Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 31 No. 1

Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting

Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting. Amy Cook. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Pp. 198.

Amy Cook’s Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting argues that casting, as artistic practice and necessary strategy for everyday life, is a performative act related to human cognitive tendencies to organize a large number of stimuli into characters. Our understanding of characters happens within categories that shape assumptions about a character type’s behavior and desires. Cook claims, “The process by which we build a character from the inputs of context, memory, text, and the physical properties of the body playing that character is far more powerful than has been acknowledged” (6). Because she works with a contemporary understanding of situated (also called “embodied”) cognition, inputs like context, memory, and text are just as connected to the experiential embodiment as are the physical properties of the body. Cook uses second generation cognitive science in her theoretical matrix, and I would argue that this text is part of another second generation, that of the cognitive turn in the humanities. Cook’s overall goal is a back-and-forth conversation between cognitive science and theatre studies wherein “a cognitive approach to theatrical character” and “a theatrical understanding of a central component of cognition – characterization” are analyzed together under the term of casting (15). Cognitive humanities scholarship can be easily critiqued as simply slapping cognitive science onto an analytical object and allowing scientific conclusions to become primarily prescriptive, thus circumscribing the scholar’s interpretive work. Cook foregrounds a more difficult, subtle, and ultimately useful process here whereby epistemological models from theatre studies help elucidate cognitive scientific findings, not solely the other way around.

Building Character is structured pedagogically (though not pedantically). Chapter one, “Building Titus,” introduces concepts that continue to deepen and pay off in each subsequent chapter. “Building Titus” focuses on the cognitive processes of compression. Cook argues that character building is a process of stimuli compression; characters exist only as “we create them to make sense of our perceptions” (38). Chapter two, “Building Characters,” focuses on how and why “[S]ome bodies…do not seem to disappear as easily as others into their parts” and includes a compelling engagement with celebrity studies (32). Cook takes up the work of Eve Ensler and Anna Deavere Smith in the third chapter, “Multicasting,” exploring the dynamic and embedded nature of building characters. Chapter four moves Cook’s observations about casting into the roles of our everyday lives, including the casting process involved in Barack Obama’s presidency. Cook ends her book with a necessary gesture toward the implications of her argument and the cognitive scientific research upon which it rests for social change. The final chapter, “Counter Casting,” contends that because the cognitive processes behind casting undergird both theatrical and everyday phenomena, their “creativity…suggests ways we might reimagine our selves and our ecosystems” (33).

Cook’s array of examples is appropriately capacious given that her thesis depends upon the omnipresence of casting as a tool for sense-making. She examines film trailers, rap music lyrics, advertising, and senate debates; her analysis is particularly strong when the object is dramatic performance. Chapter three includes several illuminating readings of much-discussed material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, the creative methods of Anna Deveare Smith, and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. Throughout the text, Cook responsibly owns her positionality and her “casting” by the world, which, as in cognitive scientific studies, both increases precision (her analysis of Shrew) and limits findings (her account of listening to Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic). When she turns her attention to dramatic examples, she clarifies her participation in disciplinary stakes; Cook effectively critiques the Method school of acting as reliant upon outdated models of psychology that prize the unconscious over more current understandings of networked consciousness and cognition, a theatre-based example of a larger critique throughout the cognitive humanities of psychoanalytic theory.

The cognitive turn in the humanities can result in difficult prose; accounting for the specificities of scientific studies and the many caveats of their conclusions can often read as watering down the humanities scholar’s argument and muddying their writing. Cook’s writing suffers no such fate. She is remarkably clear in her descriptions of cognitive scientific concepts and their application to cultural phenomena. She also attends to the dynamics of live performance as a making or becoming process, simpatico with cognition as a set of situated processes. Consider Cook’s compelling analysis of Katherine’s final speech in Act Five as staged in Phyllida Lloyd’s 2016 production of Taming of the Shrew: “the all-female casting disrupts our protocols of character interpretation because we cannot find the categories of sex and gender the play insists on and thus the ensemble stages a character breakdown” (108, italics in the original). As an example of clear humanities writing within the cognitive turn, Cook’s text is a welcome addition to graduate and advanced undergraduate classrooms, as well as her peers’ bookshelves.

Cook attempts an urgently necessary task if the cognitive turn is to become a flexible theoretical tool in our field, namely, the responsible synthesis of implications from this research with theoretical frames that share an investment in embodiment as epistemology, such as critical race theory, queer theory, and feminist theory. Cook’s claim, supported by second generation cognitive science, that “We do not just think differently because of the bodies we have, we think with and through the bodies we have” is an arrival at the same destination but by an alternate route from many theoretical models found in the traditions listed above (29). Cook models such a synthesis in her engagement with the work of Angela Pao and Brandi Wilkins Catanese.

As Cook states, this book is a starting point. It serves as a useful tool for further investigation of, in particular, non-normative bodies and their possibilities in everyday life and on stage and screen. Indeed, claims of normativity, as Cook shows, partially result from cognitive “processes by which we jump to powerful conclusions that it is our duty to challenge” (33). Investigating the relationship between normative brain structures and neural processes that may be cross-cultural and transhistorical as well as social norms of gender, class, race, and sexuality remains a critical need. I would like to see future work engaging with the cognitive turn do more to interrogate and historicize its own theoretical frame. The selection of research areas, funding, and subjects within scientific study is hardly a neutral enterprise. Cook’s text demonstrates the value of engaging with these theories in sharpening our analytical precision using empirical evidence; yet scientific theories are still theories, and they deserve the same rigorous investigation of their cultural commitments and values that we now apply, de rigeur, to other theoretical tools.

Ariel Nereson
University at Buffalo, State University of New York


The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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