Hi, I want to talk about your shoes.
Size Nine Chukka Brains
In a recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage, Dame Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist at UCL, described the brain as a “prediction engine”. Its purpose: to learn patterns and queues at a subconscious level and instruct the body to act accordingly. Thus an experienced baseball batter can subconsciously predict where the ball will be in relation to their bat without having to plot a graph.
It reminded me of an article (paywall) about Professor Karl Friston, a key player in brain imaging, and his free energy principle.
From the article:
Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.
According to Friston, any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder and dissolution will adhere to the free energy principle—whether it’s a protozoan or a pro basketball team.
A single-celled organism has the same imperative to reduce surprise that a brain does.
If it is true that the main drive of anything biological, including us, is to reduce surprise, that’s useful to know if you’re an actor.
Have you ever had the experience of trying to catch someone out with something they didn’t know, waited for the confusion to cross their eyes, and been disappointed that instead of jumping around amazed at their world shattering they have instead confidently jumped to a (wrong) explanation?
For example. You, knowing lots about how heat expansion affects your home, might say: “Hey Felix, did you know that the upstairs floorboards creak when nobody’s walking on them?” to which I, knowing nothing on the subject, might jump in with the reply: “Of course! Every house has a first floor ghost.”
Rather than appear foolish by showing the vulnerability of not knowing something, I’ve decided to appear foolish by making something up and saying it confidently. If I’m really nervous of being caught out, I’ll convince myself that I have always believed in ghosts.
But I certainly won’t be surprised.
I think one of the hardest stage directions to follow is:
Felix [surprised]: Bla bla bla bla.
I’m not often surprised. I am easily shocked or startled or scared (just creep up behind me, I’m a really easy get). I am annoyed, frustrated and confidently wrong. I am hectoring, contradicting, mansplaining and indifferent and if I’ve slept well I might even stretch to patient, curious or listening. If I am surprised, it is probably not about the new information but a recognition that whoever I’m talking to has a different understanding of the world to me; my process of surprise is to first recognise that there is a disparity and secondly searching for an explanation. I may indulge in performative surprise (‘OMG WHAT?’) but while I do so I play for time so that the possible explanations can crystalize in the privacy of my head (‘duh ghosts’). It is rare that I sit in bafflement.
So how does this help us?
I had an acting teacher once who very keen on the power of shoes. A pair of shoes changes the way you walk. This has physical effects (different muscle tensions have a knock-on effect on how you breathe) and psychological ones (as we settle into these other tensions, we recognise the situations in which they feel comfortable and act accordingly). A pair of brogues has a different effect to a flip-flop. We match our shoes to the occasion. Cultural norms (in my culture) suggest that a leather lace-up shoe is more suitable for formal and business occasions than some beaten up Reeboks. For us actors, they are equally useful. The brogue reminds us to stand straighter. The trainer reminds us to be less formal. (We could add the intermediary shoe: a pristine pair of fashionable Reeboks such as you might see in a tech startup.) All of it comes from the subconscious telling us stories to minimise the disparity of whatever situation we’re in.
When all we have is a rehearsal studio or an audition setup and our imagination, creating context is up to us. Uta Hagen insisted that actors rehearse with a full set of props in an as-close to life situation as possible. If we’re waking up in bed and switching on the light, she wanted us to have a mattress, duvet and light in rehearsal. I think she was tapping into the same idea as Friston.
Other things we could think about when rehearsing include trying lines in a space roughly the same size as the one where our scene is set, trying lines in lighting that reflects the mood of the scene, trying lines in the same temperature our characters are living through, trying lines while wearing materials similar to what they’re likely to wear, trying lines while walking or running or sitting or crouching or standing or whatever it is our character is doing… I mean, whatever is accessible to us. The more the better, you know?
We can make life easier for ourselves by providing our brains, our prediction engines, with external queues. By minimising the disparity between expectation and reality (surprise) consciously before we touch the script, we have less work to do subconsciously when we pick it up. Considering how much else we have to juggle, that seems like an easy win.
I recorded a commercial voice reel with Soho Voices. Hear me shilling products at felixtrench.com/voice.
I have joined Phantom Peak, an immersive night out in London, as an ad-hoc company member. It’s a real life video game in which we play NPCs helping the players go about quests. If you’re in London, the nearest tube is Canada Water.