Altered States: Truth and Torture in Stephen Sewell’s Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America
Recent research into the neurobiology of psychological torture provides evidence for two major conclusions: psychological torture is as damaging as categorically-defined physical abuse and is, in fact, a physical process in and of itself, as victims suffer physiologically and neurologically; further, psychological torture inscribes into the neurological structure of both victims and perpetrators.
This paper will place these findings in dialogue with an analysis of a 2006 U.S. production of Stephen Sewell’s Myth, Propaganda, and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America – a play which stages both physical and psychological torture. Writing from inside the rehearsal and performance process, as the actor playing Eve, who bears witness to her husband’s disintegration at the torturous hands of a mysterious “Man,” I will place my dramaturgical research on the neurobiology of psychological torture into conversation with my creative process as an actor.
The cast of Myth worked with a Body Energy Center (BEC) approach to actor training, developed by Jade McCutcheon and used by practitioners in the U.S. and Australia. The BEC approach combines the language of Stanislavsky and Chekhov with research on the chakras and involves a three-part system that guides actors towards an increased awareness of breath, imagination and kinesthetic response. BEC training is particularly successful in helping actors find a merged psycho-physical relationship to text.
In the context of this approach to actor training, how do we analyze and appreciate systems of actor training applied to the staging and witnessing of torture? In light of the recent collaborations between performance practitioners and cognitive scientists that have revealed the function of mirror neuron systems as serving to produce the same neurological patterns in witnessing acts as those patterns that exist in performing acts, what are the ethical implications of training actors to perform torture? What are audience members experiencing in witnessing staged torture?
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