From left, Jeremy Webb, Marc Moritz and Georgia Cohen in a Cleveland Play House production of “Bell, Book and Candle.” Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Two veterans of Cleveland-area stages weigh in on what goes through an actor’s head while on stage

By Bob Abelman

“I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.” – Actor Johnny Depp

Artistic expression and creative invention are such intuitive and emotional enterprises that even their most skillful practitioners can’t quite explain how they do what they do when they do it. 

Fortunately, a recent issue of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience – a bedtime staple on most nightstands – reported on research and insight on the subject.   

Brain signals were measured using lightweight wireless sensors as professional dancers expressed themselves through ballet, jazz and modern dance movement. 

It was discovered that what appears so instinctive, effortless and fluid on stage is the result of vigorously snapping synapses in the sensory motor network as well as the prefrontal cortex kicking into overdrive. 

Dancers use multiple parts of the brain simultaneously and actively, including those involved in higher-order decision-making and a part of the frontal lobe with the fun-time name “infra parietal sulkus” that plays a key role in envisioning, controlling and initiating physical action.

Similar research involving musicians was performed at London University’s psychology department. It was found that musicians who have been trained to learn enormous sections of music by imaginative association, rather than by rote, tend to create and access during performance a complex, visual architectural space in their heads. 

“Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” – Actor George Burns

So what’s going on inside the heads of actors?

Sure, acting requires memorization and a host of complex psychological skills, such as imagination and empathy, to evoke visceral emotions and create authentic characters. And actors carefully block out movements during rehearsal so their lines are always matched to the same physical motions, forming a kind of bodily mnemonic device.

But do actors actually think when they act? And what do they think about? 

“There’s no doubt that actors’ brains differ in important ways from the brains of accountants, cab drivers and neurosurgeons,” noted cognitive scientist Bruce McConachie in the latest issue of American Theatre magazine, “but exactly how and why, no one knows.” Most of the evidence is merely anecdotal rather than scientific. 

Broadway producers and agents, for instance, have long reported that actors are brainless, thoughtless creatures. Heartless and inconsiderate, too.   

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet noted in his book “Theatre” that an actor thinking only complicates matters: “They need only say their lines and get out of the way of the play.” Of course, Mamet believes that a director thinking is also unnecessary, suggesting that “they should make sure the actors don’t step on each other’s lines … and then get out of the way of the play.”

There are hundreds of books on acting technique, from Stanisklavsky’s time-honored tome “On Acting” to Stella Adler’s “The Art of Acting,” that offer advice about what to do to prepare for a performance. But they share little insight into what occurs in the mind during one.

“Acting is the expression of a neurotic impulse.” – Actor Marlon Brando

To help advance the state of neurological research, but without all the paperwork, two prominent, deep-thinking, Cleveland-based stage performers sat down at a local restaurant to discuss this issue. And to have a light snack.

One is long-time actor and improvisational guru Marc Moritz, who decided to forego a light snack and have the corned beef and fries. He is joined by popular standup comedian and voice-over actor Marc Jaffe, who went with a salad.

The results of this meeting are as insightful as they are scholarly, which means not very.

Marc Jaffe at a 2015 Shaking With Laughter fundraising event to benefit those with Parkinson’s disease. Photo by Michael Weil

Marc Jaffe at a 2015 Shaking With Laughter fundraising event to benefit those with Parkinson’s disease. Photo by Michael Weil

Moritz: What was the question?

Jaffe: He asked what we have in our head when we perform. I have the Garfield 1-2323 jingle for aluminum siding. It’s been there since 1967.

Canvas: Actor Spencer Tracy once said that the job of an actor was to “learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” Is that all there is to it?

Moritz: “Don’t bump into the furniture” is good advice. In improv and standup, and many times in theater, there is no furniture. So there you have it.  Sorry. What was the question?

Jaffe: On stage, there’s a mental sweet spot between observation and oblivion called “being in the moment.” Instincts and preparation take over. But at the same time you are overly aware and hypercritical; analyzing and self-reporting everything you are doing and saying on stage. Actors seek that balance between spontaneity and self-reflection.   

Moritz: Wow.

Jaffe: I memorized that from a book, but it sounded like I just made it up. See, I was in the moment.

Moritz: What an audience may call a “bad performance” is often an actor being too self-conscious. A “great performance” is where all the training, technique and thinking are invisible to the eye – even though great actors are very self-reflective on stage. I should know. I’ve been told this by great actors.

Jaffe: There’s probably more actual thinking going on in standup than in regular acting. Although what you are performing is a well-rehearsed set of jokes, good comedians are aware of their audience’s responses and cleverly incorporate them into the performance.

Moritz: There’s even more quick thinking during improvisation. There is no script, so improv actors are constantly creating, making adjustments to the audience, and reacting. 

Canvas: Are there times when the brain simply doesn’t kick in, when that sweet spot you mentioned is elusive and “being in the moment” doesn’t occur?

Moritz: Sure. Sometimes the active mind wanders during a long scene in a long play where all you are is living scenery. 

Jaffe: As a comedian, there are Saturday nights when I do three shows.  I’ve been in the middle of a joke during the third show and in my head I ask “Did I do this joke already?” And then the audience laughs and I think, “Whew, I wonder if they’ll notice if I took a nap?” 

Moritz: Sometimes emotion takes over. I was once working at a playhouse I won’t identify called Great Lakes Theater in a production I can’t mention called “You Can’t Take It With You.” In it was an actor I will not name, so let’s just call him “Andrew May.” There was an emotional scene when Andrew’s character is wrestling and strangling another character. Of course, the actor is not really choking the other actor but in one performance Andrew was so lost in his character and so into the moment that he actually rendered the other actor unconscious. 

Canvas: So no infra parietal sulkus activity whatsoever.

Moritz: None to speak of.

Jaffe: Can you imagine what the understudy was thinking the next day, on stage, in that same scene and in the arms of an emotional Andrew May? Talk about snapping synapses.

Canvas: Any other insight to share with the folks at Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and London University?

Jaffe: Here is the true answer to your inquiry: My overriding thought while up on stage – and the focus of 98 percent of any actor’s concentration during each and every performance throughout the history of theater – is “Don’t fall off the end of the stage.” CV

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” – Actor Edmund Gwenn, on his deathbed