out to be a six-hour audition. It boiled down to about 4% actually auditioning on stage in front of a director, 28% working scenes with audition partners or reading the sides over on my own, 32% chit-chatting with other actors, and 64% tedium.

There was one actor in particular (and thus to the point of my story) with whom I was assigned to read. We worked our scene multiple times, and then got to talking in generalities. The more we talked, the more we realized we had similar experiences with some of the same people, and thus, a connection was formed. Energy was shared. I didn’t realize the benefit of this exchange until we were in the audition room and our scene took on a whole new level of familiarity and spark.

When we were paired again later in the day, without the opportunity to first read over the scenes together, I was not concerned - it was like being at home on stage because I somehow trusted this actor implicitly. And he gave a powerful performance, and with it the finest gift – I felt this rush of strength and wisdom and insouciance being directed at me, and in turn it gave me license to summon up the same in myself and return it to him. He gave me the right to shine unabashedly, without censure. At one point, I had even put down my script because my character was done speaking but still on stage – I used that time to make physical discoveries, and to just live in the space. I did all of this without internal narrative – it just…happened.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like rays of sunlight burst out of my chest and destroyed the onlookers, a la Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hell, it probably didn’t look like anything special to anyone beyond our little sphere of interaction. But it felt important.

And I got cast.