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the ostrich effect and more...

the ostrich effect

Nice piece on NPR today about something called the “ostrich effect.” In a study, students were motivated by various incentives and penalties to take a test to determine whether they had genital herpes. In spite of having to pay a penalty (presumably from their compensation for participating in the study) if they refused the test, and in spite of the fact that their blood would be drawn regardless of whether they agreed to have it tested, 15% of the students still did not want to have the test, even though, rationally speaking, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out the truth. And yet, some of them didn’t want to know. “For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.”


What the article doesn’t mention, and I guess is to important to consider, is that some of the students may not have wanted to know because they didn’t want the responsibility of having to act in a way that would protect others. This means that they would rather be spreading the disease to others and not know it, than know about it and take the necessary steps. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the the subjects were college-aged, and likely fairly sexually active, but still, worth considering. Perhaps the “stress and anxiety” is actually a euphemism is precisely this.

Where am I going with this? Well, I talk to students (and have written before on this blog more than once) about what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. It’s not the same thing, exactly, as the ostrich effect, but a cousin certainly. Essentially, in studying a script, actors will encounter bits of information on the characters’ past, or there will be bits of information that imply other things that are not stated expressly. Many of these things are presented obliquely, or indirectly, by the text, because, well, it would be bad writing if it just laid everything out explicitly. However, acting the role demands attention to these indirectly presented points. Now, sometimes these things go unnoticed, and so actors need to work to “be one upon whom nothing is lost”, as one famous American novelist enjoined other writers. But sometimes, these little bits of information ARE noticed, but they are, for some reason, ignored.

There’s a play I work on sometimes in scene work in class. In the scene, a woman at a party is being pressed to accept an invitation to go away with a guy to a cabin for the weekend. This is the only scene she appears in. Elsewhere in the script, other characters mention the fact that she was raped when she was eleven. It goes by really quickly, but it’s definitely there. Now, invariably, when a pair of students put the scene up, and I ask the actor playing the woman about the rape, she looks at me blankly. She may know what I am referring to, but she can tell me nothing about who did it, where it took place, whom she told about it and whom she didn’t, etc. Clearly, the incident of the rape is going to bear on someone’s decision to go away to a cabin with a man she doesn’t know well. And it’s not that the actor is a slacker. It’s just that, for whatever reason, she has chosen not to examine the incident in question.

This impulse to NOT examine information furnished by a script, especially information about aspects of the character’s experience that is unfamiliar to the actor, is what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. Rather than examine the unexamined and become acquainted with the unfamiliar, we seem to have a powerful impulse to avoid confronting the unknown. We are “information-averse”, to use the terminology from the NPR piece. We want to feel, it seems, that we can handle the role without doing the extra work. Why do we do this? Good question. I suspect it often has to do with not wanting to confront the limits of our own experience and knowledge of the world, or, more precisely, not wanting to admit that there ARE such limits. Once we acknowledge the existence of said limits, we know we will be asked to go beyond them, and well, here be dragons.

It’s a long journey, but the actor has to train her mind so that she catches herself in such moments of recoil from the unknown, and instead hugs the unknown close, clings to it, tames it, allows it to bear her into destinations unknown, far beyond the borders of her comfort zone. If that’s not an intensely rewarding proposition, albeit a challenging one, then the actor may need to ask herself if she has indeed found the right profession.

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“towering emotional and spiritual stakes…”

“…that fertilize our soul for quantum growth, irrespective of outcome.”


This talk, by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, speaks about the rampant desire to “hack” one’s life, to find quick fixes and short cuts and easy profit. As I have written about many times, this attitude pervades the Hollywood acting culture, propagated by latter day purveyors of snake oil: cold reading classes, audition classes, acting classes that deride preparation, among many other dubious offerings.

Rich Roll’s talk is persuasive and eloquent on sustained dedication to a pursuit as the indispensable source of meaning. You’ll need just shy of 20 minutes, but it’s worth finding the time for.

The talk put me in mind of one of my favorite quotes, from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

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love regained

I just finished the first novel I’ve read in years. What a tonic, what a thrill, what a lark! The joys of total immersion. I had forgotten.


I wrote a dissertation on novels, which I finished in 2010. That left me sated with literary fiction for quite a while, and that’s really the only kind of fiction I am interested in. I keep myself pretty busy with teaching, running a business, writing a blog, keeping an eye on the spectacle that is American politics (somebody’s got to!), directing plays, raising a puppy, cleaning the house, and reading books. Not novels, not short stories, not fictions of any kind. Non-fiction about brain science or empathy or mastering a craft, things that might help me become a better acting teacher or at least a more knowledgeable one, and also give me grist for the relentless blogging mill. In short, I had let fiction come to feel like a luxury I just didn’t have time for.

However, after a while, my conscience woke up, for deep inside, I knew that not reading fiction was a form of self-neglect. Fiction had been a mainstay of my younger self, and had gotten me through some rough patches in life, in a surprising variety of ways. It was perhaps the supreme form of mental and spiritual self-nourishment, I had found. Whenever I moved to a new place, I immediately unpacked my books. They were a constellation of old friends who helped to remind me that although I was in a new place with new surroundings, with new pursuits and new priorities, some element of who I had previously been persisted.

2666 by Roberto BolanoA few years ago, a friend with a taste in books that I found congenial recommended Roberto Bolano’s 5-part epic 2666. What he told me about it made it sound unlikely that I would like it, but I liked its numerical title, its five volumes, and, I suppose, its German connection, which my friend had mentioned. I could also tell that my friend’s passion had been aroused by it: he felt the need to talk about it, and although he was thoughtful enough to restrain himself from asking me to listen to too much about it, his need to talk about it made an impression on me, and I filed the title away somewhere.

A couple of years later, I was heading on a holiday road trip, and someone (my mother?) suggested I get an audiobook. So I got 2666 and listened to the first 10 hours of narration on the road. Then the road trip was over, and I had no further context in which to listen to audiobooks, so I set it aside. I had enjoyed what I had heard, but not so much that I found that I could not put it down.

But I like to finish what I start, where I can, and the book had planted some seeds that had aroused my curiousity. So I resumed my listening, after a break of six months. This time, I found my way into the dark, pulsing core of the novel, and joyfully rediscovered the thrill of total immersion. I came to know why this book had been so acclaimed, and found myself wanting to write a novel, even though I have always found making up stories to be extremely difficult. Still, the complexity and mystery that inhered in this book had hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew it had changed me. I had become a lover of Roberto Bolaño.

But what I wanted to say here, on this blog, is that with this experience I had recalled what a valuable thing for actors reading fiction is. With every novel that we read, we deepen our sense of what people and characters are, but also what words and sentences are. More precisely, we sharpen our sense of what is possible with people and with characters, how they (and we) might answer what confronts them (and us), and what is possible with words and sentences, how words and sentences can help us to answer what confronts us. Such possibilities are the medium in which actors swim when they work on scenes, so greater intimacy with such possibilities is pure win for actors.

No more self-neglect. I will be making time for the reading of novels from now on.

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on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?

One thing that is useful to do is to look at a line in relationship to the other lines the character says before and after it. A line like “That’s interesting.” can be delivered in a million different ways, but once you see the other lines that come before it and after it, that may narrow the field a bit. That’s because when looking at a scene from the point of view of action, that is, the basic feedback message an actor is offering someone else about how the other person is engaging in their relationship, things don’t usually change all that often. We, that is to say, people, tend to hold on to our view of others rather tenaciously, and change our view of them and what they are doing, and therefore, the feedback we are offering them, only infrequently. So the points in the scene where the actions changes, where we truly start to give a different kind of feedback to the other person, usually come pretty infrequently. Keep in mind, there are exceptions to this, but I am talking by and large now. These points where the actions changes are milestones of a kind. So that means that generally, when we look at a section of text, the odds are that the action, and therefore the basic message we are sending to another person about what they are giving us, will be the same across the adjacent section of text. Of course, we could happen to be looking at one of those milestones, where the message/action changes substantially, and in that case what I am saying does not apply. But in many cases, the line in question will be a part of a longer section in which we keep offering the same basic message, tweaked from moment to moment based on what the partner is sending back to us.

Once we see a line as a rephrasing of things said before and after the line in question, we can begin to recognize what, in fact, we should do with the line, how we should attempt to use it in the pursuit of what we need. Now, even this narrowing of the options is not going to be decisive, as things always have to be considered in light of need and circumstances, and properly considered, need and circumstances can often change our view of whole sections of lines in significant ways. But at least having some awareness that lines are often reiterations or tweaks of things we have said previously or will say subsequently will give us some sense of what the force of the line is, what is meant by it.

The point I am making about looking at lines in relationship to the lines around it basically corresponds to the “script analysis” recommendation that actors draw lines in the script at the point where the “intention” or “tactic” changes (the scare quotes are there because I think most of the time these things are not well-defined, so an intention could be anything from “to tell someone how I feel” to “to seduce someone” “to get someone to join my side”, three very different kinds of statements of motivation.) However, in my experience, the issue comes up practically when actors are up on their feet, the script analysis has been discarded, and the actors are trying to hammer out the scene. They come to a line and simply don’t know what to do with it. It’s at that point that it’s useful to remember that typically, the lines before and after will be illuminating.

Also: actors are sometimes told that they need to change what they are doing constantly in order to be interesting. This is WRONG, since if there is constant change, none of that change is meaningful. It’s only when there is change in the context of no-change that the change can be seen to be important or significant. Now, that said, that an actor plays the same action across significant swaths of a scene, that doesn’t mean that there is no development from moment to moment, only that the changes are relatively small, incremental responses to what the partner is providing, not major changes of approach. We may play a single action across a long stretch of a scene, but the playing of that action is specified moment-to-moment by the receiving and measuring of the partner’s responses during that section of the scene.

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Andrew Wood Acting Studio featured on Backstage

acting studio los angeles  -Andrew Wood Acting Studio profiled on Backstage.comRight here.

Great to receive some attention from such a high-profile website! Thanks to all of my students over the last ten years who have enabled to me to share the insights that I love so much!

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