John H. Lienhard
presents guest essayist Megan Cole
Today, our guest, Seattle actor Megan Cole, has an
acting technique for understanding behavior. The
University of Houston presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
There's an old Spanish saying
that goes, "I am I and my circumstances." It's a
deceptively simple statement that refers, I think,
to the fact that however we may define ourselves,
that self is modified by what's happening
around us, whether we recognize it or not. And
recognizing it is probably a good thing if we're
interested in understanding why we behave as we do.
This connection of self-within-circumstances is a
key component in one of my worlds, that of the
actor. A basic acting technique is called "Given
Circumstances" -- that is, being aware of the
external influences that affect the meaning of any
situation. And the leading questions are: "Where
have I come from?" "What are the conditions right
now?" and "Where will I be going?"
For example: here I am in a blue chair writing on
my yellow legal pad in a sunny room with a black
dog at my feet and a cup of jasmine tea at my
elbow. Sounds nice, doesn't it? It's a description
of tranquility, and it is tranquil, for
the moment. But that's only part of the picture.
Because I've just finished an hour of answering
e-mail (which is always urgent), I didn't get
enough sleep (it goes without saying), there's a
leaf-blower roaring in the yard next door, my tea
is cold, the dog could use a bath, and a short hour
from now I need to quit the blue chair for a
meeting I'm not prepared for and don't want to
All of these details, and many others, are my
given circumstances: those external facts
that must affect my experience of the
present moment. For an actor, it's important to
gather such facts in order to create a fully-formed
character. I have to find, from both the text and
my imagination, those affecting forces that allow
me to feel like a human being and not a cardboard
Off the stage, each of us is, of course,
already a fully-formed character, for
better or worse. The challenge is to become
aware of the affecting forces, which gives
us a better chance at being a co-creator of our
experience, not just a victim. After an hour of
e-mail, for example, I've learned from bitter
experience that a few minutes of deep breathing
will make that tranquil moment a more likely
prospect. Call it compartmentalizing, call it
context, call it given circumstances. It's all
about recognizing affective influences and choosing
The tricky part, though, is that everyone functions
under different circumstances.
(You got enough sleep last night, right?)
That's a good thing to remember in literally any
situation that involves interaction. "By the way,
where are you coming from?" I might think
to ask. "What's happening to you -- right
now?" "Where do you need to go after we part?" As
hard as it is to believe, nobody sees the world in
quite the same way I do. And no one has a patent on
the so-called truth, not even I, not even you.
So, both onstage and off it's useful to remember
that given circumstances are always with us, always
modifying the shape of the self within its
boundaries. And where are you right now?
I'm Megan Cole, and in the theatre, as at the
University of Houston, we give a great deal of
attention to the way inventive minds work.
Megan Cole is a noted stage and TV actor and regular
visiting faculty member at the University of Texas
Medical Center in Houston. She originated the role of
Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play
Wit. She has also played recurring
characters on Seinfeld, ER,
Star Trek, and other popular shows.
Shy or arrogant -- fearful or curious?
Make up a story to go with the face;
then you will know.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.