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  • Sonya Cooke


"The purpose of Art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by answers."

---James Baldwin

“I don’t know,” can be a powerful statement to admit. It is the juncture at which you either delve deeper or back away slowly. Should you take the next step, you will initiate a change within yourself. Should the wall between the known and the unknown intimidate you, you will remain safe and untransformed. When you begin to reach beyond your general conception of the world is when you grow. “Where is the grocery store?” “I don’t know.” You can either starve or figure it out. “I don’t know” is the acknowledgement that you are out of your league, and, therefore, “I don’t know” sets you on the path to discovery. It is also the point at which many people, artists among them, give up. In acting, it is important to emphasize more what we don’t know as opposed to what is known, in order to take the necessary steps toward character transformation.

It’s a question more than a declarative statement…

And in this way, make certain that your “I don’t knows” begin a conversation, not end one. I often hear “I don’t know” from students. When it seems to signify a relinquishing of responsibility, it is like nails on a chalkboard. However, when it peeks the actor’s curiosity, then we are on to something. Certain details must be known as soon as possible; “I don’t know” simply won’t cut it for questions like “What just happened,” “Who are you talking to,” “Where are you,” or “What is happening now?” Other questions may require more rumination and maturation, like “What do you want?” “What do you do to achieve it?” “What does this person mean to you?” “How does this circumstance impact you?” “How do I relate to this scenario?”… Do not rush into answers. Don’t know for as long as you can. Play out your options in regards to what your circumstances are, what they mean to you and how that drives your needs and actions in the story.

Simply put, get CURIOUS, insatiably so! Delay the gratification of certainty. In general, I wish actors would admit “I don’t know” much more frequently. As artists, we can stand to ask more and assume less. A viable acting technique unto itself is simply to ask a million different, probing questions about the piece, to the point of absurdity, even. Push the boundaries, turn over rocks, get your hands dirty. Do not take anything for a finite answer; keep asking why, why, why?! It’s a bottomless pit, really. “Investigate” has the word “invest” in it; the more you explore, the deeper your commitment.

Don’t know what is on page 2…

It is extremely important to limit what you know in a scene. So often, because an actor knows how a scene plays out, he anticipates a circumstance or he holds a premature opinion. This is called “Playing the End,” and it’s deadly, as it kills spontaneity and surprise. The devil you don’t know is worse than the devil you know; therefore you want to line your script with well-veiled devils! Clarify in the text what you know THEN and delay the revelations that come as long as possible. This way you do not see the end coming BEFORE IT ACTUALLY ARRIVES.

Hindsight is 20/20, but you want to be blind-sighted in acting…

It’s really an unfair situation. You, the actor, have to know a script through and through; you must be memorized, do all this work, know your blocking, yada yada yada. And then, you have to go and forget it all so that you can live it anew and for the first time! Hindsight Bias is unnervingly 20/20; you can see so clearly how the events and all the moving parts unfolded. “If only I knew then what I know now,” is the mantra that follows misfortunate events in the past. However, we as actors must insist on NOT KNOWING now what we will subsequently figure out! And we must engage in this imposed ignorance repeatedly … How do we do that?!

There are many ways: By listening to your partner. By practicing presence. By deepening in the senses. Through surrender. Through focusing on an objective ferociously. By playing clear actions. By expecting something different to transpire, i.e. future and potential circumstances (see previous blogs.) But, what I am also suggesting is by using your text work to clarify in each moment what is known and what still remains a mystery, you can craft the unraveling of unfortunate events. By staging out what is revealed to you, you can create a surprising journey.

“I don’t know” is not such a terrible admission, after all. It is the beginning of a wonderful adventure. Curiosity may’ve killed the cat but there are eight other lives to go, so I think you can spare a couple ;) So, don’t know where you are going. Allow yourself to sit in the uncomfortable seat of uncertainty; it’s as painful in art as it is in life. Not knowing is a form of surrender, inviting you to relinquish your control of the world around you and entertain a new perspective. This way, you see freshly and you can begin to transform.

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