Acting, Archetype, and Neuroscience: Superscenes for Rehearsal and Performance is a detailed description of an acting method used by the author, Jane Drake Brody, who has an extensive, award-winning background in acting, producing, casting, and coaching, and in teaching acting. Her method combines existing theory with her own research.
This is a review that has been coming for a while. I had to wait for the book to actually be released, of course, and then to find time to read it. But my director, Dr. Hugh Long at Athens State University, has been using the techniques outlined in the book since he attended a workshop taught by the author in 2015, and has become something of an authority on Brody’s method.
Long has a doctorate in drama and experience as both a stage and film actor and so has a great deal of experience using and teaching traditional acting techniques and getting actors to connect with roles. I’ve seen him coach many students and watched them improve immensely under his instruction. That said, I’ve been involved in almost every production and in some of his classes both before and after the workshop, and I have been repeatedly impressed by the results Brody’s methods have produced, particularly with students who didn’t respond well to more traditional methods.
At its base, Brody’s method helps actors find the core of their character and a way to connect to it. The idea is to be less cerebral and more intuitive. After all, there is a reason actors are always told to stop getting in their heads, and it’s not an uncommon theme outside of acting, either – sometimes you need to just stop overthinking it and just do it.
One part of this is examining the base conflict and archetypes involved in the story. Many literary authorities have asserted that there are only a few basic stories (though the number differs) that are retold over and over, with only the details changed. These stories resonate with us because they are familiar. We know them from our childhoods, and they are repeated throughout our lives. They are so significant to our worldview that we even change and stretch accounts of real events to fit these customary narratives.
(Don’t believe me? Compare the elementary school story of Christopher Columbus to the real events of his life. Then compare it to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Which matches better?)
Rather than evaluating every psychological aspect of a character, Brody encourages actors to strip the character down to an archetype. Is the character a mother, a maiden, a warrior, etc. They are encouraged to find another figure, usually mythological, to relate the character to, and then to find the part of them that understands and connects with that archetype. They then apply this to the character’s goals and the actions the character is taking to achieve them.
Another part of Brody’s method is physicality. Again, don’t think; do. Actors don’t memorize lines in the traditional way. They learn them at the same time that they learn the physicality of the scene and explore the dynamics of the actions that the characters are trying to take with or against each other. She employs a variety of physical exercises to help the actors explore those dynamics and see where they lead, and teaches them to follow their instincts. Here’s a video of actors working on this at one of her workshops.
I’ll admit, I was pretty skeptical of some of this, even though I had just written a capstone on archetypes and their application to real-world events, and I was fairly convinced of the prominence of stories in the way our minds organize information. But that skepticism vanished when I saw the process in action.
During rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet, these techniques resulted in a scene between the title characters that left those of us watching holding our breath. It was so intense that no one wanted to move for fear of interrupting, and one actor on the sidelines confessed later that she felt like she was intruding on something intimate by watching. The actors in the title roles had never worked together before, and, before that evening, were still at the early stage of rehearsals where they were awkwardly contemplating having to kiss at some point. I learned recently that our Juliet, currently in grad school in another state, was impressed enough that she has been using the method to prepare for her current role.
Later, in acting classes, I saw students who had only been involved in productions as crew, and who had taken other acting classes and had never been able to loosen up, suddenly find their feet and identify with their characters in such a way that you would think they’d been acting their entire lives. There was a sudden, definable moment where suddenly everything just clicked into place. I, too, have always been a nervous actor, but after using some of Brody’s techniques I performed my scenes with confidence and expressiveness that I had previously been lacking. Quite noticeably so, I’m told, and much to my own surprise.
Long has continued using Brody’s techniques for the last year and a half, and frankly, I’m sold. It doesn’t work with every actor; a few seem uncomfortable with some of the ideas and techniques Brody puts forth, and prefer more traditional methods. But in my experience, that has only been a very small percentage (maybe 2 actors out of 40+). With every production, I’m more impressed. I pre-ordered the book as soon as Amazon listed it, and it was worth the wait. If you work in a theater or plan to, I can’t recommend this book enough – or a workshop, if you can manage it.