a million muscles: aphorisms and aperçus and excerpts from Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and The Target with a few notes

You cannot explain why acting is alive, because you cannot explain life. In fact, if you can explain it it’s dead. But block is mostly dead structure, as dead as any old ideology, and that is why it can be mostly explained. …

None of us can ever be sure of the effect we are having. Consequently, wondering how we appear is always mere speculation and speculation is mere theory. So when Irina answers the question with: ‘I think I look stupid,’she is theorising.

So Irina is intellectualising and spinning structure, which will eventually stifle the spark of life she was trying to protect. Irina may well not feel that she is being remotely intellectual. When we feel we look idiotic, it doesn’t seem like a theory. But panic always has its origins in theory. To answer or even ask the question ‘How do I look?‘ must paralyse the actor. Vital acting has nothing to do with intellectual theory. But blocked acting always has its origins in theory.

– Declan Donnellan, The Actor and The Target, Theatre Communications Group, London, 2005, pp. 82-3

The identity is knowable. The identity looks like who I am, it seems like who I am, it smells like who I am, but it is not who I am. Being fully describable the identity is fully dead. But it may help the actor to consider its workings.

– Ibid., p. 99

Declan Donnellan goes on to show identity works by polar opposites. It represses one part as soon as it expresses the other. If I am good, I am expending energy in order to present myself (to myself) as good and conceal the fact that I am bad in equal measure. Identity follows the physical law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Donnellan’s initial questions about ‘character’ are then: ‘Who would I rather be?‘ And, ‘Who am I afraid I might be?‘ Here, as elsewhere, the proximity to Gilles Deleuze can be felt, particularly to the formula from Bartleby: ‘I would prefer not to.

You might say this is a proximity to theory of what is declaredly anti-theory. Theory and theatre share, after all, the Greek root theorein, meaning ‘to look at,‘ and hence ‘to speculate.‘ You might. However, I would prefer not to. Because both Declan Donnellan and Deleuze are pragmatists and neither are theorists. Both are concerned with the problem of representation from different ends or exits.

… theatre demands that we dismantle all prejudices and certainties about who we are.

– Ibid., p. 109

Donnellan (p. 110) describes the mask as releasing the actor into performance. The mask gives its permission to the performer.

… there is one part of the face the mask does not obliterate. It does not obliterate the eyes. Indeed the mask changes what the eyes see. The target transforms.

– Ibid., p. 111

When acting a role, actors choose not to act themselves for a while.

– Ibid., p. 112

We should avoid spending time on the ‘I,’ but the mutations of the ‘me’ are extremely useful for the actor.

– Ibid., p. 114

The final Juliet ‘me’ is a sheath for Romeo’s dagger:

This is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die.

To make such a grim joke, Juliet must have changed. Yes? But from whose point of view? The modest girl on the balcony would never knowingly mix sex, violence and decay, picturing herself as a dead receptacle for Romeo’s rotting weapon.

– Ibid., pp. 114-5

Is Juliet the anti-Semele?

– Juliet – detail from The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, Lord Frederic Leighton, 1855

– Semele – detail from Jupiter and Semele, Gustave Moreau, 1894-5

Declan Donnellan’s ‘crustacean’ conception of character is close to Deleuze’s Body without Organs. (The section is headed “A Crustacean.”)

‘Character’ and ‘space’ have a surprising amount in common. In fact, my ‘character’ is a kind of space.

– Ibid., p. 128

The body is fettered by unconscious control. … when we try to escape from Fear by using Control we end up more and more ensnared with Fear.

– Ibid., p. 150

Life is in permanent flow; something else slams on the brakes. This ‘something else’ needs to be exposed. The principle is simple: we stop ourselves moving because Fear maintains us in a state of control.

– Ibid., p. 151

Fear threatens, Control conspires.

– Ibid., 151 [emphasis added]

Exercise: use all your muscles to perform a simple task, a movement or an action. Attend to which muscles are not being used and then use them – to walk, to drink a glass of milk, to …

We squander masses of energy braking, suppressing, cursing, limiting, deadening and confining the muscles … these exercises draw attention to secret inner locks. The only key we can use is attention, but attention fits all locks like a miracle skeleton key.

– Ibid., 153

[time heals all wounds – attend – attend on it – wait – pay attention, please]

A thought is a target. … A thought must be seen before it can be uttered. And like any target, a thought must obey all the rules. In particular the thought is always transforming itself. A thought never remains fixed: a single thought will modulate itself, will continue to change, as a variation on a theme. A verse play like Romeo and Juliet has plenty of prolonged thoughts expressed in extended sequences of words.

– Ibid., pp. 156-7 [emphasis added, cf. Deleuze]

If Irina begins a passionate speech with her longs only half full it is dangerous for her to say ‘next time I must take more breath,’ although that is perfectly true. Irina needs to see why she had not taken enough breath originally. …

It is only what we see that makes us breathe appropriately.

We train the imagination [and the acuity of our senses] only by letting ourselves see. Attention is our best coach.

– Ibid., p. 157

An obsession with certainty destroys faith.

– Ibid., p. 158 [emph. added]

To purloin the letter (p. 161) not the law: AN ARTIST’S JOB IS THE POLAR OPPOSITE OF A JUDGE’S.


Was there a golden age when primitive but clear, intense and unequivocal feelings were delivered spontaneously? Has some pure innocence of emotion been degraded by this modern urge to sniff the dustbin detail?

– Ibid., p. 164

An indicated emotion is a desperate gesture of control.

– Ibid., p. 166

The character is what the actor does not play.
Emotion is what is not shown.
Character and emotion are both effects separate from their terms, vitally, relationally, each.

Emotion impedes action (adds impedance?): the character’s emotion obstructs the action the character wants to make – where particularly? Is she choked with emotion? Hamstrung or shaking? Stiff, limp or numb?

The gesture is always smaller than the feeling that precipitates it.

– Ibid., p. 171 [emph. added]

Because the bigger the feeling, the bigger the force exerted on (and not in) us. (Cf. THE SMALL BOX IS BIGGER THAN THE ONE IT IS INSIDE.)

An actor needs to separate the character’s actions from her feelings in order to oppose the two and place them in conflict. (And bring them into play.)

The more our feelings rise, the more we pull on the reins.

– Ibid., p. 172


admitting and accepting that we all each carry around the memory of unacknowledged and unowned intensities is useful.

– Ibid., pp. 176-178

Concluding Doxology
It is no more possible to express emotion than it is to shit through your ear. You can push and push as hard as you like and it will still never come out. The tubes don’t connect, that’s all.

– Ibid., p. 178

The outside is always smaller than the inside; the word is always smaller than the feeling.

– Ibid., p. 178

The small box is bigger than the one it is inside.

on words – those of Shakespeare and Chekhov:

They see the impossibility of ever being truly heard.

– Ibid., p. 180 [emph. added]

For the actor the text may be too good; for the character it is never good enough – neither to be truly heard, nor adequately to express the feeling.

We never have a thought from nowhere. And we always have a thought.

– Ibid., p. 184

(… thought is interruption – the series [cf.]: AND… AND… AND…)

We can never say the same word twice.

– Ibid., p. 184

Before the old thought has time to expire, the new thought is clambering over its body.

– Ibid., p. 185

When we appear to interrupt, it is in fact a new target that has interrupted us. … we see then do.

Interrupting has nothing to do with speed. … only the target controls our speed. What we see dictates our rhythm.

– Ibid., p. 186

The more she [the actress] permits herself to depend on a multitude of tiny, or huge, emphatic or elusive targets, the freer her imagination will run. The more different pulses, the better.

– Ibid., p. 185 [emph. added]

Thought is a process of discarding photographs.

– Ibid., p. 189

detraqué => tangential/tangents

pique-assiettes => gleanings/gleaned