Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Shema and Acting

A common frustration in prayer is a feeling that one is not really being oneself, that one is expressing things that one does not believe-- or that the prayers that one is saying do not really come from the heart. They are being recited by rote. One often feels like when one prays that one is only acting.

So with regards to the feeling that one is acting when one prays take a look at this:

Midrash Rabbah in Devarim 2:31
begins its discussion of the Shema by asking when it was that Israel merited first to say the Shema. R. Pinchas b. Hama says that the Shema was actually a conversation. It was God that said, "Shema Yisrael...Ani Hashem" and it was the people who answered "Adoshem elokeinu Adoshem echad." And then it was Moshe that said, "Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L?olam va-ed."

In short, R. Pinchas b. Hama reads the Shema as a script, spoken between three different actors. What a novel way to say the Shema, not as yourself through one voice, but by speaking through three different voices, or better-- with three different intentions in mind.

God: Shema Yisrael
B'nai Yisrael: Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad
Moshe: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va-ed.

Now here, might be a place that I would suggest what some of those intentions might be, but in reading something about the technique of acting I am beginning to understand the necessity of leaving intention to those who deliver the lines, instead of setting them through direction.

To say that praying you are only acting when you pray is to denigrate this amazing craft. For, what if we took the idea that instead of it being merely acting, embrace the notion of acting and consider how you could truly act-- in a professional way-- when we say the shema. Acting is a craft, a skill and those who study it say that in addition to learning much about drama, you really have to learn to master who you are. For how can you become someone else-- or how can you bring yourself to a character-- without knowing who that YOU is?

The getting to know oneself in order to create a better performance tack is not the one I want to take here, but it is an obvious parallel between acting and praying that should be explored later, what I am most interested in here is the techniques that one can use to bring a truer performance to one's prayer, or if "technique" at all would be helpful.

(Please note: I am not a beki (expert) on acting whatsoever. In fact, my only performance of the Man in Shaw's Arms in the Man was just this side of painful for everyone. But what I have read and learned from friends who are actors is that acting takes an amazing amount of practice and control in order to fully be on the stage and bring something fresh to each performance.)

Acting is less about the words on the page and more about what happens on the stage. When one is doing a scene one often needs to react and think about given what the other said, what is the feeling or objective to line that is to be delivered. If one were to bring this technique to the Shema-- have it not be about the words only-- the Shema would immediately become elevated beyond the words of the script. Why is it that you are saying your line in the way that you do? What is your objective? What are you feeling right at the moment when you are about to say it? What sorts of things have you been experiencing that might change how you say it, how you mean it?

In addition to this thinking about acting depending on motivation and objective is this notion that Sanford Meisner developed that suggests that people must be responsive to their scene partner-- that they have to be careful to notice the things that their partner is doing at that performance and then react to how that person is performing. One must have the lines down cold, but one must NOT have a reading of that line down cold. In the Meisner technique, one memorizes the lines without inflection so that when it comes time to perform those lines, one can be in the moment and say them as they are presenting themselves to the actor during that performance.

If this is the case, then one can imagine that when davenning their scene partner is God and that one must be attuned to the kinds of things that God is presenting in order to deliver one's lines in the most authentic and immediate way. There is much to learning this technique of acting, but what one must remember is that it above all a technique that one must practice over and over.

The reason that we teach our children the Shema is not because it is so basic or simple. It is because it is the most fundamental and by allowing them the time to learn the line correctly, we give them the chance to one day deliver it with the spontaneity and improvisational honesty that true prayer requires.

There is some difficulty in the way that we are required to say all of the lines of the Shema instead of just one of them and the way that one would have to switch from character to character if one was thinking in this way. But what if one-- in the moment-- chose which character they most identified with at that moment. Said everything, but brought something extra to the line that they were feeling.

I am tempted to show how this method helped my recitation of the Shema last week, but am going to refrain for fear that this will even in some minor way influence a reading of or set a reading of a particular line (not like so many people (any?) read this, but just in case.)

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