Psychology meets the stage on DU faculty podcast

Kateri McRae couldn’t believe it.

Every concept she scribbled into her notebook felt like a word-for-word translation of the research she conducted as an associate professor in the University of Denver’s Department of Psychology. Except this wasn’t a psychology lecture. Instead, she sat rapt, listening to a presentation from her colleague, Anne Penner.

Anne Penner
Kateri McRae

Penner, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre, was sharing the processes she used as an acting instructor and director to tease out the highest-quality storytelling in on-stage productions.

“I just was really energized by the thought of this alignment,” says McRae, who double majored in biology and theater when she was an undergraduate student.

A meeting over coffee turned into a quarterly conversation, which eventually spawned the idea for a podcast, The Actor’s Mind, an interdisciplinary project funded by the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Through four seasons of interviews, McRae and Penner dive into all the ways their fields of expertise overlap, whether it’s how to get into character, how to give and receive feedback, or how to tap into emotions and lived experiences when playing a role.

In an online exclusive with University of Denver Magazine, the duo talks about what they’ve learned and how their gig as cohosts has influenced their work, both on and off the stage.

Kateri McRea and Anne Penner interview


Lorne Fultonberg:

This is the sort of thing you might call a role reversal. Anne Penner and Kateri McRae are faculty in DU’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Anne teaches theater; Kateri, psychology. But they’re also both children of the theater who still act and direct on stage. And for the past four years, they’ve hosted a podcast called The Actor’s Mind, which looks at all the ways performing interacts with psychology. And there’s more than you might think, from auditioning to receiving feedback to character development, to substitution, when an actor thinks back on moments from their own life to help them channel an emotion. But back to that role reversal. In an online exclusive for University of Denver Magazine, the podcast hosts become our guests.

Anne, hello there.

Anne Penner: Hello. How are you, Lorne?

LF: I’m great. And hello, Kateri.

Kateri McRae: Hi. Happy day.

LF: In our conversation, I got to hear more about the unexpected ways that their two areas of expertise overlap, how their episodes have made them better teachers and, of course, how two strangers became fast friends and turned their passions into a podcast.

KM: Anne and I have both been at DU for almost the exact same period of time, but five or six years ago, Anne was invited to give a College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences faculty lecture. And I attended the lecture, and she was talking about the processes she uses as an acting instructor and also as a director in order to improve the acting skill and to produce high-quality storytelling in the [piece]. And I literally just started taking notes that looked like a side-by-side translation. Like on one side of my page, it was like, Anne says objective. And I was like, we call that this.

So I was sort of translating her theories into psychologies, and I do have a background. I was a double major in biology and drama as an undergraduate. So I was picking up on what she was saying pretty quickly, but I just was really energized by the thought of this alignment. So I reached out to her by email and asked her to go out for coffee. And we started going out for coffee every few months, and we both just loved it and overstayed our time and kept talking. And what I was saying seemed to spark new ideas in her, and what she was saying sparked new ideas in me. And after, like what, a year?

AP:  Yeah. A year.

KM: After a year of just meeting, we had this idea of, like, we have so much fun talking about this. Do you think other people would want to listen to this? And we both were like, “Yeah, I think other people would want to listen to us talk about this.” So we made a podcast.

AP: We made a podcast. Yeah. Another reason we very much wanted to collaborate is, or speaking just for myself is, I want acting students and actors to realize that acting is very doable, that there are many practical step-by-step tools that you can use. And acting teachers and I talk a lot about acting toolbox or acting toolbelt even, and just helping people who want to act, see that, well, if you follow these 10 or 20 or however many tools, and you learn how to use them well, you will become a better actor. That acting is not magic, despite there being sort of spontaneity to it. And so I like to geek out about the science of acting or the psychology behind it.

KM: Yeah. And we sort of craft each episode around a concept that is frequently discussed in acting and then what the psychological translation of that is. And we’ll sort of define the terms from both disciplinary perspectives as well as talk through lots of examples. So I love when Anne brings examples of, “This happened in class the other day,” or, “I once worked on a play, and this came up.” And then a lot of my examples are from published studies, right? So scientific studies of emotion and of other psychological concepts where I say, “Oh, well, psychologists distinguish between these two things because when you ask people to do them, there’s this important distinction that kind of arises.” And then we just try to volley back and forth.

AP: Yeah. And things that have popped up, I would say for us, for me, one of the most rewarding experiences besides my relationship with this human being is step three. So if in a traditional … in our typical podcast, I often will start with the practical acting tool, right? And I will define it in its various forms and its most universal form and give some anecdotes. And then Kateri talks about the science. And then step three, as a teacher of acting, when I actually synthesize the acting tool with the psychology in my classroom, that’s extremely exciting for me. And it actually makes me a better teacher of the tool because I’m attacking it from multiple perspectives.

LF:  I am a proud high school thespian, Troupe 5989 from Monarch High School. And when I was listening through some of these episodes, the connection between these two things seems so apparent, and yet I didn’t make the connection when I was on stage. Was this connection something that the two of you had always realized in your mind that there is such a tie between psychology and drama? Theater?

KM:  I think on some level I’ve always recognized, when I was an undergraduate, that a lot of the talk about emotion and emotion regulation was on how expressive people are with their emotions, the degree to which people express their emotions authentically or hold their emotions in and whether that’s a good or a bad thing. And that, of course, has pretty apparent translations to acting where people are encouraged to express their emotions. But certainly, collaborating with Anne has made me realize that the really deep structure—not just, we call it this, we call it that—but the actual relationship between, no, these two things are the same, these two things are different, and this causes that, right. Pulling on this lever leads to this change. Those things are also deeply parallel. And that gives me chills, to realize those deep connections and not just the surface level like, “Oh, what you call potato, I call potato.”

AP: Yeah, I think, I’m not sure if I made the connection until I started talking to Kateri. I knew something more general, such as like, human nature and acting were connected. But right now, at this point, the connections seem obvious, but I’m not sure until I started talking to you, I saw how much overlap there is. It is by no means a perfect match. We have discovered many times that you’ve mentioned this, Kateri. That I get excited when she’s like, “Oh, they did this experiment with this thing on human behavior.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool.” And yet I don’t really care about the results. Like the results don’t matter to me; it’s just the fact that the experiment was done. And I think, forgive me if I’m wrong, I think for psychologists, sometimes the order of things, really the quantifiable stuff matters in a way that it doesn’t for acting. The acting just needs the ingredients.

KM: I think what Anne just said was really smart, is that the thing that ties them together is human nature, right? So I sometimes like to point out the parallels between Shakespeare, through Hamlet, [who] said that the goal of acting is to hold a mirror up to nature, and William James, who’s one of the parental figures of modern psychology, [who] said that the goal of psychology is to carve nature at its joints. And so I think that both the similarity and the distinction there is really important, right? That both are deeply invested in understanding human nature, but acting is interested in representing it and psychology is interested in finding the most important flex and non-flex-like areas, right? That gets to nature versus nurture. What can you change? What can’t you change? What’s set in stone? What can you manipulate? That’s what psychology cares about and acting cares about: How do I make this accurate reflection?

LF:  Over the course of the four seasons here, you two dive into so many topics and so many areas. And just for the purpose of this short digital exclusive, I was wondering if each of you could tell me about maybe a favorite episode that you’ve had from the past four seasons.

KM: And why don’t we say our favorite children while we’re at it?

AP: No, that’s OK. It’s hard. Which one to choose, Lorne?

LF:  And it doesn’t have to be favorite. One where you feel like you’ve learned something that you were not aware of.

AP: I think our casting one, which was season two, right? So we did an audition one. And for the audition one, I think Sylvia Gregory, who’s a local casting agent, was our guest. And then for the casting one, Talleri McRae was our guest, who maybe is Kateri’s sister.

KM: We’re identical twins.

AP: That conversation … I’ve actually heard this from listeners at that interview, which is obviously the second half. So this is season two, I want to say episode two, kind of blew my mind and made me feel very vulnerable because I had these sort of rules about casting in my head or assumptions about casting that Talleri broke down for me, and I had at least one listener say the same thing happened for him. And there’s an adage or a saying in casting, it’s like, you’re just trying to choose the best person, right? Which has an innocence to it—like you’re really trying to choose a good actor who’s going to play the role well, but sometimes when we think best, it’s tied to what we’re used to seeing, right? So Mercutio is like a white young dude. Obviously, right? Or what’s another example of like that many roles are played traditionally by like a beautiful white, able-bodied blond woman or something. That’s a hypothetical, but that’s actually, that’s a lot of different roles.

And Talleri helped me see that often even just access to resources is hard for some people because of money or because of other reasons. And so “best actor” often means like the person who did the fancy MFA training, right? And so why not flip casting on its head. But just think, there are many different ways to cast a role, and tied to that is this conversation in theater, which is very complicated, which is how much the actor should actually have the lived experience of the character. So if the character is Jewish, this actually was just in the New York Times. If the character is Jewish, is it important that the actor be Jewish? So the actor who plays The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is not Jewish. Should she be? I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for that. But often characters with a disability are played by people who don’t have a disability. So anyway, just, just sort of asking different questions and reframing who’s the best actor for the role was helpful.

LF:  Yeah. I like that. And how about you Kateri?

KM: So I think my favorite episode is the season one episode that we did on substitution. And the reason is, I think that the psychological, like conceptualization and the psychological studies of memory, have, I think in that episode, it’s most clear what psychology has to offer acting, right? Like memory is, even though there are lots of mysteries about memory, memory is a relatively well-understood process within psychology. There’s really commonly agreed-upon distinctions between types of memory. We know a fair amount about how the brain processes memory and what makes those memories stronger or weaker or accurate or less accurate. And so I just, I felt like I had a lot of crispness and a lot of certainty to add to the conversation. Whereas sometimes actually as we get closer to my own area of expertise, like we get closer to emotion and I’m like, I don’t know, people disagree. Like every time you have someone with high levels of expertise, they also have high levels of wishy-washing this.

AP: Yeah.

KM: About like that particular topic.

AP: Yeah.

KM: So, yes. So I guess I don’t know as much about memory, and therefore it felt like I had a lot to offer.

AP: Yeah.

LF: I love that.

AP: Substitution is a really amazing, powerful tool where it’s really a conversation between the substitute experience. The substitution you’re choosing from your actual lived experience, mixed with imaginary work. And some people really like to drop into the actual lived experience. And some people really are uncomfortable with that, maybe for good reason. And really like to home in on the imaginary fiction, but I’m most excited about the kind of interplay of like how you can bring your actual experience in and marry it to the fiction of the world.

LF: So you’re both teachers. I know you also are both actors or perhaps directors. How has this podcast influenced your work in either realm?

AP:  Yeah. I mean, it’s cheesy and cliched to say it, but when you teach a thing, you potentially become better at it. And when you do the thing, you become a better teacher of it. And the podcast has made me a better thinker of how to act. And so I think it’s made me a better teacher and actor. I think it’s given me confidence. I think the more I think about these ideas and the more I talk with Kateri and then by extension people who listen to it, I talk with them about it. The talking helps me kind of digest the information and the tool. And then I think I use the tool better. I think it also allows me to be a little more malleable as an actor. So I think when I was younger, I was always trying to do things, not always, but sometimes it would get stuck. It would get kind of onerous and tiresome. Like I’d really try and remember that sad moment. I would really try and work with a substitution and use it to death. Like that horrible moment where I felt so humiliated in class and bring that into the scene. And sometimes you’re like, oh, that doesn’t work anymore. I’ll just try something else. Like you become more nimble in, well, this tool and objective doesn’t work for me right here. Right. So let me just try entering the character through physicality. So it gives you more freedom, if you know that you can enter a character in these five or 10 different ways. If these three don’t work well, I’ll try these other seven.

KM: I feel like it has, I have definitely not performed since we started the podcast. So I don’t know if it would impact me as a performer, but as a teacher and even as a scientific writer, I feel like it has helped me be more confident and more streamlined in my communication. When I was in graduate school, I got the advice to write for a smart, non-specialized audience, right? That you want to write to people who are somewhat familiar with the concepts that you’re talking about, but you don’t want to assume that someone has as much specialized knowledge as you do. That tends to make a really jargony, technical paper that nobody else can get through. And although we have an imagined audience for the podcast, at the moment where we’re recording it, I’m not thinking of an audience. I’m thinking of Anne, right?

And Anne is a smart, non-specialized person.

AP: Right.

KM: So her, as my target has helped me explain things in a way that I hope [is] clear, but also really emphasize like the important distinctions and similarities and to offer definitions when they’re appropriate, but not make them overly specific. And so I would hope that that has improved my teaching for undergraduate and graduate classes, but also like, as I write, even for other scientists. If I were to write all my papers so that Anne could read them, they would be really good papers.

AP: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KM: So it’s kind of like a new bar I have for clear communications.

AP: Yeah. Yeah. And how the information is landing as, since we’re practicing talking to each other, but also an awareness that we wanted to make sense to our listening audience. I think as teachers, that’s really helpful in terms of like good teaching is not, you just, like, sharing a lot of information. It’s making sure that the students actually are taking in what you’re saying, are actually learning. So I think it’s also heightened my sense of good teaching, maybe.

LF:  In our last few minutes here, I want to talk about the production of this podcast. It sounds like the two of you are having a ton of fun.

AP: We are.

LF: Is that acting, or is that reality?

AP: I hate Kateri. Don’t tell her I said that.

KM: Maybe Anne is a good enough actor to pull that off, but I would not be.

AP: So, yeah. Go ahead.

KM: I mean, that’s why, again, I think a really, really big motivator for the podcast was like, we literally got so much joy from sharing ideas with each other and having these conversations. And we talked really quickly after we started meeting, that we felt like our conversations were sparky. We used that word to be, like, they’re energized. We leave with more ideas than we came with. We’re volleying off of each other. And our No. 1, like, energetic, emotional goal of the podcast was to have it be sparky.

AP: Yeah.

KM: And we actually, I at least, was very cautious as we were planning episodes that we didn’t over- plan. We didn’t practice every single thing that we said to one another, because it would lose some of its warmth. My favorite moments are when one of us is going, oh, oh, oh yeah, and and and…

AP:  Yeah, yeah.

KM: So I think we’ve done a pretty good job capturing that.

AP: Oh, I totally agree. Yeah, there’s that. And also, I started planning less in season four, and I enjoyed it more. Like sometimes when you plan too much, and this is true of acting too, everything always circles back to acting for me. But when you plan too much, it tightens you up, and it doesn’t allow you to actually take in your scene partner or your podcast partner. But when you come in with an agenda, but a loose agenda, it’s helpful.

LF:  Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you’d want people to know about either the production or the content of this podcast or your work together?

AP: You’ve let us talk a lot.

KM: Yeah. Thank you.

AP: I mean, of course, the audience that we think we’re most successful reaching are young actors and student actors. And to some extent, older actors and teachers who like to be reminded of some info they already know and often learn, like, the psychological science for many … For many listeners, they already know what I’m saying or are familiar with most of it. And then the science part of it is what’s kind of energizing for them. But I think that teaching acting and learning how to act, it helps people be more empathic human beings and also, like, better public speakers. So I just think there’s so many skills inside of acting training that’s useful for non-actors as well. Yeah.

KM: And we’ve gotten good feedback from people who are just kind of interested in both of the things,  who don’t have any personal sort of connection to it. And people like you who are, like, I have some familiarity with this, but this isn’t like my main jam anymore. But they like the hooks into their previous experience. And it sort of gave them fond memories of all of the times when they were learning to use those tools themselves.

LF: Right. I’m retired. I’m still waiting for my star on the walk of fame.

AP: Well, it’s never too late to return to acting.

LF: Anne Penner and Kateri McRae, faculty at the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and co-hosts of The Actor’s Mind podcast: Thank you both so much. This was a lot of fun.

AP: Yeah. Thank you.  

KM: Thank you.

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