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  • Sonya Cooke

Bombs and Banana Peels

I’d like to right a wrong that’s persisted ever since I published my book. I’ve had time to think thoroughly about how to address it, and I’d like to correct the misunderstanding here and now. A disclaimer: this blog is more technical than theoretical, so if you prefer to watch funny quarantining videos, now would be a good time.

In the Meaning Pillar, there has been collective confusion regarding how to apply the tools it describes. First of all, the acting concept of “meaning” or “a meaning” has roots in the Meisner technique (to my knowledge and experience.) I recall my teacher Vicki Hart referring to the meanings in the text and instructing us to “particularize” them. In Seven Pillars Acting, I have sought to bring greater clarity to this term and to carve out actionable steps. I’ve also worked to raise the bar on what actors’ standards should be, regarding their connection to the meanings of their characters.

Essentially, “meaning” has a pretty obvious definition: it literally means the meaning of a circumstance, or in other words, it’s the deeper interpretation of an event or happening. For example, the event may be that we are in a pandemic, but what that means can take different shapes to different people. Someone may say that means the world is coming to an end; another may say that means they will get to spend more time with their family. There are as many options for meaning as there are people to feel them. The idea is to capture the nuance of the character’s perspective on what is happening to them, thereby forging a deeper understanding of their experience.

In the book, (ahem, Seven Pillars Acting,) it is written there are two uses for meanings, but the book does not go far enough to differentiate the two applications. Time and time again, I’ve watched students misinterpret the directions, given my printed vagaries. Let’s dig into the two applications and consider the modifications for improvement.

The first application of the Meaning Pillar pertains to the actor’s score, or the notations that an actor makes in their script. At this point in the process, actors will have written down their circumstances in the text. In this first application, actors assign a meaning for every single present circumstance they’ve written. The actor drops down an arrow, writes “that means…”, and completes the prompt with whatever they think is most true for the character. I require that the meaning starts with “that means” to ensure causation. Without it, the meaning can stray from the circumstance; with it, the meaning pierces into the deeper implications of the circumstance. Like a drill dropping down from the site of an oil rig, the meaning dives into the underbelly of the character’s psyche. By adding a meaning for every circumstance, they are building their score, otherwise called the “CMOA,” which stands for circumstance, meaning, objective, and action. A score is an active document; the actor can work with it during rehearsals in order to craft the role to the specifications of the director, collaborators, and of course, the actor playing the part. At this stage in the process, the actor has assigned just the first two: the C and M.

In the second application, the actor is asked to notice when particular moments in a scene have poignant and deep emotional meaning. The moments are to the letter meaningful; they are the apexes and zeniths of their character’s journey. Actors, then, isolate these moments of emotional power in the text by listing them out in a journal or notebook (separate from the score.) The book terms this the meaning list. Unfortunately, that has been the source of the confusion, which is why the new name for the list is called the bomb and banana peel list (short form: bomb list.) By calling it the bomb list and not the meaning list, students may better understand the difference between a meaning written in the CMOA and a bomb that they determine has potent emotional meaning.

Bombs are moments that “go off” in the scene or past experiences that have a profound emotional impact on the character. Bombs necessitate the actor to program that particular moment with emotional life. Once done, the actor plants the bomb in a specific moment in the text and lets it go, trusting the work is done. Then, when the character trespasses on that particular spot, they authentically explode with that specific emotional life. Banana peels, a term thoughtfully coined by one of my grad students, Alan White, has a light-hearted feel. Just as one may slip on a banana peel, a character may stumble upon a moment of emotional meaning that warrants the deeper work this application provides. Not all moments are violent, and banana peels allow actors to address the work in a more playful way.

The bomb list must be written on a separate sheet of paper, perhaps in a journal, and away from the text itself since it delves into emotion. In Seven Pillars Acting, I emphasize that emotional work is for homework only. We do not practice our emotional life tools while acting because that will negatively impact our contact work with our partners, and it will also defy believability in a performance. For that reason, we never write emotions on our text. Actors can be seduced by the impression of those words, leading to inauthentic acting. Instead, we address emotion in our homework, after which time we let go and test out the fruits of our work the next time we practice the scene. The minutia of the scene or the insubstantial moments likely do not need to undergo the deep process that this second application entails. If every meaning registered on the bomb list, the performance surely would be melodrama. Only the BIG meanings require the work that starts here on the bomb list and continues on in the Emotional Life Pillar. I won’t go into all the details of the bomb list; you’ll just have to get the book to learn more about what that work is :) … or I may just write another blog entry, you never know.

I hope these clarifications help you in your training and in your crafting of performances! (May I never see a bomb list written in a script again.) Happy acting, actors; two cups joy and lots of love.

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