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.
What I really like about this is that it forces other actors to really listen and pay attention to what the other actors were doing. Very clever.