Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1786:
CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

John H. Lienhard presents guest essayist Megan Cole

Today, our guest, Seattle actor Megan Cole, has an acting technique for understanding behavior. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

There's an old Spanish saying that goes, "I am I and my circumstances." It's a deceptively simple statement that refers, I think, to the fact that however we may define ourselves, that self is modified by what's happening around us, whether we recognize it or not. And recognizing it is probably a good thing if we're interested in understanding why we behave as we do.

This connection of self-within-circumstances is a key component in one of my worlds, that of the actor. A basic acting technique is called "Given Circumstances" -- that is, being aware of the external influences that affect the meaning of any situation. And the leading questions are: "Where have I come from?" "What are the conditions right now?" and "Where will I be going?"

For example: here I am in a blue chair writing on my yellow legal pad in a sunny room with a black dog at my feet and a cup of jasmine tea at my elbow. Sounds nice, doesn't it? It's a description of tranquility, and it is tranquil, for the moment. But that's only part of the picture. Because I've just finished an hour of answering e-mail (which is always urgent), I didn't get enough sleep (it goes without saying), there's a leaf-blower roaring in the yard next door, my tea is cold, the dog could use a bath, and a short hour from now I need to quit the blue chair for a meeting I'm not prepared for and don't want to attend anyway.

All of these details, and many others, are my given circumstances: those external facts that must affect my experience of the present moment. For an actor, it's important to gather such facts in order to create a fully-formed character. I have to find, from both the text and my imagination, those affecting forces that allow me to feel like a human being and not a cardboard cutout.

Off the stage, each of us is, of course, already a fully-formed character, for better or worse. The challenge is to become aware of the affecting forces, which gives us a better chance at being a co-creator of our experience, not just a victim. After an hour of e-mail, for example, I've learned from bitter experience that a few minutes of deep breathing will make that tranquil moment a more likely prospect. Call it compartmentalizing, call it context, call it given circumstances. It's all about recognizing affective influences and choosing adaptive behavior.

The tricky part, though, is that everyone functions under different circumstances. (You got enough sleep last night, right?) That's a good thing to remember in literally any situation that involves interaction. "By the way, where are you coming from?" I might think to ask. "What's happening to you -- right now?" "Where do you need to go after we part?" As hard as it is to believe, nobody sees the world in quite the same way I do. And no one has a patent on the so-called truth, not even I, not even you.

So, both onstage and off it's useful to remember that given circumstances are always with us, always modifying the shape of the self within its boundaries. And where are you right now?

I'm Megan Cole, and in the theatre, as at the University of Houston, we give a great deal of attention to the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Megan Cole is a noted stage and TV actor and regular visiting faculty member at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston. She originated the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Wit. She has also played recurring characters on Seinfeld, ER, Star Trek, and other popular shows.


perplexing face

Shy or arrogant -- fearful or curious?
Make up a story to go with the face;
then you will know.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.