Tzachi Zamir on His Philosophy of Acting

by Phillip Witteveen on February 4, 2015

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Tzachi Zamir is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After a Ph.D. of pondering the nature of things, his accidental experiences with amateur acting led him to ponder the nature of performance. Zamir is the author of the first systematic philosophy of theater, Acts. This is not the first time he has tackled less-traditional philosophy, actually, having written about subjects from Shakespeare to vegetarianism to animal rights. Nowadays, though, in the interstices between professional philosophizing, he’s been taking classes, and working in rehearsal for a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz met with Zamir in a Tel Aviv cafe to shake out a first impression of the man, his work, and the interplay of acting and whatever art there may be in just living. If art imitates life, this would, perhaps, be the art from which all other arts originate. Even without music, we have the way things sound. Even without photography or ikons, we will have sunsets, and expression, and the thaumaturgy of thermodynamics. Even without drama, we still have character motivation, conflict and resolution. And even without “acting”, there are recognizable behavioral patterns and being just a slightly different version of yourself depending on who you’re talking to. Now, a readership can wonder along the same lines as Zamir, and Haaretz. What is it that brings the human subject to act? What in the lived experience of human nature is accentuated and brought to stage? And what does the human subject derive from acting as an accentuated form of its natural state? I.e. “What ethical problems are involved when we ask actors to enter extreme situations of consciousness…” asks Zamir, like absurdity, criminality, despair?

“His philosophical study,” writes Haaretz’ Neta Alexander, “deals not only with acting and theater, but also with complex questions that relate to the way all of us—actors, creative artists or members of the audience alike—use the imagination to amplify our existential experience.” This aestheticized mode of thinking, according to Zamir, has some important bearing on our ethics and psychological wellbeing. And they, on it. And so part of Alexander’s first impression was just how out-of-the-abstract these kinds of questions about the philosophy of acting could be grounded in real Israeli life. Acts draws on Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Kafka, but also the “testimonies of female porn stars” and case files of those in the quicksand-like grips of anorexia nervosa.

“To write that chapter,” Zamir explains of the mental illness, “I read memoirs and testimonies of women who suffered from anorexia. One of the most powerful things that emerged from those texts was the way in which they depicted themselves as actors… It’s not necessarily a cry for help, but it is a type of theater that doesn’t allow the audience to look away.” Anorexia, Zamir maintains, is not only a mental illness but—as a performer’s state of mind—a form of normal human expression that can go horribly, nervously wrong.

“I can also play-act a completely fictional possibility,” says Zamir, turning to what we think of as performance more conventionally, (the ones on stage), “like entering a convent as Mother Teresa, or fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.”

“But that will not turn you into Mother Teresa,” says Alexander.

“No, it won’t, but at the same time, it’s necessary to understand that imagination is not a lie or an illusion. It is a mode that makes it possible for me to live and experience in a different way. I can imagine in great detail how Mother Teresa moves, how she drinks a cup of coffee in the morning, how she looks at an ocean sunset, and then I, as Tzachi, realize the possibility to be her.”

“Good art, like good philosophy,” Zamir goes on, “can intertwine experience and understanding.”

To find out more about how the art (and now, the philosophy) of acting makes it possible to live and experience in a different way, you can read the full article here. (It is, however, behind a paywall). In either case, Acts is available now from our University of Michigan Press. Check it out!

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