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Let's sleep on it: a new acting technique touts dream incubation for creative problem solving.


By Janet Sonenberg Routledge, New York. 256 pp, $17.95 paper.

MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF Technology theatre professor Janet Sonenberg, in her book Dreamwork for Actors, intrigues us by asking, "What if we could ... contact the wild sea of imagination? What if we could harness the boundless creativity of our dreams in our waking life? What if an actor could dream the character's dream?"


Sonenberg's new acting techniques guide actors in the use of dreams to enrich performance. Her techniques give access to that part of the imagination which emanates from our unconscious, "the world of potent symbols, tidal relationships, impulses and chaos" that exists in us all the time but isn't usually subject to requests from the logical mind. We assume we run our lives by logic. In truth, rational thought controls little of how we live. In politics, for example, if logical argument could persuade voters, then I think a single talk by Noam Chomsky on network television should do the trick. A country's destiny is largely controlled not by logic but by a shared unconscious--a collective emotional state that's conditioned by emotional events in infancy and maybe even in the womb.

Imagination, as Sonenberg uses the word, is the vast and fluid ocean beneath the dry land of logical thought. A plot, a story, a character, ourselves--indeed, everything that seems solid--moves like waves on the surface of this ocean of imagination. Sonenberg uses dreamwork techniques to dive beneath the surface to discover connections between the actor, the character, the play, the playwright, the rehearsal and the performance.

Sonenberg's collaborator is a Jungian analyst, Robert Bosnak. After rehearsing a couple of weeks, the actor is asked, "Which moment in the play do you find most compelling?" Guided by the director or the dreamworker, the actor picks a moment that's meaningful to him or her. In Sonenberg's examples, Bosnak deepens the moment by asking such questions as: "Where in your body do you feel sensation that arises with the image? What precisely is that sensation? What do you see? What's the quality of the light? What do you smell? Listen--can you hear anything? What do you feel on your skin?" Guided by the dreamworker, the actor couples the moment in the play (and associated moments) with bodily sensations. This provides a richly detailed physical and emotional "incubation image," as Sonenberg calls it.

The actor reviews the "incubation image" at night before sleeping. The resulting dream may contain a metaphor relevant to the actor's portrayal of the character. Sonenberg considers the "incubation image" the actor's, but the dream belongs to the character. In rehearsal, the actor tells the dream to the dreamworker or director. Together they uncover a strong moment fused to bodily sensations and to an image in the play. This deeply felt moment is called the "dreamworked body." In performance, just before making an entrance, the actor reviews the "dreamworked body" for a few seconds. The actor then drops it from his or her conscious mind and walks out on stage. The process--from "incubation image" to dream to "dream-worked body"--Sonenberg says, can result in "performances in which the actors and the audience find themselves in a territory they cannot explain. This great acting ... is unsettling and demanding." When the process works, the deep imagination of the actor communicates with the playwright's imagination and the audience's.

Sonenberg's dreamwork process is not rigid--it's adaptable to various situations. Nor is it for the faint of heart. (Neither is acting.) Sonenberg warns, "There were only a handful of situations in which I felt that the actor's ... level of internal structure and training could support the depth and nuance of the dreams." As a client of the eminent psychiatrist Bernard Bail, founder of Holistic Dream Analysis, I find accessing the unconscious through dreams enriching and liberating--but it requires courage and a habit of self-exploration. I've also learned that Jung's way is not the only one. Of course, analyzing dreams for healing is not part of Sonenberg's intent or method.

IT'S HARD TO ASSESS INTUITION. Yet what else do artists rely on? How can we use dream--that intuitive, illogical, imagistic bridge between conscious and unconscious--to help organize art? As a playwright, I might ask: Can dreams help shape a plot? Nightly our unconscious rearranges events and memories from our personal, political and cultural lives into dream form; can that dream, in turn, help evolve a vital, breathing form for a play?

Innumerable architectural forms are available to a playwright. The audience needs solid grounding, but plot doesn't need to be a horizontal ribbon of time. Sonenberg's insight that dream content is "more like a sculpture than a film" is profound. Instead of thinking of a play as merely a horizontal journey in time, the playwright can think of the work as a huge sculpture tunneled with caverns, rooms and landscapes, variously lit, approachable again and again from different angles--a palace to be explored, rather than a ribbon to roll out over time. A dream uses what happened the day you were born as easily as yesterday's events. In my writing workshops, we use dreams in several ways, including intercutting them with autobiographical stories.

Sonenberg writes, "Where else could imagination come from, if not from our bodies? Imagination resides in every cell." She doesn't mention movement as a way of contacting the imaginative unconscious, but I find that it's crucial. The body houses the literal feeling of centered-ness from which creativity flows. Certain deep kinds of moving help bypass mental chatter. Movement teacher Emilie Conrad's remarkable Continuum work uses breath, sound and slow, spontaneous moving to awaken the ocean within. It's a great way to access creativity. One might also employ Authentic Movement, yoga, Sufi dance or Chi Kung.

WHEN SONENBERG ASKS ACTORS TO locate in the body the precise source of sensation that accompanies an image, she tells them, "Stay with that for a moment." "Stay with that" is the most frequent prompt in her dreamwork. In our 21st-century, quick-thinking way, we tend always to be running to the next logical-seeming thing. But awareness is broader and deeper than the logical mind. (Sanskrit has over 60 words for "mind.") The lama Tenzin Wangyal, author of The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, teaches "abiding," remaining where you are emotionally, as a major tool for mining the wealth beneath the logical mind. Slowing down--abiding--allows you to travel "vertically" down, to imagine what you don't yet consciously know.

Sonenberg's readers may have to struggle to winnow insights from pseudoscientific chaff, but the effort is greatly worth the while. Her techniques are useful and provocative. It is up to actors and other artists to use them in their own way.

Jean-Claude van Itallie, whose plays include America Hurrah, The Serpent and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, founded Shantigar, a center in Massachusetts for theatre, meditation and healing.
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Title Annotation:New Books; Dreamwork for Actors
Author:van Itallie, Jean-Claude
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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