Stoic Philosophy Influencing Acting Theory
by Geoffrey Howard
After studying David Mamet for some time as part of my MFA thesis work, I began to see a connection between his writings and Stoicism. This connection is explored more specifically later in this chapter. I began to read about such Stoic philosophers as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. What I found went beyond a clearer understanding of David Mamet’s playwriting. I discovered that Stoicism can inform acting theory considerably. After acquainting myself with Stoicism’s instruction to the philosopher and comparing it to other acting theories, I began to formulate a new theoretical approach to the training of actors. I call it the Stoic Actor. The Stoic actor is neither bland nor impassive but applies a certain philosophy to his or her craft which restricts their attention to things within their immediate control. Calling it a system may conjure up images of rigid instruction and lines that may not be crossed. It is more of a viewpoint, a way of looking at life and acting. More than applying new labels to old ways, it takes the sometimes confusing and complicated approaches to acting and streamlines them into three areas of study: impulse, action, and opinion. These areas have been addressed by acting theorists before. The Stoic actor merely moves the rest of his or her training into the background. By directing his or her attention to the three aforementioned areas, the Stoic actor arrives at emotional depth, range, and honesty with ease.
Stoicism was a philosophical movement lasting about five hundred years, beginning in the third century B.C. with Zeno of Citium. It takes its name from the Painted Portico or Stoa Poikile in Greek. The school first met here in Athens, where Zeno began his teaching. Stoic philosophy is commonly identified by its pragmatic approach and emotional detachment toward life. At its very core, however, it is seen as ultimately concerned with one guiding question, “Is it within my control?” Life elements are categorized by what is within a person’s control and what is not. A person is advised to concern him or herself only with those things within his or her own control, be they emotional, sociological, physical or economical. Elements outside of a person’s control are considered of no importance. Above all else, the Stoic is encouraged to pursue virtue in accordance with nature resulting in a state of eudaimonia, or “smooth flow of life.”
In this spirit, the Stoic approach toward acting concerns itself with isolating that which is essential to the actor’s craft in terms of characterization and even performance skills, such as diction, enunciation, or vocal projection at an elemental level and finding application. While the Stoics were not speaking to actors, this study does begin with an examination of their basic instruction to philosophers. It then finds application to the actor. Essentially actors are reading a text meant for philosophers. That actors may find application for their craft from other disciplines is an accepted axiom of this study. I begin with the first tenet set down by Epictetus in the Enchiridion, a manual written for philosophers. Herein lies the essential guiding thought behind Stoicism.
Some things are in our control and others are not. Things in our control are opinion, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body (genetics, unforeseen illnesses or accidents), property, reputation, command (office or status), and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions. . . . if it concerns anything outside of your control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you. (Commins 253)
Note the admonition to be only concerned with that which is within one’s control and furthermore the identification of opinion, impulse, and actions as the only things within one’s control. This same idea is found expressed in the acting text, A Practical Handbook for the Actor. It is a text that was written by students of an acting class taught by David Mamet and William H. Macy. Mamet mentions in the forward to this text that “it is not up to you whether you will succeed or not, all that is within your control is your intention” (Bruder, xi). An actor may meet with a wonderful acting career or they may not. They may experience wonderful acting performances or they may not. That is not within their control. Their intention – their action – is all they have control over. The first advice the authors give actors in this text is:
The best thing you can do for yourself as an actor is to clearly define and list those things that are your responsibilities and separate them from those things that are not. In other words, itemize what is within your control and what is not. If you apply this rather Stoic philosophy of working on only those things within your control and not concerning yourself with those things that are not, then every moment you spend will be concretely contributing to your growth as an actor. (4-5)
Actors are asked to examine all that may concern them and ask whether or not it is within their control. If it is not, then it means nothing to them. Some of the difficulties that actors face when confronted with this philosophy is the clear definition of what is inside and outside one’s control. In discussing this theory with my own acting students, I have been met with the following situation that gives rise to worthy objections to this argument. The student will bring up the point where Epictetus says that the body is not within our control. However, we can exercise, and we have changed our bodies for the better. Conversely , we can choose to eat poorly and our bodies suffer. Therefore, we do control our bodies. The Stoic would respond by identifying exactly what was directly controlled. You did not merely will your body into shape. You chose to alter your actions to achieve a desired result.
But I can control my acting profession, actors may say. How? Through study, training, and rehearsal. I can take voice lessons. I could learn to dance better. Then clearly you have identified what you do indeed control. You do not control that which is outside yourself. You control the action choices you make in order to achieve your goals. This may sound incredibly simple and self-evident. It is. Why actors insist on ambiguous goals in their acting when they know how to make specific action choices in real life is an interesting phenomenon indeed.
This study begins with the three life elements mentioned by Epictetus: impulse, action, and opinion. I then explore their application to the actor’s craft.
It is difficult to discuss impulse here without also discussing opinion which is covered in more detail later in this chapter. The Stoics believe that the cognitive and emotive life are intertwined. That is, there is no impulse reaction without there first being a judgement or “opinion” of the event or agent. The “agent” can be understood here to be any person, animal, or entity that acts upon the Stoic actor. Impulse for the Stoic actor may best be defined as the “emotive impulse response.” This is not necessarily the physiological response such as banging your knee and saying, “ouch.” Nor is it raw instinct which drives a person toward certain survival related necessities. The focus here is on the impulse reaction that carries a substantial emotive quality. By substantial I do not mean excessive. It does not have to be a huge emotional reaction for it to be a substantial emotive impulse response. It can be as small as a deeper realization revealed only by a shift in the eyes. For example, someone enters the room and says, “We have to talk about something right now.” My opinion of the other will influence my emotive impulse response to that statement. If the person is my boss whom I respect deeply, then I may become very attentive to what he has to say. If the person is my boss for whom I have little respect, then I may only prepare myself to endure what I’m sure will be some droning drivel-talk about an upcoming board meeting.
Another example may be the following. A vase falls from my desk and lays broken. My opinion of the vase dictates my emotive impulse response. If the vase was bought for ten cents at a garage sale and I only needed it to hold my pencils, then the loss is of little consequence to me. If the vase were a treasure given to me by a friend who searched high and low to give it to me, then the loss carries a greater emotive quality.
I do not propose that an actor should “restrain” him or herself, but I join the other voices in acting theory history in encouraging the freedom of impulse. Sandford Meisner would have actors lay themselves open to the instinctual response. I trained in the Meisner Technique with Sandra Horner in Minneapolis, MN. The preliminary training in the Meisner Technique is focused on freeing the actor’s instinctual reactions to stimuli. Later exercises deal with impulses rising from committed action. The entire fabric of Meisner training is interwoven with the idea that an actor must first trust their impulses and learn to act on them. “Work from your instincts.” is the constant admonition of Sanford Meisner (Meisner, 31).
In similar fashion, the Grotowski tradition of actor training speaks of training via negativa. From his book, Towards a Poor Theatre, we find:
The education of an actor in our theatre is not a matter of teaching him something; we attempt to eliminate his organism’s resistance to this psychic process. The result is a freedom from the time-lapse between inner impulse and outer reaction in such a way that the impulse is already an outer reaction. Impulse and action are concurrent: the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses. (Grotowski 16)
In the Grotowski technique, rather than accumulating skills, the actor is “burned away.” There is an eradication of blocks so that all that remains is a series of inner impulses and outer manifestations. This sentiment is echoed in A Practical Handbook for the Actor:
Don’t censor or judge your impulses; do whatever occurs to you and don’t worry about whether it is appropriate for the scene. There will be times when some of your impulses will end up running counter to your action. For instance, during the course of a scene in which you are making amends, you might offend the other person by yelling at him. What you must now deal with is the fact that you’ve made a mistake. Don’t be afraid of trying anything and everything you think would aid your action in a given moment. Allow all your impulses out without censoring or judging them. (Bruder 41)
Similarly, within the same book, actors are encouraged to live in the moment. That is, they are encouraged to “react impulsively to what the other actor in the scene does, according to the dictates of your action (88).” Impulse occurs in moments – in the present. The very nature of theatre is ethereal and passing. It passes through the actor’s and spectator’s life and is gone. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the actor to enter those moments fully.
The Stoics understood this delicate and tenuous grasp we have on the present. Marcus Aurelius spoke of how the present was the only thing a person could ever lose. “For a man cannot lose either the past or the future: for what a man has not, how can any one take this from him? . . . For the present is the only thing which a man can be deprived” (Commins 289). Recall a moment in your life of particular importance. It was a moment you knew was passing, and with quiet awe you absorbed it totally, knowing it was soon to go away. I believe the Stoic actor needs to first grow as an individual, capable of walking through life, aware of the moments that are passing and engaging them fully. The actor unable to enter into life’s moments fully will be ill prepared to enter into created moments.
Sanford Meisner says, “It is my belief that talent comes from instinct” (30). There is within the actor an impulsive, instinctual nature where creativity resides. It is close to what some may consider to be our dark side or our socially unacceptable side, if you will. Clarrisa Pinkola Estes, speaking on how the feminine instinctive nature has been “looted,” says in Women Who Run With the Wolves:
We are all filled with a longing for the wild. There are few culturally sanctioned antidotes for this yearning. We were taught to feel shame for such a desire. We grew our hair long and used it to hide our feelings. But the shadow of Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and in our nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed. (xvii)
While this text speaks to women specifically, I believe this statement can find resonance in every person and for the purposes of this study, every actor. In talking with one student, Meisner said, “The tendency nowadays is to follow your instincts only when they are socially acceptable” (30). A taming has occurred. I have worked with young actors who approach their training and acting with shame and propriety stifling their impulses. They edit themselves. They examine their responses before releasing them for public consumption. What results is either a cold, clumsy approach to creating truthful moments, or a heavy shellacking of skills and techniques the actor can conveniently hide behind, or a total occlusion to discovery found in releasing the impulsive nature.
This is where I believe actor training should begin – the ability to trust, release and act upon impulses. To apply this theory to actor training I would encourage more freedom in classroom settings. Allow students to swear or cuss during improv games. If you edit their behavior, then they will too. In no way do I propose total disrespect and anarchy. Only allow students to express themselves wherever they are. The students will soon grow tired of the cheap gutter humor themselves. Let them work through it and discover. Let them release their “darker” side in games such as Instant Argument.
Instant Argument is a simple and fast game where two actors are given a relationship with each other and then a subject to argue over. An example may be two roommates arguing over the fact that one of them does not have this month’s rent. The actors engage the argument full force shouting at each other. They should yell over each other. It appears that they are not listening to each other, yet within the game they do hear the other and because they are yelling and have to maintain a certain level of energy and constant talking they have to react impulsively to the other’s comments. The acting coach starts the argument by counting to three. At three, the two begin arguing. Within just a few seconds, the coach claps his or her hands together. This is the signal for them to go “over the top” into uncontrollable shrieking. The game stops just seconds afterward. This may sound highly caustic and detrimental. However, by releasing these more easily manifested aspects of the actor’s impulses, they will soon find the more subtle aspects of impulse being released.
Within this stage of training there lies a dichotomy. On the one hand the instructor wants the student to free themselves from societal editing and cultural assumptions. On the other hand, there is the very real need for sensitivity.
I was very fortunate to be able to enter into a personal email discussion with Dr. Lawrence Becker, author of A New Stoicism. He was interested in my application of Stoicism to an art form and was of considerable help to me. Regarding sensitivity, we discussed the Stoic maturing process of oikieosis (Oye-Key-O-Sis), sometimes interpreted as “appropriation.” It is the growth toward being concerned for the other for their own sake as much as one would be concerned for one’s own self.
This addresses the concern I have for the actor’s ability to listen. The word “listen” is too small to carry what I want it to here. It seems that the average actor does not listen at their core being. That is, they merely wait for their turn to speak. The Stoic actor should be able to enter any room and quickly determine who is having a bad day without their being a word spoken. They must learn to listen with their entire being, picking up the smallest signals and allowing them to influence their own behavior. They must be willing to let in whatever the other does. This is the state of communion – perceiving and accepting anything from the other.
Stoic actor training should begin with exercises designed to move the actor into a continual listening posture. After acquiring the ability to listen to themselves, the Stoic actor will begin to direct their “listening” to outside of themselves. The first challenge in impulse training is to release instinct regardless of propriety. The second challenge is to release impulse in sensitive connection to the other actor. Once impulse has been released it then must learn to lay quiet, waiting for its incitement. The actor wants to do nothing until the other makes him or her. I have worked with actors who have great impulses and are very inventive. However, they at times lack the ability to listen, to connect to their partner. They wonder why their scenes fall apart or lack honesty and often blame the other for being closed up. What has really occurred is a failure on the first actor to listen to the other. No actor works in a vacuum. There is another there. What will they bring to the moment? It is incumbent upon the actor, in a sense, to be willing to go up there with nothing. The truest, most honest impulses are those released while being intimately connected to the other actor.
The second element in this approach is called by Epictetus the “will to get and will to avoid.” Basically these are action choices. Let us accept as a working definition that action is the physical pursuance of a specific goal. It is not necessarily movement. It certainly is not blocking, the physical movement of an actor on stage. The actor may plead for help and never leave a chair. This concept is not uncommon to the acting student. “Intention” or “motivation” are common terms in their vocabulary. Stoic philosophy influences action choices by asking that we only pursue or avoid those things within our control. This advice comes from the second aphorism of The Enchiridion:
Remember the will to get promises attainment of what you will, and the will to avoid promises escape from what you avoid; and he who fails to get what he wills is unfortunate, and he who does not escape what he wills to avoid is miserable. If then you try to avoid only what is unnatural in the region within your control, you will escape from all that you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease or death or poverty you will be miserable.
Therefore let your will to avoid have no concern with what is not in man’s power; direct it only to things in man’s power that are contrary to nature. . . . for if you will to get something not in man’s power you are bound to be unfortunate. (Commins 254)
By applying this philosophical advice to their craft, actors are instructed to refine their action choices at this basic level – is it within their sole control? If so, it is workable. If it is not, they should reexamine it. Of the two types of actions, pursuit and avoidance, Theophrastus might agree that pursuit is the stronger. Marcus Aurelius quotes him in Meditations, Book II, 10th aphorism:
The offences which are committed through desire are more blameable than those which are committed through anger. Rightly then, and in a way worthy of philosophy, he said that the offence which is committed with pleasure is more blameable than that which is committed with pain; and on the whole the one is more like a person who has been wronged and through pain is compelled to be angry; but the other is moved by his own impulse to do wrong, being carried away towards doing something by desire. (Commins 287)
Where Theophrastus considers actions motivated by desire to be more “blameable,” I interpret it as being dynamic and powerful. To desire something is the strongest action. Encourage actors to find what they desire in the scene or the moment and commit to fulfilling that desire. There are various expressions of commitment that can be viewed here. Is it an emotional commitment? An intellectual commitment? Or a intuitive commitment? The Stoic actor is primarily concerned with a decisional commitment. It is the clear defining of what the character wants and then pursuing that goal with no regard to how one feels during the pursuit. This is not an occlusion to emotion. Rather, it is an opening up to whatever attendant emotion will accompany the action choice. The woman pleading for the life of her son is not in the least concerned with her own emotional state, but ultimately concerned with the saving of her son’s life. She may experience a broad range of emotional values while pursuing this goal: anger, sadness, remorse, indignity, etc. It simply is not addressed in the choosing of actions. They will tag along of their own volition.
There is a need for honesty in action choices. Stanislavski is quoted in A Practical Handbook for the Actor as saying, “play well or badly, but play truly” (Bruder xi). Likewise, Marcus Aurelius notes that the
soul of man does violence to itself when it plays a part, and does or says anything insincerely and untruly (or) when it allows any act of its own and any movement to be without aim, and does anything thoughtlessly and without considering what it is, it being right that even the smallest things be done with reference to an end. (Commins 289)
Actors should not do violence to themselves by playing a part. Yet, we see it often – the actors who pretend or who fake their way through a scene merely indicating what their characters desire. Within the Stoic instruction to philosophers there is the recurring theme of “be what you wish to seem” (Bruder, xi). Epictetus admonishes philosophers to rarely speak of their philosophy, only to be it.
The sheep do not bring their grass to their shepherds and show them how much they have eaten, but they digest their fodder and then produce it in the form of wool and milk. Do the same yourself; instead of displaying your principles to the multitude, show them the results of the principles you have digested. (Commins, 270)
The advice as it applies to students of Stoic philosophy is as follows. Do you wish to be regarded as generous? Be generous. Do you wish to be seen as patient? Be patient. Do not put on a show. Do not display your abilities for the sake of having them seen. Of course, actors do just that. It is part of the job. Actors display their abilities. The Stoic actor, however, is advised to be what they wish to seem, not seem what they wish to be. The call is to honesty. What is honesty on stage? Are not actors making it all up anyway? Actors do indeed invent imaginary circumstances. The Stoic actor, however, is not behaving falsely. They seek to behave truthfully in imaginary circumstances. As Sanford Meisner puts it, “The foundation of acting is the reality of doing” (Meisner 16).
Every action should have an end. There should be that specific goal. Actors should be able to see in their partners whether or not they are succeeding in their goals. While the action should have its test in the other, it is also not to be manipulative. The guiding principle for action choices is ultimately, “Is it within my control?” Can I as an actor make my partner mad? No. According to Stoic principles, that is an emotion and emotions are not within our control . Most certainly the emotions of others are not within our control. I can not make you mad. I can, however, berate you or confront you with facts or push you. Just as in real life when we see our goal and take specific action to achieve that goal, so too must actors choose what they can specifically do to achieve their goal.
Let us accept as a working definition that opinion is a belief stronger than impression or vague notion and less strong than positive knowledge. It is not concerned with absolute truth, but what you perceive to be true. Epictetus maintains that when some event disturbs you, it is not the event that disturbs you, but your opinion or judgement on the event (Commins 255, 258). Likewise, when someone insults you, he or she does not insult you, but rather insults your opinion of yourself. It is your own thoughts which then offends you (259). The point here is that the other person, in and of himself, is not affecting you. Your opinion of yourself and the other is affecting you. Consider, for a moment, that some stranger for whom you had little regard, insulted you. Now recall a moment when someone for whom you held high regard expressed disappointment in you. Have you ever made a comment to someone that you meant in jest and they reacted hurtfully. Perhaps their opinion of themselves did not find a “fat joke” to be so humorous. Now in regards to acting, it is not the event or the word or the physical action that affects the character. It is your character’s opinion of that event, word, or physical action. Therefore, do not suppose that an action will have any impact on you if you have no opinion of the other character or the event. This ties into the earlier discussion of impulse.
Now regarding how opinion affects the actor’s outward action, I do not propose that an actor should “play an opinion.” This would only lead to indicative acting which may pass for action in the hands of an actor well equipped with a “bag of tricks.” Rather, the actor should couple their actions with opinion choices. Identifying opinion produces the adverb in an action. Adverbs are powerful components of action statements. They give characterization to actions, describing how the action will be played out. The action is what I am doing. The adverb is how I am doing it. It is the element of character. Sanford Meisner says in his book On Acting that “Character comes from how you do what you do”(156).
Here are some examples I’ve developed to illustrate this:
Two lovers in a room.
“I must pursue you.” is an action.
“You are so very desirable to me.” is an opinion.
This may lead to the action of “I must pursue you relentlessly.”
Examine this variation now.
“I must pursue you.” remains the action.
“It is not proper for me to have you.” is the new opinion.
This may lead to the action of “I must pursue you reluctantly.”
Notice now what happens when you couple the first action with the opinion, “You are a vile criminal to me.” The action may keep the adverb, “I must pursue you relentlessly.” However, this opinion choice colored the adverb differently. It gave it specificity. So often an action can be played emptily. Defining opinion will aid actors in connecting to the adverb in the action and to investing themselves deeper into the action. Opinion becomes the inner motive force behind the adverb. Epictetus gives this advice on how opinion alters action in relationships.
Everything has two handles, one by which you can carry it, the other by which you cannot. If your brother wrongs you, do not take it by that handle, the handle of his wrong, for you cannot carry it by that. Rather, take it by the other handle – that he is your brother, brought up with you, and you then you will take it by the handle that you can carry by. (269)
Examine this example as an acting scene. You are in a scene in which your trusted brother wrongs you. The reply is not, “You worthless bastard, you have wronged me.” Rather it is, “My own brother whom I love and trust, you have done this to me?” It is a matter of identifying relationships, and the opinions they form that will lead to fully colored actions. Approach acting situations with your hand on the proper handle – What is my opinion of the other? Characterization becomes not a matter of posing, cliches, or tricks designed to trigger the lazy mind toward recognition of stereotypes, but it becomes a fine art with specific results. Encourage actors to go beyond simple role definitions. Ask them, “Is this man your father or your daddy?” Relationships are not so clear cut and simple. Is she your wife? Your “ball and chain?” Your bride? Your lover? Your friend? Remember also that characters have opinions of themselves. Often shaped by outside influences, but ultimately they are the character’s own. If I am confident, then insults land differently on me, as does praise. Avoid the trap of trying to work another’s opinion of you. It only shapes your opinion of them. That is what is within your control.
Where is emotion work in this approach? It is learned and forgotten. Will the Stoic actor experience emotion? Certainly. He or she simply does not seek it out. It will come or it will not, depending upon the level of commitment to action, honesty and clarity of opinion, and trust in impulse. Emotionalism is nothing more than our willingness and ability to connect to something meaningful. I am not opposed to emotion training for the actor. I am, however, leery of emotional traps. There are two evils regarding the actor and emotion training. There is the actor who holds on to a particular emotion and there is the actor who holds back from an emotional experience.
Regarding actors who hold on, I have seen actors begin to enjoy their emotions so much and become so proud of their ability to be emotional that what results is a beautiful expression of emotion with little regard to what the action is. I have seen actors hold on to a particular emotion they arrive at because it felt so good and rewarding to have arrived at a moment where they can honestly feel something on stage. What occurs is an inner psychic loop where the actor is more concerned with sustaining their emotional state rather than sustaining the intimate connection or communion with the other. These actors tend to forget that they are not working to achieve an emotional state within themselves. They work so the audience may achieve an emotional state.
The actor who holds back is that one who is unwilling to engage an emotional experience that might rise honestly from a situation. This actor will see an emotional quality rising up within and rather than allowing it to find expression, he or she will suppress it. This actor may benefit from exercises that deal with confronting personal emotional experiences and allowing them to find expression. The Stanislavski/Boleslavski tradition would have actors recall past events in their life with increasingly specific details in order to arrive at the attendant emotion. The attendant emotion is that emotion which accompanies the details recalled. The actor on stage, however, has no time to be reliving a past trauma in order to feel something. They have only time to be in the moment. In my opinion, emotion exercises serve only to train the actor in one aspect – their willingness and ability to connect to something meaningful. After this ability is cultivated, then the actor can connect to anything meaningful, such as a created moment on stage or a monologue that is simply allowed to “get to them.” The Stoic actor does not force emotional moments, he or she allows them.
Through understanding essential Stoicism, one may better understand David Mamet when he says in his book, True and False:
The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page. They are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of character upon the stage.
To create this illusion the actor has to undergo nothing whatever. He or she is as free of the necessity of ‘feeling’ as the magician is free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers. The magician creates an illusion in the mind of the audience. So does the actor. (Mamet, 9)
The Stoic actor is free to feel without being required to feel. Arrival of emotion within the Stoic approach to acting either occurs or it does not. It is not a measure of success as seen in so many versions of method acting.
Where then is the reward? The Stoic sage is encouraged to not pursue anything as a means to an end. One does not act a certain way or perform certain duties only so that a possible future “happiness” may follow. According to Stoic principles, the actor can not control the audience response. If the positive audience response is outside the Stoic actor’s control and therefore of no importance, then why act at all? Does the actor not perform in order to receive the warm ovation during the curtain call? If this is removed, then where is the reward or motivation to act at all?
In further discussions with Dr. Lawrence Becker, the Stoic ideal of eudaimonia, (You-Die-Mo-Knee-Ah) began to find particular application here. It is sometimes poorly translated as “happiness.” This does not begin to encompass what it means. Contemporary attitudes toward happiness tend to regard it as an end reward of a separate activity. Material possessions, a lifestyle, or endeavors are pursued because there is the promise of happiness as a result. As mentioned earlier, eudaimonia is the Stoic concept or ideal of a “smooth flow of life” found by realizing that the pursuit of virtue is its own reward. Virtue or “Arete” can also be translated as “excellence.” Therefore, it can be accepted in Stoic circles that eudaimonia is the belief that the pursuit of excellence is its own reward. The idea is that one should not pursue virtue or excellence in one’s life for another end. It is its own end. It is not something sought just so that another end may be achieved. One does not act virtuous just so as to earn the respect of others. Virtuous living is its own reward. It does not matter who does or does not respect you.
For the Stoic actor then, eudaimonia is the pursuit of excellence which is its own end. Excellence or Stoic virtue, for the actor, is found in the pursuit of those truthful moments of honesty which are passed through and the joy of creation is the only thing left. The artist paints to paint, the poet writes to write, and the musician is most alive when the song flows from him. The highest point of their creative life is found in the creating. While I fully believe that the theatrical art is not finished until it is completed in the audience, it has become easy for actors to prostitute themselves in their art so that they work harder for the recognition than they do to create. They will find themselves going for the easy laugh at the expense of an honest moment or they will “milk” a dramatic pause only because they feel the audience will pity them more. One can argue that both performers and audiences alike are being conditioned to accept this due to the emotionally manipulative styles of many successful contemporary movies. It is the immature actor who craves the applause or the laugh to ensure him that he or she has done a good job. The mature actor knows when they have truly created and when they have merely indicated.
So where is applause or laughter in the Stoic actor equation? If the positive audience response is outside the Stoic’s control and therefore nothing to him, then how should the Stoic actor regard it? The positive audience response is relegated to the preferred but not controlled list. Here we have to understand the Stoic admonition to follow your nature or “preferences.” It is an understanding of your nature and then a resignation to follow that nature. For example, the sheep prefers to eat grass rather than stones. It is not out of pride that it eats grass. It is merely within the sheep’s distinctive nature to prefer grass over stones. It may be within a man’s nature to prefer success over failure in their endeavors. The Stoic sage is given to understand that while neither one should directly affect the contentment of his soul, he may well prefer success over failure. It is merely within his nature. Success is seen as one of the “preferred indifferents” of the Stoic life.
To apply this perspective for the Stoic actor, one must understand the certain distinctive qualities inherent to the nature of theatre. By understanding these as inherent qualities and not motivated out of a need for selfish ends, the Stoic actor can approach his or her craft with a mature attitude. First, it can be argued that it is within the distinctive nature of theatre that it be performed in front of an audience. Peter Brook in The Empty Space said, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (9). There is the long held belief in dramatic criticism that the theatre exists to both teach and to entertain the audience. This assumes the existence of an audience to receive the teaching and entertainment. All that is required for theatre to exist is an actor, a space, and at least one audience member. Secondly, it has been encouraged in various acting theories that the actor should seek, above all, to enter into truthful moments on stage. While the Stoic sage seeks to live a virtuous life that is its own reward, the Stoic actor is not always playing a virtuous character. He or she will pursue the virtue found in playing honestly those truthful moments on stage. Finally, it is not a long stretch to assume that it is also part of the distinctive nature of theatre to prefer the positive audience response over the negative one. This is akin to the Stoic sage’s preference for success over failure. The point is that the Stoic actor will know when they are entering into truthful moments of creation and when they are not. Every audience is different and will bring their own tastes, likes and dislikes to the theatre experience. The Stoic actor will not gauge their work solely on the ovation or the lack thereof.
The audience is not thrown away as an afterthought in this approach. They are not ignored. The art of theatre is completed in their viewing. I do not speak of a passive viewing. The audience comes to the theatre to have an experience. They come to the theatre to encounter, with the actors, the human experience. By acknowledging that the audience is not a judge, the Stoic actor will see the audience in the proper perspective. They are there as part of the inherent nature of theatre, co-creators working with them. While any actor, regardless of how “stoic” they wish to be, will enjoy the positive audience response, it should only ever run a “close second” to the eudaimonia experienced in the moment of creation.
These same moments can occur in the absence of the audience, in the rehearsal setting. Actors can be working a scene and discover a new subtext to their line which spurs another actor to a new discovery. A director may realize a new bit of blocking points up a moment better than a previous choice. Designers bring in choices that alter decisions for the better. Eudaimonia can be experienced strongly in these moments of collaboration where the primary concern is the creative moment being engaged completely.
Every actor will face the “cold” or “hot” audience. There will be those performances where the audience is reacting warmly to the work and the actors will respond to that and their performances will find new dynamics and energy. There are also those times when the audience is simply not as responsive as was expected. The audience feels cold and the actor slips into defeating self-doubts. They begin to wonder what they are doing wrong. The actor slips into introspection and may either begin to work too hard to “win” them back or surrender their work to apathy. At these moments, it is required of the actor to go back to where their craft is truly fed – to the intimate connection with the other onstage. The actor should go back to their action and opinion work. They should go back to what they are fighting for in their scene. Their reward – their eudaimonia – is found in the act of creating anew the truthful moment.
The Stoic actor will approach his or her craft with a mind toward three things: releasing and acting on impulse within the context of sensitive connections, defining clear playable actions, and making opinion choices for his or her character. The Stoic actor will also see that it is the creation of the art that is more rewarding than the recognition. The first and last question is always, “Is it within my control?”
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Touchstone, 1968.
Bruder, Melissa, et al. A Practical Handbook For The Actor. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.
Commins, Saxe, and Robert N. Linscott. Man and Man: The Social Philosophers. New York: Random House, 1947.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
Mamet, David. True and False — Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
Meisner, Sanford, and Dennis Longwell. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.
(Geoffrey Howard is completing his studies as an MFA Directing/Acting graduate student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.)