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An Actor’s Journey Into The Art of Learning

by MATT RYAN

I first came across The Art of Learning in my junior year in college. After about a year pondering Josh’s principles, as well as those of Tim Ferriss, and experimenting with them in my own acting work, I decided to test my knowledge and see if I understood them well enough to teach them to a group of people who were completely unfamiliar with them, and build the foundation of an acting company and show around the principles.

I used one of my favorite plays, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, to facilitate this process. I knew this show would work well because in order to work with it at all you need to strip away the crushing preconceptions of famous productions that have come before it, and thus are forced to operate from first principles. I also knew doing the show would get better actors to audition and more people in the audience come performance time.

I used Tim Ferriss’ Meta Learning Principle DiSSS (Deconstruction Selection Sequencing Simplification Stakes) to set the ground rules and operating principles for the company and show. In order to work as a team we needed to come up with unified terminology and operating rules. There are so many misconceptions and traps that come along with acting and acting technique, and it is easy for a seven-member cast like ours to all be operating on different frequencies. After a few days of heated debate we came to the conclusion that our goal was the goal set by the forefathers of modern acting, Constantin Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov, which is Creative Self Expression. This is achieved through the way of Form-Transformation-Creative Self Expression; meaning once the form is mastered, then one can transform oneself, once transformation is mastered, true Creative Self Expression can ensue. This goes hand in hand with what Josh teaches in The Art of Learning over and over again. It rang the most true for me when he told the story of forcing The Buffalo to play Chess with him in the Push Hands World Championship.

It was important for this that I not only challenged everyone’s perceptions of what they thought acting was, but even more importantly, showed them that the process they were being taught was not conducive to mastery. I did this by flipping the process they knew so well completely on its head. Instead of the traditional hierarchical process of Director, Assistant Director, Stage Manager, Actors, etc., we would remove the hierarchy and run this like a lean startup, or better yet, like an elite sports team. An NFL team, for instance, trains together, practices together, studies together, plays together, and then when the time comes, performs together. Every player not only plays their position, they are also teacher and coach simultaneously. So for our production everyone was Director, Stage Manager, and Actor. This not only allowed us to be as efficient as possible, it taught us through constant application some of our most important principles. It taught candor with one another as well as with oneself, which then could lead to the most important principle: awareness of process.

We only had three and half weeks from casting to performance to achieve our objective. It is said that it takes an actor 20 years of training to be able to achieve true creative self-expression. So I knew I would have to sacrifice something somewhere. I decided that the technique that it takes to be able to transform oneself completely was far too vast and difficult to teach to a group of varying ability and experience in under 4 weeks. I felt that if I put our energy in the right places, enough transformation would occur through exploring depth with the other principles. So that meant we had to focus solely on awareness and givens of the story (meaning what clues does the playwright give to the actors on what their characters are supposed to do and how they do it.)

For the givens aspect of this, I decided to use Josh’s principle of “Learning the Macro from the Micro.” From personal experience I have noticed that when most actors create a character they only do it from limited perspective – either from their own life experience or from a two dimensional interpretation of character. What I mean by this is that we as people are almost entirely different people based on who we are around, but when people act on stage or screen it seems to be a person reacting exactly the same no matter where they are or who they are around. So we decided to create characters based on their interactions with other characters and other characters only, such that they should be an almost different person based on whom they are around. This taught us who these people were and leads me to my next principles.

“Form to Leave Form”, “Making Smaller Circles”, and “The Power of Presence” pervaded everything we did within these three weeks. Most importantly, they all centered around teaching one of the techniques that is the toughest to teach in acting and a quality that all great actors have, which is making every moment seem like it is the first time it has ever happened. “Living in the Present Moment” is tough when you have experienced that particular moment a hundred times over in rehearsal. We taught this by incorporating it into everything we did. We practiced daily mindfulness meditation. We played what I called the “Surprise Game” – during a scene, any time one actor felt like another was operating on autopilot, they had to surprise them in some way driven by their character. We also would come together as a company after every scene and we would answer a few questions I adopted from Jeff Sutherland’s SCRUM: “What worked? What didn’t work? How am I going to fix it? How am I going to put myself in a position to fail again next time?” These questions helped the cast quickly put themselves in a third person perspective so they could accurately gauge their work and progress over time. The last question, derived from Josh’s ‘Investment in Loss”, became a sort of mantra of ours. We used failure as an objective learning point rather than a subjective learning one. This not only made every acting moment interesting, it caused us to learn much more quickly because we were valuing the process over the results.

In the actual performance we made sure we kept this idea of process over results going. We had each actor performing some sort of an experiment while performing his or her part (I found in my own work that experimenting when the stakes were the highest led to massive learning jumps.) We would then break between each scene and answer our questions in front of the audience. The end result had a tremendous effect on all that attended and especially all that were part of the company. My goal from the beginning of this was that if I inspired one actor enough to realize their full potential or to head himself or herself into the journey of higher learning through Josh’s work, I would have succeeded. I am proud to say that almost every member in the company and a vast majority of the audience (about 40 in attendance) expressed their interest in delving into the world of higher learning.

For me the biggest thing that I realized through this workshop and my own studies with The Art of Learning was that finding this book was like finding a priceless artifact that has been tucked away in your basement for centuries. The more that you explore the artifact and its limits, you find that not only is the artifact the actual foundation of the house, it is the house. The Art of Learning is the key to a world that seems like fantasy, but is actually directly at your fingertips if you only reach for it.

Ithaca College

ITHACA, NY – After a year exploring the relationship between his study of acting and The Art of Learning principles, Matt Ryan, a senior at Ithaca College, developed an independent study through which he would test his knowledge of these concepts by teaching them to a group of people to whom they were completely unfamiliar.
Over the course of three weeks, Ryan and his cast of seven actors used the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire to explore their own connections to The Art of Learning principles and then present them to other members of the Ithaca College community.
Woven through the entire three-week workshop were multiple opportunities for the actors to practice Learning the Macro from the Micro, Making Smaller Circles, The Power of Presence, and Investment in Loss.  Their daily practice involved mindfulness meditation, games that challenged them to stay present within moments they had rehearsed many times before, and frequent reflections on successes and struggles within each scene with an eye toward incremental progress.
The performance itself continued the exploration of Valuing Process Before Results with each actor undertaking some sort of experiment while performing and then breaking between each scene to answer their questions in front of the audience.  Ryan explained that the performance had a powerful effect on the audience and the performers, many of whom have been inspired to continue to pursue deepening their own learning processes.
“For me, the biggest thing that I realized through this workshop and my own studies with The Art of Learning was that finding this book was like finding a priceless artifact that has been tucked away in your basement for centuries.  The more that you explore the artifact and its limits, you find that not only is the artifact the actual foundation of the house, it is the house.  The Art of Learning is the key to a world that seems like fantasy, but is actually directly at your fingertips if you only reach out for it.”

 

To learn more about Matt Ryan’s independent study workshop, read his Learning Journal post.

MP4P – Mental Practice For Performance

RICHMOND, VA – Scott Rohlwing created MP4P to address what he saw as the lack of emotional intelligence and performance psychology instruction for adolescents in both athletic and academic environments. “As a society, we’ve become so busy that tasks supersede just about everything. Many people are growing up not understanding Emotional Intelligence, relationship skills, coping skills, and mental strategies,” Rohlwing told the JWF. “I thoroughly believe that emotions are extremely important and the more we are educated on emotions, the more aware we are, and the more we can manage emotions, the better performers we will become and ultimately, better people. Embrace your emotion, acknowledge it, enhance it.”

Rohlwing is currently teaching a Mental Performance course to adults at the University of Richmond’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies. In this course his students explore the ideas of Emotional Intelligence and Performance Psychology through learning principles such as Investment in Loss, Beginner’s Mind, Using Adversity, Making Smaller Circles, Downward Spiral, Stress and Recovery, and Power of Presence.

He is further developing the MP4P program with a local volleyball club, and plans to expand to a variety of youth programs such as gymnastics, soccer, and football. Ultimately, he hopes to expand to offering elective courses in middle schools and high schools through mobile learning and online micro-lessons.

ONE Boulder Fitness

BOULDER, CO – Jessica Reiss, the Personal Training Director at ONE Boulder Fitness, supervises a staff of 13 personal trainers.  In her role as director, Reiss is interested in providing her trainers with the space to utilize their own creativity while supporting them in drawing on all of their strengths to provide their clientele with the best possible fitness experience.

She plans to have all of her trainers read The Art of Learning and to provide active workshops in which they practice the learning principles through movements. The team will then identify specific learning principles to incorporate into their training, such as how Making Smaller Circles by focusing on one area of the body with depth and intensity can help a person develop the tools to improve strength overall.
“In asking important questions like how to look inward, the internal growth will allow them to shine brighter for their clients,” Reiss says.  “I want to lead them into self discovery to become safely vulnerable in front of their clients to allow dialogue and relationship building.”
Reiss is particularly drawn to the concepts of Investment in Loss and Using Adversity within the realm of physical fitness.  “People get caught up with failures, which feel very real when experienced in the form of physical pain and discomfort. They don’t utilize these interpreted expressions of failure as part of success.  These failures diffuse them.  We have to see the value and the effort, not the outcome.”
With both her trainers and her personal clients, Reiss is interested in exploring the relationship between physical and emotional responses to adversity.  She plans to incorporate visualization and meditative breathing to help her staff and clientele create positive habits in one area of their lives in order to positively affect the whole.

Making Smaller Circles with Visual Design

By ALAN DOMIC

Visual design is a field drastically under-supplied with good learning resources. This could be of absolutely no relevance to you, but it was crucial to me when I started trying to learn it systematically. In that attempt, I came across The Art of Learning and gradually got much better at learning; along the way, I picked up some lessons that may turn out to have relevance for you. Writing about them all would fill a booklet, so in this article I’ll only give you some thoughts on the principle from The Art of Learning that has been the most consistently helpful to me at every level – Making smaller circles.

My initial use of Making smaller circles was for learning the macro from the micro. In my case, that meant designing the least complex element that requires the same kind of choices as a full-scale work (such as a printed page or webpage, for example). Using web design as an example, the humble webpage button is a good choice for this, since designing one entails decisions about typography (the design of text), color and layout; for the same reasons, a paragraph with a title works well. After designing many iterations of those basic elements, I was surprised how considerably my grasp of the fundamental principles was strengthened: earlier, I thought these elements would be too trivial to focus on. But I found that my workflow sped up greatly and a slowness I hadn’t even been aware of had disappeared – as if I’d been wading through molasses and suddenly broke free. I found the takeaway for learning abundantly clear: there is no “too trivial” element of the whole to focus on.

After many exercises involving just one element, I moved on to small-scale pieces consisting of a few elements, as a way of probing the understanding of my principles in a controlled environment. While doing these exercises, Tim Ferriss’ thought from The 4-Hour Chef that “the burden on working memory is what makes something easy or hard” kept popping into my head. It seemed absolutely true to me the first time I’d read it – but now I felt I understood it on a visceral level. A better understanding of fundamental principles also led me to appreciate design in a new way: a beautiful design now seemed to be simply one whose elements are in harmony. This isn’t a new idea, but I couldn’t appreciate it viscerally or experience it influencing my work before I’d refined my understanding of the key principles to a finer level. I should note that grasping what “being in harmony” means for any group of elements is arguably the stuff of being a great designer – it wasn’t that I achieved this, but I found the mark to aim at.

I eventually realized that this approach made me better attuned to the interplay of various elements. In many cases, a good design has a fractal-like quality: its parts mirror the whole. I now regularly work “from the inside out”, planning a piece not from its frame or the most visually dominant feature, but from the element that “carries most of the load” of conveying the message. This is analogous to planning a story from the most important element (the one carrying most of the narrative load) outward – which could be the characters, the setting, or the story arc, or some other element. Why this approach? Because I find the characteristics of this element determine most of the other relationships between elements, and these are what makes up the entire work. In many cases, these relationships mirror those within the main element – and those of the main element with secondary elements may mirror those between elements further out, and so on. This is how the work gets the fractal-like quality I spoke about earlier. In this way, using Making smaller circles for learning was a stepping stone for using it to learn about the structure of a full work. Broad usefulness of this kind, at any degree of proficiency, is the reason I’ve found this principle so universally helpful.

TRINITY VALLEY SCHOOL

FORT WORTH, TX – Trinity Valley School is a K-12 independent and innovative college preparatory school committed to providing their students with a broad liberal education in the arts and sciences.  Luke Jacob, Dean of Learning and Curriculum, is working with teachers in the 2nd, 7th, and 9th grades to develop multi-disciplinary models of The Art of Learning, with an aim to continue to grow each year until the entire school is working with the learning principles.

In each grade, a small team of teachers applies a particular learning principle at the same time, using similar language and lesson structures in their different classrooms.  That way, a given student (and his or her parents) encounters three or four iterations of the learning principle.  Jacob explains, “This allows for both the consistency and flexibility of the curriculum model, and in a way that would help everyone to see just how similarly the processes of learning function across different fields of study”.

A wonderful example of this process is with the second grade team consisting of Leslie Garcia (classroom teacher), Karen Arrington (technology), and Melissa Black (visual arts).  They have developed a unit of study around the principle of Making Smaller Circles.  The students explore the concept within the framework of each discipline and then combine their new-found knowledge to create a class e-book.  For a more detailed description of the second grade unit, please visit Karen Arrington’s blog or watch this video.

You can also see wonderful examples of the teachers’ lessons, unit outlines, assignments and more in the elementary (Leslie Garcia) and middle school (Tina Harper) sections of our Educators and Coaches resource page.