A Simple Two-Black-Boxes Model

In teaching acting there is this bad habit of taking quick intuitive assumptions about what is going on inside the actor for facts. Typical statements like “You didn`t really feel it!” cause a lot of confusion in the student and I always would like the student to respond: “How would you know?”

To get this straight, once and forever: Nobody can know what is going on in another person. The more you are sure you can the more probable it is that you are wrong. These assumptions you make often tell more about yourself than about the other. Sociologist Theodor Abel, whom I will introduce later, has pointed that out in his essay “The Operation Called Verstehen”.

Also the quicker you are with your assumptions and the smaller the amount of information you have worked on the higher is the probability that you are wrong. The surface-inside or form-content relationship of humans is not linear and it needs a lot of multi-level information to be integrated to come to conclusions that are more than some levelled-out average almost-non-information and at the same time provide a serious degree of probability. There is no such thing as “reading the mind in the eyes” and only because people feel they can do something it doesn`t mean they can. Yep, there is this feeling of knowing what somebody is feeling that I have often observed in people. But this feeling of knowing what somebody is feeling can for most moments only be of the quality of a very rough estimate. I guess this might be sufficient for survival. But for a detailed work with the actor this is no tool that is of any use.

There are also no simple cause-effect-relationships of the type “if you do this then that will happen” in the work with the actor. Actors are no simple machines. Humans are no simple machines and they are not all the same. As they are all human, they will not work completely differently, but differently enough to make a generalization about their inner ongoings impossible and, if stated, most probably wrong or of such a general quality that it is of no interest.

That means, if you want to become specific, you will have to work with observations, hypotheses, tests and observations. By the time, an educated intuition, based on hundreds of thousands of observed data, carefully put into categories will make the process quicker, at least at some points. Until intuition fails because you encounter something new and you have to go back to observations, hypotheses, tests and observations again.

That is why I work with a simple black box model when I work with an actor.  A black box has functions inside, but, as they are very complex, we don`t know exactly which functions they are and how exactly the inner process is. So I try some input, I do something with the black box and then I observe the output. This output is not yet very much of a knowledge, but something to adapt my hypothesis to. We can put a lot of things into the box: Induce some thought, suggest some movement, induce some mood. We will see what comes out.

There is a second box in this model. This other black box is the audience. We also don`t know how exactly they work and what is going to happen. During performance the only input the audience gets from us is via the audio-video channel. The information received via the audio-video channel will cause some strange ongoings in the audience, nobody knows exactly how this works. But there will be in the best case some output like laughs, some enthusiastic applause, concentrated silence and people waiting in front of the restroom during the break being a bit moved by what they have seen, so uttering one or the other thought about it. And in the worst case there will be people leaving the theatre, some snoring sounds or people congratulating each other that they have consumed a piece of art although you have to conclude from their words that they didn`t understand anything of what you would have wanted them to understand. Also here you can become quite educated what the audience will react to and how. But there will be surprises. It´s black boxes everywhere.

And yes, of course it is also possible to develop models of the inner ongoings. I myself have a lot of them. But it must be clear, that these are models, simplifications and therefore always hypotheses about what might be going on inside the black boxes called actor and audience.

And yes, of course you will, as the audience of your actor, observe personal inner sensations like “Now she is being very sad”. The occurence of such a sensation can be treated as one among other data. But it can`t be set absolute. Might have more to do with your menstrual cycle than with anything else.

In the beginning of this teaching semester I wanted to provide this model as a framework for the work of the whole semester to my students. As the gym-like classroom didn`t have a whiteboard or anything else, I drew it with my fingers on the white wall while explaining it to my students. It became my first invisible board address, they want to become actors after all so they should be able to imagine something, shouldn`t they? Though it is invisible, it is referred to by me and the students again and again. We sometimes laugh about how this, us with great seriousness referring to a completely white wall, must look to a stranger.