Actors are notoriously willing to try anything, but even the most eager beaver might have done a double take at this audition notice: "One male actor with some musical ability and acting age range of 30 to 45, needed for a joint theatre/psychoneuroimmunology research project...Note: Small blood samples will be drawn for study before and after performances. Confidentiality of results guaranteed."
Geez, the casting people in this town want blood from you.
The gig in question was the male lead in a combination theatre production-experiment opening March 2 for a two-week run of mostly afternoon performances at Arizona State University's Institute for Studies in the Arts. The event itself is titled Performance-Induced Personality Transformation and Immunity. Okay, Hamlet it ain't, but you never know. Could be the big break, right?
What the event consists of is two short two-character plays, one serious and one broadly comic, in which the heart rate and cardiovascular responses of the actors will be monitored, and after which their blood will be analyzed. The premise, according to medical researcher Dr. Nicholas Hall and artistic director Dennis Calandra, is that the emotions used in acting can create physiological changes that might help patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer and AIDS.
Even when science and the arts aren't being antagonistic toward each other, they're never on better terms than wary tolerance. Yet the idea that a person's physical health is affected by his or her mental and emotional states goes back in Western medicine as far as Hippocrates and Galen. Likewise, the origin of Western drama is said to be the public funereal "orgies" of the Greeks, which were intended as a cathartic therapy for grief.
Somebody should get these two schools of thought together. And the ASU institute's project, a continuation of a November 1990 pilot study at the University of South Florida, is trying to do just that. The study was conceived by Hall, a researcher at the Florida university's medical school, whose previous work had shown that mental patients who suffered from multiple personality disorders underwent changes in body chemistry as they changed personalities. One woman, for instance, was shown to be physically allergic to wool in one of her personalities and not in any of the others.
"A person with Multiple Personality Disorder is ideal as a control subject for studies involving humans," Hall says, "because the body is identical ...the only thing that differs is the personality state. This woman could actually change personalities at will. I was very suspicious, particularly since now there are psychiatrists who are saying that Multiple Personality Disorder doesn't exist, that it's misdiagnosed schizophrenia, or simply acting out."
But eventually Hall determined that the terminology was irrelevant; the point was that the body chemistry did change. "Frankly," he says, "I'd be tickled pink to learn that it was just acting out, because that would mean that there is the potential for using acting skills for personality transformation."
Similarly, Calandra thought the woman's personality changes seemed like "sort of bad acting" when he viewed them on video, but he had to concede that "the blood didn't lie."
"Look, it's a fishing expedition," admits artistic director Calandra, a professor of theatre at South Florida. Then he starts talking like a scientist: We're looking for biological markers that can be used as sound dependent variables." What he means to say is that acting could be proven to be good for your health.
"If any of this is any use at all," says Calandra, "it's that you could positively affect the immune system through something like acting, the particular kind of process you go through as an actor-personality transformation."
The actors' blood samples will be shipped to the University of South Florida, where scientists will do a battery of tests, trying to determine such things as whether the performances stimulated production of beta-endorphins and heightened "pokeweed responsiveness." That could tell the scientists whether acting helps the body produce disease-fighting chemical reactions.
Calandra acknowledges there's been "plenty of skepticism." But even the scientists don't dispute that there's at least a grain of common sense to the idea. Besides, who really knows how the mind and body interact? "The whole mind-body thing is, on the one hand, hopelessly vague," says Calandra. "On the other hand, it is very real."
Now that that's settled, exactly how does one go about selecting material for a pleasant and entertaining evening of psychoneuroimmunology?
Calandra says he had specific goals. "I wanted something that was well-enough written, short, and I wanted something intense," he says. "We decided to go for a depressive sort of piece the first time." Fittingly, it seems, they chose It's Cold, Wanderer, It's Cold, which is set in 1905 Russia. The half-hour piece by the British playwright Peter Barnes originally was written for radio. Calandra notes that "there are lots of ups and downs in it." That it's based on a historical incident is a plus, too. "I wanted something," he says, "where the actors could do some of their own homework, building a character, research, beginning to clothe yourself in the character."
For the ASU production, it was decided to add a second short piece in a contrasting style. And what could be a better contrast to czarist Russia than the script of an I Love Lucy episode? (You could argue that hooking up actors to electrodes and taking blood samples sounds like a Lucy episode, anyway.)
"I thought, `This is good because it's American,'" Calandra explains. "I Love Lucy immediately gives you a grin. This is also a wild speculation, but down the road, if I were dealing with someone who wasn't educated, couldn't do the Russian research and so forth, what makes everybody feel good? I Love Lucy. If you're playing in something absolutely silly, and you're in a desperate situation like, you know, you're sick, you've got AIDS, you've got cancer, at least it's a diversion."
Calandra's choice of Lucy also may have been occasioned by the fact that his lead actress (also his wife), Jean Calandra, is a redhead with a Lucille Ball smile. (The male lead in both productions will be played by Phoenix actor Kenneth Bridges.)
Before and after each performance, researchers will draw 20 cc's of blood from each performer, screening it for substances that the body produces to fight disease. While onstage, the actors also will wear such gear as self-contained heart-rate monitors.
But Jean Calandra, a trouper, insists that the play's the thing. "Once you're into a process like this, you really forget about the study," she says. "I'm only reminded of the study when we take a moment to sit down and look at the data. The extraordinary thing about performance is that it is really all-absorbing. When you're involved in that process, that's what you think about. A lot of people say, `Well, aren't you frightened about all these blood draws and everything?' I really don't think about it 'til I'm sitting there and blood's being drawn."
But that brings up another question: Aren't the actors' performances tainted by their knowledge that this is a scientific study and that their physical reactions are being monitored? Perhaps, but Dennis Calandra at least has tried to cut down on distractions. He has kept the staging bone-simple-some artful lighting and virtually no set or props. "I'm minimizing, clearing the decks, so the acting is the main thing," he says. Jean Calandra gives with a Lucy smile and adds, "I talked him out of the exploding TV."
One comes away with visions of patients with cancer and AIDS performing I Love Lucy. But Dennis Calandra notes, "Even if you're playing a depressive piece, and again it's hopelessly vague, but I can't find a better word for it, there's a kind of creative energy an actor uses, no matter how gut-wrenching the piece may be. It's what Aristotle talks about, for the actor, it's a kind of purgation. Something happens with your soul, as they used to call it, and you come out somehow cleaner for it."
At any rate, like your mother's chicken soup, it couldn't hurt.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? NOT MUCH ART ... v2-26-92