Almost exactly 6 months since my last post on good ‘ol Stage Life 918. Actually seems longer, I’ve kind of lost my place. Now where was I . . .
Oh yes, Acting. Or Acting and Ethics, to be more precise. I’m several posts into this series, and I promised myself I was going to complete it as a special favor for my three or four remaining readers. So here goes.
(Btw, if you’re still reading by the time you get to the end of the post, please click that little Facebook icon you find there. Your action will tell me that I’m not alone in the wilderness, I’m not screaming into the void, my barbaric yawp has pierced the cultural ennui that cloaks us in this shroud of silence . . . I could go on, but you get the idea. Click it even if you hated the post! Just tell me how much you hated in the comments.)
I did this once with two college students. The gal—super smart, super-talented, went on to make her career in the arts—couldn't do the exercise to save her life. I might as well have asked her to fly. The guy—who caught on right away—told me later it changed everything he’d ever thought about acting.
It used to baffle me that some people struggled with this. Simple game, just do what you always do, right!? Wrong. Because in real life, we’re always acting. Or, to be more precise, if someone’s watching and we’re in control of our actions, we’re acting. We’re aware of other people, the ‘audience.’ We use our learned and rehearsed social behaviors and our performance skills to create an impression, usually to get something we want. Mostly we try to create positive impressions—good friend, conscientious employee, thoughtful spouse, well behaved consumer. If we’re skilled social actors, well-rehearsed and confident, we do it so smoothly we don’t even notice it. If we’re not self-assured however, with less 'rehearsed' social skills, we know we’re performing, because we have stage fright. We worry if it’s good enough, we check our audience’s reactions, and wonder if we’re going to get the response we want. If so, we give ourselves a good review. But we kick ourselves for our bad performance if we don’t.
Well, not really. Or to be more accurate, not necessarily.
Suppose for a second that you can create your external personality in the same way you’d create a stage character. Suppose you had freedom to create any kind of personality you wanted. Your essence—your memories, emotions, wants and desires, your uniqueness—remains the same, but you can change your image, the way the world sees you. Suppose for a second this personality isn’t just determined by your genetics, or past experiences, or even your physical, mental or emotional issues. Instead, you’re able to create and project an image of yourself by making a mask through which your ‘real self’ interacts with the rest of the world. What kind of mask/personality do you create?
If this concept seems strange to you, think about people who create false masks. The sociopath often hides his true self behind a genial, outgoing personality. He uses his personality to hide his real thoughts/feelings/desires. The religious naïf (or hypocrite) creates a mask of righteousness, hiding the less-than-perfect self from those around him, and often from himself as well. People who take a little longer than usual to ‘grow up’ (I’m holding up my hand here) often seem not to have finished creating their personality. The sophomore college student who’s still “finding herself” usually just hasn’t quite discovered a personality that’s . . .
. . . a decently honest expression of her true self. A mask that’s honest.
So forget imagining it; this is our reality. Your personality is the sum of inborn traits, past experiences, and your own creativity. It makes sense that you'd want the larger part of that to come from your creativity, rather than the stuff you don't have control over.
So the question then becomes: When you create your personality, does the mask that you create look a little like your soul?
Swinging the focus back to theatre, what I mean by Acting Honestly is this: Does the character you create onstage bear at least a passing resemblance to your soul?
Acting is more than just pleasing the audience, though that's important too (see Community). It's more than just an outlet for our own creativity, though that's important too (see Creativity). Those two things, by themselves, create a two dimensional art form, a push-pull dynamic between self-oriented creativity and other-directed people pleasing. Between solipsism and pandering. And we've all seen examples of both onstage. The I-don't-care-what-you-think-this-is-art show vs. the I'll-do-anything-for-a-laugh performance. Depressing.
Add Honesty to the mix and suddenly the tension and the rewards increase exponentially. The energy of honesty flows both ways. It forces the actor to dig deeper, and it cuts deeper into an audience.
It's only when all three ethics of acting are present that theatre reaches its full potential, and becomes something more than just an activity or an entertainment. Now it's life.
Just to be clear. No one likes theatrical tricks of the trade more than me. The idea that honest acting means representational acting, ignoring the lights and the artificiality of the stage, and treating the audience as if they weren’t really there is a recipe for boring theatre, and a boring theatre is a dying theatre. I love fire, flying, moving lights and billowing fabrics. In the same way, I revel and rejoice in a huge, larger than life character, the sideways wink to the audience, and the timing and physicality of clowns.
But I’ve seen shows, and lately, that are all shtick. And too often, I’ll see a show that’s meant to touch an audience’s heart, but that doesn’t appear to have touched the actor’s heart.
The mask—the character onstage or the personality off—is a beautiful tool, a gift to our audience or our friends. It allows us to use our creativity in order to shape our interactions with others. It’s through the mask that we share our humor, kindness, even our love. But we can’t share those things, those cool and wonderful qualities, if we’re not willing to share the negative parts of ourselves as well.
Young actors are often willing to open up when it makes them feel strong, or attractive, or cool. And that’s great! However, in my experience, they’re less willing to be honest when the character calls for weakness, bitterness, lust, or shame. What they don’t realize is that ironically, the stage can, and should be, the safest place to show the negative parts of themselves. The mask protects them. The ways in which they alter their voice, or posture, or rhythms give them the distance that makes a deeper honesty possible.
(I’m not going to get into how we go about sharing the negative parts of ourselves in real life. I’m not qualified to comment, other than to note that there are a lot of people in therapy because they haven’t learned how to express those aspects of themselves in safe, honest, and healthy ways.)
Embrace the paradox. Pretend to be someone else and find the freedom to express who you actually are. How can an actor learn how to do this? Well, I have some ideas but that’s just my path, not anyone else’s. However, I’ll toss out a couple of quotes that have served me well as a director. The first one gets said to almost every actor I’ve worked with who’s had to do a big, emotional moment in Shakespeare.
“Don’t do so much to the words. Let the words do something to you.”
This last is something my teacher said in an offhand moment, that’s stuck with me for the last 25 years.
“The most powerful thing an actor can do onstage is to reveal his or her own vulnerability.”
Act Creatively. Act in Community. Act Honestly. Simple really. Just the work of a lifetime. Best of luck. Feel free to disagree in the comments, I welcome conversations.
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