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THEATER Acting is brain science in thisUCI course

OC Post-Irvine World News - 1/4/2018

In the late 19th century, theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavsky created an approach to train actors based on the premise that an actor's main responsibility is to be believed rather than merely understood.

Aspiring actors continue to learn the Stanislavsky method (or some iteration of it) although the technique is more than 100 years old. Many have great success, but there is always room for improvement.

At least that's how David Ihrig, an acting coach and lecturer at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts, sees it.

"Tradition is great, but innovation is also great," said Ihrig. "Let's see if we can find a blend."

Recently, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine piloted an inter-department course, "The Science of Acting." This cross-disciplinary collaborative program introduced aspiring actors to brain science in the hopes that the information would support and improve the performers' existing acting technique.

Over the 10-week course, a small group of advanced acting students studied various cognitive science theories and then let that research inform their performances as actors. The class also received regular guest lectures from professors at the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

"Students were definitely a little trepidatious after the first class," Ihrig said. "One actor actually came up to me at the end of the class and said, ?This is for actors, right?' "

The answer, of course was yes. But Ihrig and Dr. Michael Yassa, the director of the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, are quick to point out that this arrangement is a two-way street.

Not only does the acting class get to converse with some of the world's leading neurobiologists, but the scientists get a chance to see research applied in real-life situations, which may inspire future studies.

"When you do this, you really start to generate a lot of divergent thinking - a lot of thinking outside the box," Yassa said. "You come up with innovative solutions to problems that might have had you banging your head against the wall for years."

?The Science of Acting'

Left-brained versus right-branded, creative versus logical - there has long been a divide between scientists and artists.

But science started to seep into theater when Stanislavsky approached one of the leading psychologists of the day, Ivan Pavlov, and now, students in "The Science of Acting" class say they understand why.

"It makes sense that we would learn about our brains because as actors our bodies are our instrument," said Monic Minix, 25. "You wouldn't pick up a trombone without knowing how it works and sometimes I think we forget to look at ourselves that way."

Ihrig said he sees traces of scientific thought every time someone acts.

"As actors, one of the real challenges of creating a role is taking the words on the page, these imaginary circumstances and figuring out how to create the behaviors of our characters," said Ihrig. "We start by asking ourselves ?How does my nervous system react with the world?' and then we think about how the character's nervous system would interact with the world."

Ihrig describes this thought process on the way to character development as "reverse engineering" human behavior.

If actors can gauge how they personally react when met with a certain set of stimuli, they can use that information to create authentic behaviors for the character.

"The way you have to (create a convincing character) is by not acting at all. The best sort of acting is real," Yassa said. "The brain creates memory, so if that can be hacked, you can take a fictitious autobiography and incorporate it as your own. Then, acting is not acting any more, it's real. The actor is living the emotions."

Thanks to science and a set of patterns identified by neuroscientist Susana Bloch, emotions can be deconstructed and replicated.

The recipe for joy, for example involves a sharp breath in through the nose and several quick breaths out through the mouth, a relaxed body, the head loosely hung backwards, a large open smile and semi-closed eyes.

"This technique gives us the ability, without content, to physiologically assume an emotional state," said Ihrig about Bloch's Alba Technique. "Even by just moving the facial muscles you have a change in heartbeat and pulse and several other indicators."

Adopting the emotional state of a character helps the actor create fictional memories that make his or her portrayal of the role more authentic.

UCI's creative lab

Two years ago, Ihrig published a book, "The Actor's Machine," which included "The Actor's Blueprint," something Ihrig created based on behavioral science models. Once the book was published, he reached out to the Claire Trevor School of the Arts with the idea of writing a blog that featured interviews with experts in the field of cognitive science.

"I wanted to get validation from a scientific perspective because I had been citing their work," said Ihrig. "As I'm scouring the internet worldwide for the foremost experts in behavioral and cognitive sciences, 3 out of the 4 researchers I wanted to talk to were at UCI."

Ihrig developed a relationship with chair of the Daniel Gary Busby, chairman of the university's drama department, who eventually tapped Ihrig to lead "The Science of Acting" class.

The initiative created a systematized interaction between the schools of sciences and the school of the arts, something Yassa hopes to see more of.

"We want to be able to bridge more. We want to have intercampus initiatives. We want to be able to reach out," said Yassa. "We want to solve the big questions and we can achieve a higher state of collective enlightenment if we are working in interdisciplinary teams."

"The Science of Acting" class was a standalone course, but Ihrig, Yassa and the university are in talks about how to continue the partnership between the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Ihrig believes that more study will bring more applications for experiencing life as another individual, whether it be criminology, psychology, therapy or other disciplines.

"I'm excited to see where this can go," Ihrig said. "What we're attempting to do with this program is take the mystery out of acting. I'm trying to teach acting without using metaphor, but instead create step-by-step tangible techniques."

 
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