I enjoy reading books on particle theory and physics, although I am not a scientist and I don’t understand what I’m reading very well. Rather, I enjoy reading the books which explain physics to the general public, because I find the world of sub-atomic physics to be rich in metaphors which I can apply to many things in my life, but particularly to the creative process and improvisation technique. The latest such book I read is “The Lightness of Being” by Frank Wilczek.

 Several things from this book struck me as being striking metaphors for the basic principles of improvisation which I use in my work.

 Wilczek writes about a view of the world in which all of space (what we think of as “empty space”) is filled with several kinds of energy fields, and refers to these overlapping fields as The Grid. He writes:

 In the Grid view of the world…Particle A affects the field fluctuations around it, which also affect another particle, B. This is our most fundamental picture of how a force arises between A and B.

 I find that this image has very close parallels with how I like to view the interaction between actors in an improvised scene. Rather than thinking that the two actors “react” to each other, I prefer to think of the whole space of the performance as an energy field. Everything that the two actors do changes the fluctuations in this field, and this changing of the field in turn affects both of the actors. It’s a great image for the concept of working in Counterpoint Form.

 Speaking of fields, Wilczek writes that Einstein and other physicists originally resisted thinking in terms of energy fields, and preferred to analyze interactions using a particle model. The problem with the particle model is that in order to understand the current state of a set of given particles, if you rely on a model based solely on particle interactions, you need to know the previous state of each of the particles at every previous point in time and in space, which makes the calculation almost impossible. According to Wilczek, though, the field model is much more fruitful. He writes:

 That move from a particle description to a field description will be especially fruitful if the fields obey simple equations, so that we can calculate the future values of fields from the values they have now, without having to take past values into account.

 In other words, by adopting a paradigm based on fields, you no longer have to track all the events of the past, because you find that all of the information from the past is found (mathematically) within the present moment. To me, this is a great image for the idea that an actor in an improvised scene does not have to interrupt the flow of a scene and try to go back and consciously remember all the things that have already happened in the scene, in order to make the scene into a coherent, connected whole. When I first started trying to perform improvisations, I had a tendency to panic in the middle of scene because I was worried that I had “lost the thread of the scene” and that the scene was wandering around aimlessly. I would try to fix this by making myself remember all of the things that had already happened in the scene. You could say that I was approaching the scene using a “particle model.” Over time, I realized how counter-productive this behavior was, and that the better way to ensure that the scene is a coherent, connected whole is to remain fully embedded in each moment of the scene, and feel how each moment becomes the next. Each moment contains the full sum of all the energies leading up to it, so by remaining fully inside the flow of the moments, I can carry the whole history of the scene forward with me, without having to “step outside of the action” and keep track of everything. I have adopted a “field model” approach to the scene. I write about this idea extensively in my entry on “following the curve.”

 Another interesting metaphor I drew from the book comes from Wilczek’s description of every particle as being surrounded by a cloud of “virtual particles” which have the opposite charge. Every positively charged particle is surrounded by a halo of negative particles, and vice versa. Metaphorically, this reminds me of the tendency of improvisations to structure themselves around “polarizations,” that is, pairs of opposite qualities. When one character talks about wanting to be alone, the subject of the scene usually shifts soon to being about the need for company. If one actor mentions his need for everything to be orderly, then the need for chaos and unpredictability usually comes up in the same scene. Director Antero Alli has actually created a whole series of wonderful paratheater exercises based on these polarities, which he writes about extensively on his website.

 There is one more metaphor from the world of physics which has been important to me for a long time, and I’ve often told this image to actors I work with. Physicists aren’t able to observe quarks and most of the other subatomic particles directly, because their interactions are too tiny and too short-lived. When they conduct experiments using particle accelerators, they use devices which record traces and marks of different kinds which result from the particle interactions, and the physicists interpret these traces rather than observing the interactions directly. You could think of these devices as making a kind of “shadow graph” of the interaction.

 I like to think, when I’m performing a scene, that the real scene itself, the reality of it, is not the words, sounds, or actions of the performers. The scene is a sequence of emotional states, rhythms, and energy states. In other words, the real scene is the inner experience of the scene, not its outward manifestation. The actual words, sounds, and actions that we make are a kind of by-product of the scene, a “shadow graph” left by our experience of the inner states.

 To me, this is a very fruitful idea, because it enables me to stop thinking that I have to “play” all of the inner states I’m feeling. I no longer think that I have to come up with words or actions which “express” my inner state. Instead, my real goal is simply to be inside of these states, to feel them as fully as I can, and I use whatever words or actions are handy in order to better connect to the feelings. The words themselves could be anything at all, and they don’t have to do the job of “performing” or “expressing” the feelings. The more I connect directly to the feelings themselves, the more legible the “shadow graph” of my words and actions will be, and the easier time the audience will have in using my outward behavior in order to connect with the inner reality of the scene.