Tuesday, January 15, 2013
"Get Out Of My Shower!" - How To Be Private In Public
Supposing the piece is Realistic in nature (which has become the standard onstage), we have to behave as though there is an imaginary "4th Wall" at the end of the stage, right? How? In our recent post on "Diminishing Stage Customs", we made a correlation between this concept and Public Privacy. In layman's terms, these two ideas have something to do with one another. In reality, they don't.
This may seem obvious, but it seems important to point out: The "4th Wall" does not exist. It is something that occurs in imagination. Therefore, if the actor is not actively imagining the 4th Wall, it disappears.
People like to talk about the Proscenium Arch (the area of the theater that surrounds the opening of the stage) as being the World's Largest Keyhole - as though the audience is witnessing the kind of event that only happens behind closed doors, in secret, when nobody is looking. The only problem with that concept is the fact that at home, you literally can't see the guy looking through the peephole. That being said, what is to keep an actor's attention on the stage when she knows she's being watched?
David Gideon, a wonderful teacher of Lee Strasberg's work (and my mentor), recalls a time in class, where a student told Strasberg that she had "Stage Fright". As the story goes, Strasberg responded, "Who ever told you you had "Stage Fright". What you have is Sensitivity To Your Surroundings. Give me an actor, who doesn't have that kind of sensitivity, and I can't work with that actor!" Why? Because they're dead. We need actors to be the lifeblood of society. We go to the theater for a chance to see the things we all experience, expressed. Otherwise, we can people-watch at the mall.
As David constantly points out, "Actors, by nature, are passionate people. Take any animal and put it in a room by itself for long enough, and it will get comfortable. Remove one wall to reveal 1,000 people staring, and that animal is guaranteed to run in the opposite direction."
It's completely unnatural for us to open up and express. We're taught to be social, instead. And unfortunately, those habits tend to carry over to the stage. And so frequently, we can see the actor's split attention between the audience and the story when we go to see the theater. It seems that many actors understand the basic idea that they need to keep their attention on the other actors - or at the very least, their attention should remain behind the footlights. But fortunately, most actors are not psychotic. Most actors are aware that they are being watched. And that knowledge overwhelms many of us and shuts us down. Try showering without posturing when someone is watching. It's not an easy time. In terms of Expression, actors are just as naked on stage.
So, what do we do? As explained by Lee Strasberg, "The 4th Wall does not give us privacy. Only our concentration on the 4th Wall can do that." Concentration is the key. It doesn't much matter what we're concentrating on, so long as the actor's attention is preoccupied with something other than performing.
Some people suggest that they BECOME THEIR CHARACTERS. That's a load of malarchy. Or maybe they need to be committed. One of the two. But for the practical actors in the world, we need to get our attention where it will serve us. So, depending on your approach to acting, that might be on some creative element (creating a place, creating a substitution for a particular relationship onstage, etc), or it might be as simple as concentrating on your fellow actors - or even on your physical tasks on the stage. You might even focus on the exploring the actual 4th Wall you've imagined. But whatever you do, the likelihood is that the audience is sure to be a less powerful force as you put your attention somewhere else.
Notice the last statement. You can't NOT pay attention to the audience. We cannot actually DO a negative. We have to intentionally put our attention somewhere else. For instance, if you've tried to quit smoking, it's much harder to not smoke than it is to have a piece of gum instead.
I am constantly surprised to see actors that are shying away from the audience in an effort to concentrate on their work. But no amount of avoiding the audience will help. It takes a lot of time to learn how to tax your concentration in the kind of way that will serve acting. And the more talented the actor, the more difficult the task. It's taken me a long time to learn how to be private in public, and I still struggle with it on a daily basis - as do we all in this theater company. We create fly-on-the-wall theater. It's something that has become a cornerstone of what we strive for at The Seeing Place - most notably in our most recent productions of Love Song and our Off-Broadway debut of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.
A trick in Public Speaking is to keep your attention on what you are trying to say, rather than how it is being received. And that's exactly what we need to do as actors. We need to keep our attention grounded to the stories we tell, rather than the entertainment level of today's performance. An "unresponsive crowd" can only get a lesser show if you don't share your story.
How have you battled these demons in your acting career? Or do you have a story regarding privacy (or the lack thereof) in a piece of theater that you've seen? Please share your thoughts with us as well. We write these blogs to stir up conversation.