From Theater News Fall/Winter 1978 Vol. 6 No. I
Directing the Metaphoric Mind By Bernard Downs
At the National Convention of SCA in Washington, D.C. in November of 1978 there was a sparsely attended session sponsored by the Instructional Development Division entitled “Teaching the Metaphoric Mind.” The panel discussion centered upon the book The Metaphoric Mind, by Bob Samples (Addison Wesley, 1976).
Samples celebrates the “metaphoric mind” or the right half of the brain which governs the intuition, emotions and creative consciousness, while recognizing that the currently culturally dominant rational and analytical left half of the brain is overindulged, creating an imbalance and thwarting of human potential. He argues for human synergy, or a positive balance between the rational and creative parts of our minds, offering an impressive collection of sources‑anthropological, psychological, sociological‑to support his observations and goal.
My recall of the session and a later reading of the text itself is undoubtedly selective to my own concerns as teacher and director. But the institution of education was examined for its responsibility, and found guilty. The proceedings were initiated with a quote by Einstein: “The intuitive or metaphoric mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind its faithful servant.” Education was condemned for not admitting to this fact, rather it was accused of being “culture bound” to the chauvinistic attitude of admitting to the metaphoric mind as a rather charming if irrelevant attribute of “women, children, and Blacks.”
“Experts” in education, were recognized as those in the deepest ruts, worn by repeatedly experiencing the same cultural issue over and over again. Teachers were accused of displaying “rational neurosis,” a state occurring when students moved‑away from the rational structures the teachers had constructed and acted upon metaphoric behavior of their own. The session was obviously lively and concluded with the observation that the metaphoric mind would ultimately, and hopefully, replace ecology as an issue of national debate and concern.
The issue is not new. Lee Roloff addressed it upon at least two other convention occasions. And Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theatre, published in 1963 (Northwestern University), answers each of the theoretical concerns of the Washington symposium and provides an approach to “directing” the metaphoric mind that is highly adaptable to the concerns of Readers and Chamber Theatre.
The sacredness of intuitive behavior is honored by Spolin; she feels it transcends the restrictions of not only culture, but also education, race, age and psychology. The primary reason for Spolin’s method is to give recognition and opportunity for development and employment of the metaphoric in performance.
In order to release the metaphoric mind, which cannot be forced or evoked upon will, Spolin utilizes games. Each game provides a different point of concentration (or rules) for the player’ While the player is concentrating on the activity, the metaphoric self is “caught unawares” and functions without fear or resistance as the player flows with his preoccupation. Thus, intuitive behavior, or the metaphoric mind, is coalesced with the physical and intellectual self, forming a synergized whole. The excitement and spontaneity engendered by the game places the player in an environment which allows for the transcendence of the culture‑bound, linear, rational self.
Recently I was asked to coach a local community group of actors. They were touring the schools in a selection of scenes, including the first meeting of Katherine and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew (11, i). Originally, their performances were over controlled, neat, and dull. We commenced with the “Where Came” since they had not localized the scene, thinking of it as “only two people talking.” By themselves they drew a floor plan, selecting the setting of a courtyard which included a fountain, bench, tree, bed of roses, rake, and hoe. There were no physical props with the exception of a chair that was used for the bench. Their point of concentration was to use all the imaginary objects as they played the scene. Kate was gardening when Petruchio entered. As the scene progressed she tried to prevent his gaze by standing behind the. tree, clipping branches as an excuse for this behavior. He pursued, picking up the branches. She went to the fountain, splashed him with water when he followed, and retrieved the hoe to protect herself He grabbed the rake and started dueling, concluding with a peace offering of a rose. Sitting on the bench she accepted it, gave it a brief whiff, and knocked him into the thorny bed of roses. For the first time, there physical world about them became vibrantly alive, and so were they.
“Gibberish” is a “no‑symbol” speech game and with it as point of concentration, their whole bodies were engaged in communicating a language they knew the other did not understand. They insulted each other by mocking the peculiar sounds of the other’s “language,” and for the first time projected an arch quality that showed they knew they were playing games as Kate and Petruchio, but pretended they didn’t.
Finally we “Dubbed.” Persons of the opposite sex acted as off stage voices while the original partners mouthed the words in the scene on stage. The actors could not observe the offstage playing and had to justify the pauses and changes in interpretation. Katherine became tiger‑like and not entirely pure. Petruchio developed a courtliness and occasional gentility that acted in contrast with his strong physical self. At the end of the rehearsal the cast was exhilarated for having discovered many new directions for the scene and new playing capabilities within themselves.
A major reason for the Samples’ condemnation of education is its emphasis on “intellectual” Teaming. Samples is convinced that whenever “true” learning takes place, knowledge is encoded not only in our brains but in our central nervous system as well, that all our sensory capabilities function at once creating a total gestalt upon the moment of learning. In an effort to avoid an imbalance, Spolin is adamantly opposed to the presentation of her games on an intellectual or psychological level. She urges a physical or “non‑verbal” (viz., no lecture) approach, with only enough verbal information communicated to insure the student with a working knowledge of the task.
“Physicalize” is the key coaching word, as it is physicalizing which keeps the student in the ever-evolving world of direct perception. Analyzation, intellectualization, and dissection are considered without value unless these processes are assimilated and then physically communicated.
When I decided to stage an old radio script of Romeo and Juliet, I focused rehearsals on the voice. And because the cast was unique in their literary background we spent considerable and pleasurable time sharing our analyses of the text. Feeling comfortable in our understanding, and with diction and vocal exercises under our belt we set up our stage in the manner of an old fashioned radio station. After several sessions we made an audio tape for feedback. The readings were pretentious and self‑conscious. Forgetting the set, we played “Contact,” a game in which the speaker can deliver a line only after making some kind of physical contact with the person he is addressing, and each time he speaks it differs. Immediately there was life. When we returned to the radio set, the playing dropped to its old level of lifelessness. The players realized that if, they played Contact in their minds, while in the radio setting, and forgot trying to effect their analysis, they could give a good performance.
It isn’t likely for anyone who practices the Spolin to become an “expert” as a consequence of falling into an habitual rut of technique. She advocates no technique. Rather the needs of the literature and student dictate the choice of game played. In effect, a selection of problems (games) are chosen and worked through in an effort to resolve specific performance problems.
The posture of the expert is difficult to maintain in a situation which encourages neither repetitive choices nor dependencies, since both teacher and student are mutually in direct contact with the material and each has focus on the task from their own point of view. Both work for realization of the, literature not the maintenance of a system.
Working on Thurber’s “The Secret Life Walter Mitty,” I came upon a passage I wanted to illuminate by means of a visible metaphor: “The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.” The student hadn’t an idea about how to create the action, and neither had I. The “car” was a bentwood ice cream parlor chair. I told him to play with it, and not think of it as a chair but as an object a circus performer or athlete would use. Several days later we examined the results of his experimental play. Approaching the chair from the rear he straddle‑vaulted it, momentarily landing on the seat, got up, grasped it at the top and flung it into the air making a circular arc, and caught it in the same place where he had previously picked it up. ‘Mere was spontaneous applause from the cast for having created the moment.
It must be clear from the above that authoritarianism is not encouraged. Within any game structure the participants alone agree upon the rules. The rules are not imposed by an outside authority. When participating in the activity, all assume their own self-discipline in the achievement of the task. ‘Mere is no possibility for the development of a “rational neurosis” by the director in this structure. However, Spolin does suggest constant self‑surveillance in the eradication of approval/disapproval behavior from those whose background was authoritarian. The administration of approval or disapproval creates dependencies and destroys the atmosphere of freedom, which is the necessary ingredient for the uninhibited exploration of the environment by the student.
When I initially studied with Viola Spolin, I was in the process of completing my degree in acting at the Goodman School of Drama. All of us in the workshop had some previous dramatic training and were terribly excited and dedicated, having visions of touring the country in a “Second City” improvisational troupe. But soon after the classes started we began to cluster and ask one dominant and repeated question: “What does she want?” We were never praised or congratulated, and therefore we assumed we were not doing very well. However, neither were we berated.
Her only response was to ask the group if the performer sustained the point of concentration, and if so, whether the concentration was complete or incomplete. After a while we began to forget about what “she” thought, and began to work on the games and their evaluation with a responsibility that did not present itself before.
In terms of the major objections raised at the convention toward education, Spolin offers an approach to directing that cultivates the function of the metaphoric mind; does not intellectualize, but physicalizes; does not permit itself to become rutted in formula; and does position the director in such a manner as to prevent the development of “rational neurosis.”
Rather than share more personal responses to my use of Spolin I call attention to a study of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow.” flow” is a word Dr. Csikszentmihalyi uses to described behavior when one is completely immersed in what he is doing. In this state, persons lose a self‑conscious sense of self and time. They are so involved in what they are doing that they do not think of themselves as separate from the immediate activity. There is a sense of being lost in action, and a sense of altered time.
Concentration is vastly increased in that there is an intense and automatic centering of attention on the activity. There is also extraordinarily keen feedback from the activity. The individual knows instantly if the behavior is appropriate or not, but a person in flow does not stop to evaluate it. Rather he is too concerned with the experience to reflect upon it. These conditions of emergence and control evoke ecstatic feelings that everything is going just right‑in other words, we are having fun.
In order to achieve this state, certain conditions must be met: 1) There must be an even match between the difficulty of the challenge and the person’s ability to meet it; 2) A control environment is required to focus attention; 3) The participant must lay aside thoughts of the past or plans for the future and only focus attention on the moment; 4) The participant must possess a relaxed body and an alert mind.
Certainly we have all personally experienced flow, and there may be several directorial systems which we have employed that produce this quality in a cast. However, Spolin is the only system, in my experience, which does so in the least amount of time with an inexperienced cast or with one of mixed abilities. For instance: 1) There is an automatic individual adjustment between degree of difficulty and ability, creating a belief in the possibility of success. Each player comes to terms with the game in regard to his own capacity to experience. As a consequence, the games are adaptable to all regardless of previous experience, yet there is a continuous challenge to seek the solution and perfect the skill.
2) A control environment is immediately created by the use of the game structure.
3) Focus on the moment is achieved by keeping the point of concentration, which is always in the present.
4) A relaxed body and alert mind are achieved by maintaining the point of concentration. When the student is open to abandoning himself and gives his concentration to the game his mind is alert and his body will automatically relax.
As director and performer I have employed Spolin, and I confess to the practicality and pleasure of the approach. But more importantly, one respects a system that honors the human condition by helping “a sacred gift,” the metaphoric mind, reassert itself.
Bernard Downs is on the Oral Interpretation/Theater faculty at the University of South Florida where he assists Professor Raymond J, Schneider with the impressive annual festival, Celebration of Literature. He is especially noted for his Readers Theatre productions of demanding literature and for his articles in the field. In the RTN survey of Readers Theater leaders, Professor Downs was frequently named as one of the most promising “Young Turks” in the field.