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  • Writer's pictureAdam Scott-Rowley

Mindfulness and the Performing Arts

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

An initial inquiry into how mindfulness is applicable to the performing arts.

The research to date

There are relatively few papers discussing this intersection of mindfulness and performance disciplines however in the past few years, Dr Deborah Middleton of the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Psychophysical Performance Research has established a strong initial foothold in mindfulness based exploration within the performing arts through their Mindfulness and Performance Project (MAP) (Middleton, 2017). Before discussing the research of MAP and its associate projects within performance pedagogy, it is perhaps worth prefacing how we are to define the term mindfulness within this context. To align one’s thinking with Pla (2018) and Middleton (2017) would be to define mindfulness as more than simply “awareness training”. Middleton writes “…there is no justification for adopting the word 'mindfulness' for awareness practices in general. In speaking of 'mindfulness' in performance contexts, we should be cognizant of the full set of meanings carried by the original sati.” (Middleton, 2017). Middleton refers here to Bodhi’s (2011) definition of sati for a broader, more canonical and holistic perspective of mindfulness. It is also worth noting that there is somewhat of a cross-over within somatic training and mindfulness within acting pedagogy – this is particularly evident in the work of Christina Kapadocha who draws largely from her roots in the Alexander Technique (Kapadocha, 2017) – however for the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to focus on formal sitting mindfulness practice and how the results of doing this might affect actors and performers in their professional work and training.

A brief history of mindfulness in acting pedagogy

“To teach the student the art of self-observation the studio must teach him the laws of correct breathing… the correct position of the body… concentration and watchful discrimination… My whole system is based on this…"

A third of the time on three-year classical BA Acting courses within the UK is spent training and cultivating the actor’s breath and voice, with the other two thirds being movement and acting (The LAMDA website, 2019). Some international academies such as The Moscow Arts Theatre School, have their acting students spend their whole first year of training in silence, simply working on breathing techniques. At the core of these three disciplines lies the eastern concept of body-mind unity (Bloom et al., 2009, p.118); which within mindfulness circles, is a well understood concept. Although as mentioned, the literature on traditional mindfulness within acting pedagogy is a little sparse, it is clear that there are many shared practises and concepts that have been crossing over both mindfulness and actor training for a large portion of the twentieth century. Boston and Cook write:

“An extended gaze eastwards has been incorporated into western performance praxis for the greater part of the twentieth century onwards, in part to refresh and revalue its own moribund traditions. The origin of this case is complex but its recent incarnation relates in part to the liberation philosophies of the 1960s with their reaction to the authoritarian structures and materialistic values of the previous decade. This gave rise to a myriad of ‘new’ thinking about established orthodoxies that were mirrored by many involved with the theory and practices of performance. These all shared similar cultural origins, reflected a West to East gaze and were almost exclusively holistic in nature.” (Bloom et al., 2009 p.113).

This incorporation and “cultural exchange” of eastern practises within western performance pedagogy can also be seen in the work of Stanislavski, who was interested in yoga and meditative practises; Wegner (1976), cites Stanislavski (1918):

“To teach the student the art of self-observation the studio must teach him the laws of correct breathing… the correct position of the body… concentration and watchful discrimination… My whole system is based on this… And the first lesson in breathing must become the foundation of the development of that introspective attention, on which all the work in the art of the stage must be built.” (Wegner, 1976, pp.86-87)

The Undercurrent and The Observer

When considering the application of mindfulness as a formal sitting practice to acting training, it is worth mentioning “The Undercurrent” and “The Observer” (Regan-Addis and Choden, 2018, p.118). The undercurrent being the stirrings from our subconscious mind of which many thoughts, feelings and emotions arise - seemingly out of our control, and the observer being the part of our mind that we cultivate during meditation to observe the undercurrent with equanimity, integration and compassion. Understanding these two concepts could be a great tool for the actor as Krueger writes from his conversations with Nairn and Buckland: “…there might be a usefulness in developing what has been referred to as the double consciousness of the performers’ need to be in the moment while remaining aware of themselves as actors playing roles.” (Krueger, 2017, p.11). Cultivating this “double consciousness” in neuroscientific terms, is to make more efficient the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; the part of the brain which can help us break out of unaware “looped” thinking and shine awareness on our experience (Wax, Thubton and Ranpura, 2018, 19:20). In theatrical terms, this “double consciousness” is comparable to an actor’s ability on stage to be present in the moment, aware of their surroundings, and embodied in their physicality (the observer) whilst simultaneously being aware of their positive and negative thoughts arising, dealing sensibly and compassionately with nerves, and simulating feelings and emotions born of the on-stage circumstances (the undercurrent). From a personal perspective, I have found this quality of “double consciousness” fascinating when performing. Engaging the observing mind whilst the voice, breath and body perform their rehearsed actions has certainly felt like a meditative experience. It also gives space for the actor to ‘drop-in’ to the present moment and engage with the audience. This is particularly helpful in soliloquy and monologue or stand-up comedy situations within performance. Further research has been developed on this topic by Professor Cassiano Sydow Quilici at the Instituto de Artes da Universidade Estadual de Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil. In his paper he notes that famous theatre practitioners such as Artaud and Brecht were long fascinated by the concept of the actor developing an “internal spectator”. He writes “…a ‘good internal gaze’ is one which is neither excessively critical or inhibiting, nor condescending or narcissistic. It is a specific modality of attention capable of evaluating and refining the quality of actions.” (Quilici, 2017, p.2). In Quilici’s performance research he has established formal sitting meditation practise within his rehearsal room as a “foundational exercise” that creates a sacred mental space in which art can be built. He goes on to say that when transposing this exercise from the rehearsal room to a performance space such as a theatre, the same quality of ‘space’ arising from the seated meditation practice can be applied. If one can first and foremost understand the theatre as a space in which art can be built and creativity emerge, then comparing that to the mental space created in sitting meditation practise can offer a sense of ease and creative freedom (ibid.). I would suggest that this analogy is synonymous to Nairn’s comments below on mindfulness and creativity.

"If one can first and foremost understand the theatre as a space in which art can be built and creativity emerge, then comparing that to the mental space created in sitting meditation practise can offer a sense of ease and creative freedom."

“Monkey mind” and creativity

A further point of interest in Krueger’s paper is his discussions with Nairn and Buckland regarding creativity and the “monkey mind”. The monkey mind here meaning the untrained mind (absent of mindfulness) that doesn’t have mindful focus. Nairn suggests that all creativity comes from the settled mind and if the mind is caught up in thinking, then it is “siphoning off energy all the time” and that “creativity doesn’t start until the chattering mind subsidies” (Krueger, 2017, citing Nairn, p.13). Whilst I can relate to this idea, it is worth mentioning my experiences in devising and collaborative rehearsal rooms where actors are regularly encouraged to develop and improvise ideas very quickly, often snowballing off of each other in high-pressured situations. Many practitioners talk of the benefits of the “exquisite time constricted mind” for creativity, saying that a mind pressured to come up with an idea quickly often produces the most interesting results. I have seen this in action during a devising game called “Yes. / And then? / No it didn’t. / Make it darker!”. In this game the actors are in pairs; Actor A starts to improvise and act out a story in the first person, whilst Actor B responds to their story with options from the title of the game. When “No it didn’t” is used, Actor A must quickly change the plot and action for the story to continue. I would suggest that this game is the opposite to a mindful practice because the actor is encouraged to think incredibly quickly whilst they are bombarded with stimuli from their partner and the reactions of everyone else in the rehearsal room. It is worth noting however, that this game produces fantastic immediate results for devising and taps into a creative state quickly and efficiently. A further area of investigation would be to understand the quality of this creativity in comparison to a creative process stemming directly from a mindfulness practice. This could be explored in rehearsal over time with a qualitative research approach consulting directors, actors, writers, and other creative practitioners.

To touch again on Krueger’s conversation with Nairn where Nairn suggests that:

“All forms of creativity are pushing the boundaries of the known, and the known is the safe territory of the egocentric.’ He makes the point that the more egocentric one is the more one will be ‘invested in the past,’ which will stifle one’s creativity. If one is prepared to ‘let go of the past,’ then ‘the domination of the known territory of the conceptual mind [will be] continually challenged, and that’s what we’re trying to do in meditation.’ (Krueger, citing Nairn, 2017, p.3).

This wonderfully summarises how the actor can unlock their creativity by bypassing the egocentric ‘literal’, “monkey” thinking mind and move into a more exciting ‘lateral’ space where creativity is capable of flourishing.

Understanding oneself

“Some people don’t even know when they’re afraid. They’re just acting out… or they don’t see that there’s some sort of fear behind anger. And if theatre is about humanity, then finding all the tools that we can to help us interpret the human experience and create it more richly onstage is helpful.”

Using mindfulness as a practice to develop a more intimate relationship with oneself and to understand one’s mind better could also be a useful area for actors to explore. If an actor is better able to understand their own mind through the practise of mindfulness, then they arebecoming more aware, more forgiving, more compassionate, and more understanding of the human condition. This could work in multiple ways; one being the actor develops a more intimate relationship with their thoughts and feelings, meaning that when it came to reproduce those in an acting context, they would be more realistic and better performed. This also relates to Krueger’s conversation with Janni Younge, the master puppet designer and theatre director. She uses mindfulness to tackle fear in rehearsals and deal productively with those who might be acting out as a result of the creative process. She comments:

“Some people don’t even know when they’re afraid. They’re just acting out… or they don’t see that there’s some sort of fear behind anger. And if theatre is about humanity, then finding all the tools that we can to help us interpret the human experience and create it more richly onstage is helpful.” (Krueger, citing Younge, 2017, p.8).

Younge regularly sits in formal mindfulness practise with her actors and creative teams to nurture the necessary space that ensures a calm, supportive environment that encourages people to put space between their thoughts and actions. I am reminded of Gilbert and Choden’s (2015, p.356) writings on method acting and how the compassion-based mindfulness practises are analogous to the imagined given circumstances an actor endows themselves with when preparing for a role. I wonder if this could work in a different way, in that the exercise gives actors a tool to distance themselves from unsavoury and/or troubled characters after the performance has finished. It is well known that creative people’s mental health is closely linked to their art (MacRobert, 2012) and so there is potentially a necessity for said creative people to develop a contemplative practice that is of benefit to their mental health and can assist them in returning to a calm, spacious and open mind.

Summary and conclusion

From an initial inquiry, it is clear that there are definite areas of applicability of mindfulness within performance and performance pedagogy. My original instinct, that these two disciplines were compatible was correct however further research and practical application needs to be done to gain a clearer perspective of how these disciplines and practises might engage with each other in a rehearsal room, professional stage, and drama school settings. I look forward to developing my own practice further – both of mindfulness and mindfulness within my performance work – to see what more can be discovered.

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