There are many ways one can use ‘Sensory Meditation’ (SM) as a basis for the Knock-at-the Door (KatD) improvisation – with an infinite number of personal variations. Once you’ve established enough familiarity with SM to understand how it works at all, you can begin to concentrate on using it before and during KatD.
It is important to state, even at this early stage, that as you go along you will need SM less and less during the improv, until eventually most people drop it altogether and work only ‘in the moment off the partner.’ It is individual to some extent and depends on what scene you are preparing.
It will become apparent that you are getting somewhere with the SM process when you keep flashing on the same memory or set of memories, which seem to relate to each other in some significant way – although their collective message may not be discernible at first. You can place your improv in the same place that your SM occurred. That place usually isn’t very exciting, as I’ve probably mentioned before. It’s apt to be the ‘same, old,’ ‘same old’ and you realize that’s part of repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over, which is what the exercise is all about. As you go deeper with the exercises, you become more ingenious at placing your partner- for whom you usually substitute a family member from your very early years.
As you practice this exercise more and more, you can be less strict about using early substitutions. Eventually your mind understands that later life is a repeat of earlier life – especially the traumatic aspects. The conflicts we get into replicate the past, which means that you are repeating the same old arguments over and over. Remember that as soon as you exit the conflict you end up ‘discussing’ not ‘conflicting’ – and that just isn’t dramatically interesting.
As I’ve said many times, conflict is a particular ‘state of being,’ in which one is endangered, frightened and imprisoned. The more deeply you enter this work, the more you comprehend why you have to follow strict procedures to get into it and why people will do anything to avoid pursuing acting in this manner – everything from going to sleep to attacking the methodology as unnecessary and absurd. Since the memories on which this work is based are from long ago, often in the beginning we feel far away and totally alienated from them.
Let us say that you have reached the point where you can initially enter the KatD Exercise with some ease, but find it very hard to keep up the necessary level of intensity. When you feel ‘out of it,’ it means that you have stopped listening and reacting to your partner.
In reality, when we are in an argument, we are often overwhelmed by the other person – there is no question of ‘not listening’ – I’m not talking about listening to the words, but rather to ‘the entire being,’ (more on this later). It is at this point that we ‘name’ as in ‘naming behavior.’ This is the whole basis of the exercise. You are supposed to feel all sorts of negative things like ‘out of it,’ sad, angry, disgusted, like giving up, etc. You want to win but are unable to – that’s a very unpleasant state to be in. Even when you reduce your partner to tears, they are ‘winning by losing,’ because it is their duty – and yours – never to give in. (There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare and will be explained at a later date.) When you finally master the technique, these feelings meet more or less with your approval; i.e. your conscious mind grudgingly accepts their unpleasantness as something ‘acceptable,’ if not actually ‘good.’
One thing I started noticing after I’d worked with these techniques for a long time was the difference between ‘inducing conflict’ and being ‘actually in conflict.’ They are completely different, as they should be. One is related to acting, based on the past which you have, at least to some extent, resolved. The ones that occur in your present life belong to the present, although they are always rooted in the past.
I’d like to make a slight digression here and use a personal example. Two nights ago, my husband and I went to see an outstandingly good movie, Before Midnight – some of you may have seen it. A long argument takes place between a husband and wife; it contains a severely knotted series of familial and work-related issues. The wife, to whom I related deeply, is voicing a fear that at some time in the future she may be manipulated into moving from one continent to another. Her husband remains more or less charming and helpful throughout this seriously fraught interchange. Many people watching this, especially men, obviously, would find him much more sympathetic. I related to her - not that I have anything against men - but because I am a very difficult person who is apt to give in ultimately out of guilt for having behaved like an absolute bitch.
The movie touched on a nerve for me, and after we returned I went into a slow burn about an issue that has bothered me for many years. It is initially rooted in the abandonment I felt when my mother died, but there are many instances since then which bring up the fear and pain of that early wound. Just seeing this movie, which had nothing directly to do with my early problem, but which reminded me of an abandonment-related subject connected to my husband, started a fight the next evening - one that upset me very deeply and was unpleasant for him.
I’m still recovering, but at least I know why I reacted that way. One of the things you find out during this particular learning process for acting is ‘what actually happened in the past.’ This gives you a measure of satisfaction – even if what you discover is worse than your child memory could comprehend. Often it’s sadder but less anyone’s ‘fault.’ You are learning about the human condition.
The reason for using the ‘seminal’ or original memories is that we can relate them to the ‘human condition.’ They make us sad but are usually attributable to a collective failure and not only the fault of one person or even one group of people. Also, we find that we have not been singled out, individually, for a particularly horrible fate. These long-ago memories are the actors’ food for endless chewing. This is not the same as grinding over someone’s bad behavior – even our own. When we allow this information to arise from the unconscious during an SM, instead of waiting for someone to randomly activate us, the objects or images connected to the memory give us an opportunity to study them more coolly, more scientifically, if you will.However, if we are in the middle of studying a role – or trying to write a Blog about studying a role – real life intrudes and we find ourselves getting really upset, as I did! That sort of remembering is ‘hot’ and truly upsetting. We cannot help but have them in ‘real life’ and when we are working on a role, but they don’t wear well for the actual ‘act of acting.’ That’s why ‘inducing’ memories is so much more effective, and worth the trouble to learn. We want the control that comes from ‘bringing it on’ rather than having it ‘invade from the unconscious...’