Tell me if this sounds familiar. You're watching a play, right? Yes, you are. :O) And some actor comes onstage and in a busy moment sets a prop that he forgot to set before the show started. And your eyes move straight over to the one real thing happening on the stage as this actor tries to get this by you and the rest of the audience on the sly.
It's not that I don't understand it. I tend to be the kind of actor to walk offstage and get my prop if I missed it. But I even had to fake it one night of my last show. I couldn't find the appropriate engagement ring - which I'd forgotten to set, and I ran offstage, couldn't find it, ran onstage, grabbed my wedding ring for a later scene, and passed it off as the engagement ring. If I had it to do over, I'd probably try to deal with the situation as though I had actually misplaced the engagement ring. Now, in such a case, does one propose? Maybe not. Either way, that's what this person would have done if I'd had more faith in our complex humanity than the way I wanted the scene to go.
The way I wanted the scene to go. The way my director wanted the scene to go. The way the playwright wanted the scene to go. The way I think people will accept the scene. Whatever the source of the pressure to insist on a result, the problem remains the same. For some reason, we'd rather pretend things are going the way we think they're supposed to go than to find out how they actually play out on a nightly basis. It's not that I think we should discard the playwright and the director (or the audience, for that matter), but rather that if I am doing my prepared work and giving into it, I should trust that it will be in agreement with the playwright's and the director's visions - which is what the audience has paid their money to see: a story that evolves from the concert between the writer, director, designers, and ensemble.
I always seem to be working with an actor that thinks he can skate by, paying lip service to his own creative energy. For one reason or another, we seem to exist in a community of people who want to do just enough to satisfy the scene, their directors, the writer, and the audience. It's the rare person, who has their own creative agenda to serve. My teacher, David Gideon, has also been pointing this out lately, and it's really been hitting me hard. We need to do our work to satisfy our own imaginations and filter the scene through that, rather than to service our ideas of what should or shouldn't happen in the scene.
Lee Strasberg made the constant comment to people: "You don't even know what you would do under these circumstances, much less what your character might do." And that's true. Often times, our realities in life far surpass our staged and cliched ideas of situations, because we're too scared to put ourselves fully into a situation and live through it in order to find out how we respond.
I understand that fear. It's hard for me, too. It's Hell to be in dire straights. And yet, that is what we're called upon to do as actors. Our job is to live through the things that people deal with on a daily basis, and to open up so that the audience can see themselves. It's in this act that we celebrate life. It's not a popular opinion, but I don't believe in entertainment for entertainment's sake. Even the word, "entertainment", used to involve the concept of catharsis. Nowadays, it's lost that meaning. But there's got to be something more to what an actor does. Something that carries an importance.
An old director of mine used to say before every show, "Tonight will probably be someone's first and only night ever at the theatre. It will also be someone's last. Let's teach them what this thing can be."
And as I bitch and moan in my head about putting myself into a terrible situation every night I perform, because my entire training as a human being teaches me to do something less confrontational with my life, I think about that director and push myself a little more. Because we have a worthy thing to share.
My teacher is constantly saying that to really be emotionally naked on a stage is scarier than skydiving. And I believe it is and should be. Theatre should be an extreme sport.
So, maybe the next time we all try to get away with something onstage, we'll take the chance and discover our own humanity with the audience. Audiences are smarter than we seem to think they are. And I truly believe that if an actor takes that chance, the playwright, the director, and the audience will be much more greatly served by our truthful humanity under rehearsed circumstances than they would be if we reduce our lives to what is safe and easy.
What are your thoughts on the subject?