One of my favorite Monty Python sketches is on one of their albums. Eric Idle interviewing John Cleese who is playing the part of a Sir Edwin, pretentious actor. Idle asks about the difficulty of playing various Shakespearean roles, and Cleese responds with the trials and tribulations of memorizing the words (AND getting them in the right order) as well as the depictions of various states of emotion. (“Lear is tiring, although not difficult to act, because you’ve only got to do despair and a bit of anger, and they’re the easiest.”)
As a director, I try to remember to “speak in verbs” to the actors. Not an easy task. But it is part of what makes the job of directing difficult. When my insides scream, “Bigger!” and “You’re angry here, aren’t you?” my brain (which, granted, is also inside but above my “insides”) has to transform those outbursts into something constructive. Something an actor can work with.
We see emotional performing (let’s call it) all the time. Especially in the performance of difficult texts like Shakespeare or Chekhov. A general wash of emotion over the text. Then, when the actor senses a change in mood in the text, he or she will change the emotion. And so we’re getting the spectrum of emotion, and we applaud the actor for his or her virtuosity. But we don’t get a sense that anything is happening. And we don’t understand what is being said.
When an actor performs for the first time in his life–say, as a teenager–the expression of emotion is the end-all-be-all. That is acting. Either because it is therapeutic (especially at that age) or because it’s “dangerous,” giving vent, publicly, to emotions that are normally kept locked up. And the actor is praised for the bravery of “baring his soul.” And, let’s face it, we like praise.
As an actor grows, so should his ability. And emotion, which is a part of acting, has to take a back seat to intention and action. Emotion is a byproduct, not the end-all, be-all.
To act an emotion is to create stasis. The audience says, “He’s happy. So what?” “She’s miserable. Okay. What now?” The audience wants to know that there’s a point to their being there. The audience expects a change of emotion AS A RESULT of something being accomplished or not accomplished. Not as an end in itself. Not without reason.
To act an emotion is an attempt to manipulate the audience. It’s as if the actor has said, “ I don’t know what is going on here. But I know I would like your empathy. I think that’s my job. Let’s see if I can evoke in you the frustration/sadness/happiness that I think my character is feeling.” (The terror and confusion in the actor’s brain is never articulated quite like that, but I think that is kind of what it’s like.)
Actors act. They perform actions. That is their job.
In the rehearsal room, when an actor says, “ My character is frustrated,” my questions to her are, “Why?” “Frustrated as a result of what?” “What did she try to do?” Negative emotions–frustration, anger, misery–are a result of not achieving your goals, having your actions thwarted (preferably by another character not by circumstances). Positive emotions–happiness, excitement–are a result of goals being achieved, a reward for having your actions “work.”
The arousal of emotion is the result of the actor’s wrestling with the play’s circumstances. If character A wants character B to accept his marriage proposal and B is reluctant to do so, the actor playing A must cook up some actions to be used as tactics to see that the marriage proposal is accepted (and B must cook up actions as well to see that the proposal is rejected). If the dialogue and the action of the script predetermine a refusal, the actor playing A has a moment-to-moment emotional reaction to being frustrated by the script’s denial of his tactics. Rather than having to manufacture an emotion, the actor can truly experience it.
If you’ve ever seen young children rehearse or perform a play, you may agree with me that it is one of the most beautiful theatrical experiences you will encounter. Part of it is because they (or most of them, at any rate) are trying so hard. Often, what we’re watching when we watch children perform is the play of Children Performing a Play. They want to get the lines right. They want to get the blocking down. They want to get the story told. Their goals are clear. They act in accordance with those goals–clenching their eyes tight to remember, moving to their marks with reckless abandon (or shoving others to their marks), breaking character and correcting when something is missed. And any emotions they show are a direct result of those actions working or not working. The only thing “wrong” is they don’t realize how good their acting is in those instances.
We have a lot to learn from children. Or from our memories of being a child.
David Mamet says that the experiences of the characters are analogous to the experiences of the actors at that moment. The actor wanting to get onstage and say a line (because “I want to prove I’m an actor and what better way than to show that I can read lines”) is similar to the character wanting to get into the room and say her piece. The desperation of the auditioner wanting the role is not unlike the character’s desperation to achieve his goal in the scene. We, as actors, have to harness that need to prove, that sense of desperation.
Actions and goals make the experience dynamic. They give it point. They create suspense and excitement. Even when, as in absurdist drama, nothing seems to be happening, the characters are still trying to cope.
I’ve heard that “acting is reacting.” That is not true. Acting is acting.
James Ingagiola is the Artistic Director of The Brass Tacks Ensemble.
Want to see more? Visit James’ blog at https://theatercrank.wordpress.com/ for more insight into our Artistic Director’s brain!