In her book, The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and cognitive neuroscience, Rhonda Blair identifies parallels between the computational theory of mind and core theories of naturalist acting. Popular proponent of the computational theory of mind Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works) writes, “[b]ehaviour is an outcome of an internal struggle among many mental modules, and it’s played out on the chessboard of opportunities and constraints defined by other people’s behaviour” (Pinker 1997: 42). This image of consciousness navigating a path that is opened up by opportunities or closed by limitations suggests a journey through a maze. The conscious organism is goal-driven attempting to accomplish something or prevent something from happening while encountering and managing these various obstacles (Blair 41). Blair makes the connection between the way that ordinary behaviour is being described and the ways that we think about acting (especially in the Stanislavski/Method style); a style that advocates for the development of a through asking questions about motivations (“What do I want?”) and uncovering through careful and insightful consideration of the text the character’s “given circumstances.” These given circumstances shape all behaviour both for ‘real’ people and for “realistic” or “mimetic” character performance.
The main insight that Blair derives from this connection is that the creation of character is not about “pretending” or some kind of possession but rather the actor creates and then performs a score. “The character becomes a set of choices and behaviours — a process, rather than a discrete entity, a motivated movement, rather than a gloss of feeling… a character becomes a dance” (Blair 82). For Blair, then this discovery supports her practical work as a director, encouraging actors to develop very detailed scores consisting of thoughts, questions, images, and body awarenesses (pulse, breathing, heat or cold, blush, itchy) to be integrated with the delivery of the text.
For myself, reading this with an interest in thinking about the differences/similarities between acting and not-acting, Blair’s articulation of acting as a score performed by the actor rather than a possession of the actor by an ontologically distinct entity brings acting and non-acting together in a productive way. Blair says provocatively: “There is no character in any fixed or pre-set sense, as in life, there is only the progress of a particular individual moving through a particular context, changing with each moment. What the actor is doing becomes simply — and complexly — that: what the actor is doing” (83). The exciting bit here for me is the new idea that what the actor does is no different than what the actual person does. Both navigate a maze of opportunities and limitations determined by one’s given circumstances and the changing field of the behaviour of other people. We react to these conditions while attempting to achieve goals. The only difference then between an actor who performs a character and me performing myself is that for me the given circumstances are my own and may not fully come into my awareness as such, whereas for the actor creating a character the given circumstances must be discovered or invented and they are not the original given circumstances of the actor body/”resident” consciousness.
In the case of the reality-based performance the score that the actor performs has been developed out of a series of given circumstances that are very similar to those of one’s own real life. Not only then, is the behavioural process of navigating the maze the same for a fictional character as for a reality-based character, but the given circumstances are not entirely fictional, they are drawn (mostly) from the original context of my experience and thus are also (mostly) the same. There is still, however, significant craft involved in sorting through choices in the creation of the performance score — other factors come into play that are not as prominent in the navigation of my life, such as narrative shape and balance.
So ultimately, this model by showing that there is no significant qualitative difference between the way behaviour is generated for a real person and for a fictional person, closes the gap between acting and not-acting, erasing that distinction. The difference lies only in the replacement of one set of given circumstances with another.
Blair, Rhonda. The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and cognitive neuroscience. London & New York: Routledge, 2008.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W.W.Norton, 1997.