From the Empathy Gym | The Art of Not Knowing

From the Empathy Gym | The Art of Not Knowing


Bill English, Artistic Director

The Art of Not Knowing

We generally associate accomplishment in any field with “knowing.” Finding, discovering, establishing. Who would ever think that not knowing could align with anything more glorious than ignorance? We live in an age of information where certainty is celebrated, where each faction knows that it is right. To not know can only mean you are likely to be left behind, to have no voice. And yet, not knowing can actually be the anchor to which artists, scientists, and believers cling. Ignorance drives discovery and wonder propels science. Keats called it “Negative Capability”—the willingness to treasure uncertainty, live with mystery, and embrace ambiguity.

When I first started directing, I used to get little scraps of paper and a floor plan and meticulously block out all the movements of the characters in every scene. But I’ve given that up—and not out of laziness. I realized after many painful mistakes that I don’t have enough information to make those decisions before rehearsals start. I “don’t know” how the words of the playwright are going to collide with the actors, how nuances of motivation will be revealed as we explore the text in rehearsal. And as scary as it can be, I feel safer going into rehearsals not knowing how the blocking of the play will proceed. I take a deep breath and trust that it will be revealed to us as we delve into the mystery of the text.

Actors need to even more ruthlessly develop and nurture a state of “not knowing.” Planning how they will deliver a line can sentence an actor to utter mediocrity. The audience can sense that the actor is saying the line the same way every time, and the sense of spontaneity is lost. Actors must endlessly study the given circumstances and inner life of the character and then trust themselves to just “show up” without a preconceived plan, and let the play happen to them. They can have no idea what the precise stimulus from the other actors will be because it changes every time, and if they plan their responses too concretely, the sense of moment-to-moment authenticity is lost. Going out on stage not knowing what will happen is a terrifying prospect; and yet great acting is born from the courage to face the fear of “not knowing” and trust the moment to reveal itself.

As a designer, I am a terrible procrastinator because I hate to draw. Instead, I drive and walk around imagining the set endlessly before I commit to paper. Hundreds of little virtual sketches are created and destroyed in my head, dozens of approaches entertained and discarded. The ironic and lucky lesson that came out of my procrastination was that if I started drawing too soon, my designs would be sorely limited by lines on paper that are hard to take back once they are committed to. But I do have to face down the fear every time that the set will never get done because I have not started drawing.

We discover in acting, directing, and designing, that it is more prudent to stay in a place of mystery—of “not knowing”—as long as possible. It reminds me of what I hear about “staying in the moment” in the practice of Zen. In life, we tend to be wallowing in the past or worrying about the future. Thich Nhat Han, the Zen master, says, “It is only by living in the not knowing of the present moment that joy can be found.” As Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” If we embrace those wisdoms, in theatre and in life, it will be terrifying but also freeing. To face that we are lost. To surrender. Being totally immersed in the present is to embrace uncertainty and mystery. Inspirations are what we seek and they will only come if we allow ourselves to get lost.

We are taught to “know” through our intellect. Our educations are about collecting and regurgitating facts. As artists, we do a lot of research. We watch videos of characters similar to the one we are about to act, we pore through architecture and design books for something that will work for our set. As directors, we read reviews of previous productions and what other directors had to say about the play. We study. We try to “know” with our brain. As the great artist Agnes Martin said, “If you go the way of inspiration, you will have to give up decisions. We can hardly imagine giving up the intellect. But the intellectual way and the inspired way are different. If you are an artist, the intellectual way has to be given up.” As hard as it is to practice, I believe art and life can only be realized in this very moment. In that state of “not knowing” what will happen next, we trust ourselves to fall forward into inspiration and joy.

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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Sharon Eberhardt - 10. May, 2017 - Reply

Another thoughtful blog post! As much other stuff as there is to do, I generally take time to read your musings. Being full of thought, not just opinions and certainty, is a rare thing.

Bill ENglish - 20. May, 2017 - Reply

Thanks, Sharon, I’m so happy the blogposts are interesting to you.

John Sheridan - 10. May, 2017 - Reply

I love these musings about life….this one, in particular, speaks to me. Well written, and to the point. To treasure uncertainty is so contrary to the prevailing way of life – where information is available about any subject, 24/7. But information is not knowledge….. information without reflection is not particularly useful….thanks for this.

Bill English - 20. May, 2017 - Reply

John, thanks so much. I totally agree with you about information vs knowledge. Or even knowledge vs wisdom!

Bill English - 20. May, 2017 - Reply

Thanks, John, I totally agree about the difference between info and knowledge, let alone “wisdom!”

Eleanor Hansen - 10. May, 2017 - Reply

A related subject is how one remembers — and I mean specific names (something practical). Concentrating and thinking hard never never works for me. I stop thinking about it and it comes in the middle of the night.

Bill English - 20. May, 2017 - Reply


I too really love those sneaky revelations the next morning or in the shower!!

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Dich Vu Gai Goi Ha Noi - 28. Jul, 2019 - Reply

Lovely just what I was looking for. Thanks to the author for
taking his time on this one.