A New Approach to Character in Performance
Bloodstone’s work with centers and realms provides a practical system for actors to renew and deepen command of their central craft: the portrayal of character.
The foundations of this work have been around for a long time. Three broad traditions of thought and practice come together for use by those who play stories for audiences:
- human evolution – here specifically seen through the lens of emergence
- chakra – interpreted here as an intuitive “stage theory”
- climactic action – the foundation of most plays in western cultures
Varied in history and approach, these traditions are brought together with other elements in Centers & Realms to help actors create deep-seated experiences for the audience.
The idea of seven realms of human interaction re-interprets yoga’s division of our psyches into seven chakras as an intuitive “stage theory”. Stage theories are scientific theories that see a species’ evolution in the same stages that can be observed as an individual of that species develops from its birth to its highest level of advancement.
A realm is simply how the whole world looks to us from each stage of our own development.
Using the chakras as stages of development in how we interpret the world around us can reveal distinct but intimately-related worlds of interaction. We are only partially aware of some of these realms most of the time. For an actor’s purposes, we can think about realms as a hierarchy of older and newer intelligences, centers of self-organization that make up a person’s whole character.
The realms, and their associated centers of intelligence in each of us, have evolved in sequence by emerging one-by-one from the most primordial: the basic functions of life found in bacteria and single-cell life forms.
The intelligences associated with each center and its realm of interaction are listed in the chart below from the bottom up, as they are arranged in our bodies, from tail bone to the crown of our heads, and in the order that they have emerged from one another during our evolution as a species:
cellular life functions
Centers from Chakras
The system of chakras developed in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment as one element of tantric yoga, probably in western India sometime prior to 500 AD. By 800 AD, it had spread through much of Asia as an essential part of several major spiritual traditions, including Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain. The system of chakras evidently did not appear in Western scholarship until David Snellgrove published his The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study in 1959.
In order to better understand and portray character, Bloodstone’s practice re-conceives yoga’s seven main chakras as seven centers of intelligence in each of us. Each center organizes our interactions within one of the seven realms.
There are correlations between the centers and physiological systems in our bodies, like the heart or solar plexus or intestines. But each center is less a place or even a set of functions in the body than it is an intelligence in us. It can be thought of as our identity within that realm, or as an operational command post within us, bringing together, organizing, and using the elements in our environs, including the actions of other people and animals in the realm we are paying attention to.
The idea of centers can be useful for performers in many ways. They can be used as keys for physical characterization, particularly when the dominant center changes as a character’s actions change in the progress of a story. The centers can be used to make specific choices about a character’s gait, posture, gesture, breathing, decorum, voice, and attention. For gestus and ideograph work, centers can also provide meaningful links between attention, physiology, passions, physicalization, picturization, and the interpersonal ecologies in which our characters live.
Concentrating Outward on Realms
A realm can be thought of as a field of action upon which we concentrate. That unseen intelligence with which we concentrate is the “center”. Our primary concern is usually not the center in us, but who or what we are interested in or interacting with.
By way of example: A dog may be hungry, but he is concerned with finding food in his surroundings, not so much how the hunger feels. The lover feels many things, but her attention is filled with her beloved. The warrior concentrates on his enemy, not on his own solar plexus. The food, the beloved, the enemy are elements of the realms associated with the centers of survival, mating, and power.
Players can use relationships and changes between the seven realms to better establish what makes a character compelling and unique. We can layer different kinds of interaction in a story, distinguishing kinds of exchanges between people according to the stage of evolution in which each kind of exchange emerged. Using shifts between realms at climactic moments, we can better convey the fundamental changes of persona that naturally take place at turning points in a person’s life.
No matter the performance style required by a script, most of these techniques rely on players already being experienced in some version of Stanislavski’s tried-and-true vision of dramatic action in beats or units: waves of effort to change the other guy, each wave ending in a pulse of realization that constitutes the climax, each realization resulting in a choice the character must make about how to proceed. The waves of climactic units all build toward that game-changing, climactic choice under maximum pressure that is made toward the end of the act or play. We in the audience become driven right along with the people being portrayed, facing with them the search for solutions and the desperate choices that show what real people are made of.
Integrating Performance Techniques
Bloodstone is a lab for performance. The artists involved in this work are producing a set of ideas and practices that performers and other theater artists can rely on for more grounded, recognizable, and evocative characters in performance. Using techniques we develop using Centers and Realms, we can re-integrate our whole selves in our work as performers, and create illuminating characterizations for others who see the public study of character as crucial for our moment in history.