Culture of Experimentation

Tomorrow’s events:

  • Live Journaling w/ Peter Limberg. Daily @ 8:00 AM ET. Patreon event. 90 mins.

  • Conflict = Energy: The Transformative Practice of Authentic Relating w/ Jason Digges. June 1st @ 12:00 PM ET. RSVP here.

  • Straw Man, Steel Man, and All Those Other Men w/ Ryan Nakade. June 1st @ 6:00 PM ET. RSVP here.

An event to (maybe) get excited about:

  • Canceling Comedians While the World Burns w/ Ben Burgis. June 7th @ 6:00 PM ET. RSVP here.

Ben Burgis, “the logician for the left,” returns to The Stoa to discuss his new book, Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique Of The Contemporary Left. In the book, Ben argues that the left’s recent focus on the performative exercise of cancel culture has hurt the left’s ability to achieve its goals.


May 31st, 2021

I took a slew of acting and improv courses when I was younger, mostly under the tutelage of Kevin McCormick. This was probably one of the best things I did to gain greater social confidence.

Kevin served as a “second father” for me, and a slew of the players in Toronto at the time, such as my friends Davood Gozli and Daniel Kazandjian, all were Kevinites. He was a genius in emotional intelligence, as he could sense into what emotional reality someone needed to express more, and he gave roles for that expression to manifest. It was way better than most of the psychotherapy I engaged in, and it had very powerful integrating effects.

The Nordic Larp scene is a style of “live action role playing” associated with Nordic countries. One of their main advocates, Johanna Koljonen, visited The Stoa last year and delivered a must-watch presentation. They have a term called “bleed,” which is when emotions bleed from player to character, or vice versa. I did not know it at the time, but this bleed thing is the thing that Kevin was trying to get us to experience.

The acting world is an amazing world to tap into in order to discover cutting-edge psychotechnology waiting to be repurposed towards something else. There is so much untapped wisdom in this world, and I think Venkatesh Rao nailed it when he wrote the following …

I suspect the reason there is so much to learn from the practice of theater is that the humanities and social sciences lack a strong culture of experimentation. Theater is, in a sense, the true laboratory for the humanities and social sciences.

A “culture of experimentation.” I love that. Dale Carnegie, the guy who wrote the famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, and who created the Dale Carnegie Course, which I was an active trainer at before COVID, was actually an actor before he started teaching people public speaking and interpersonal excellence. He ported a lot of stuff from the acting world into the corporate world, and it does work. 

I want to bring more acting tech to The Stoa, such as the Meisner technique and Patsy Rodenburg’s voice acting methods, including her excellent “second circle” framework. There are so many wonderful discoveries from the acting world, and one of my favorites are the “emotional effector patterns.” These are patterns that include specific ways of breathing and muscle manipulations that reliably invoke specific emotional realities such as joy, anger, and fear.

Laura Bond came to The Stoa to deliver a wonderful session on the patterns last year, and the patterns can totally be repurposed towards something outside of the acting world. I was talking to somebody who teaches the patterns in Toronto a few years ago, and she said the emotions invoked from them can feel primordial at times. She also said that they provided greater emotional agency for those who practice it.

I can imagine a new Stoic practice being born from this: engaging in emotional effector patterns to invoke primordial emotions, then doing the algo I mentioned in a previous entry: engage in ACT’s “cognitive defusion” techniques, followed up by some dispassionate reasoning. Imagine a preemptive modality that affords one to get into the right relationship with their entire emotional landscape. That sounds Stoically delicious.

Status is something that Kevin taught me, and my engagement with places like Second City also helped. Status is one of those “invisible social languages” I mentioned here before, and consciously grokking the language of status really gives one social superpowers. The language was only consciously discovered in the acting world because a culture of experimentation existed.

Keith Johnstone, the guy who basically created the improv movement, and who also visited The Stoa, stumbled on this status thing while experimenting. Before his status discovery he noticed the improvisational scenes were pretty dull. The following passage is from his legendary book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn't reproduce 'ordinary' conversation. They said 'Talky scenes are dull,' but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. For some weeks I experimented with scenes in which two 'strangers' met and interacted, and I tried saying 'No jokes,' and 'Don't try to be clever,' but the work remained unconvincing. They had no way to mark time and allow situations to develop, they were forever striving to latch on to 'interesting' ideas. If casual conversations really were motiveless, and operated by chance, why was it impossible to reproduce them at the studio? 

It was only until Keith introduced status that scenes started to become real:

'Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner's,' I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became 'authentic', and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really 'motiveless'. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret maneuverings were exposed. 

Yeah. I really dig that line: All our secret maneuverings were exposed. This is what happens when people start to learn about all of these invisible social languages. Things become demystified. The culture of experimentation that comes from acting allows for this demystification to occur.

Kevin often used the phrase “your instrument” in his classes. To be a better actor, he used to say, we have to fine-tune our instruments. This has always stuck with me. I actually do not know what he meant, but I imagine he meant our bodies and the various emotions they can be attuned to. If we are not in the right relationship with a specific emotional state—be it joy, anger, or fear—then it is hard to authentically express those states in the characters we are tasked to play.

I wonder how this culture of experimentation that the acting world affords, along with deeply grokking things like status and emotions, can be repurposed towards attuning our instruments to become the person we are called to be.


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