Friday, April 20, 2012

Quick! Nobody's Looking!

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?


  1. I remember an acting teacher in college who stopped me once in rehearsal: "Why did you pick up the teacup that way?" I answered, "That's how I felt like picking it up." He responded, "Was it *you* that felt like it? Or your character? Would your *character* pick it up that way? You're to leave yourself out of the situation - only bring your character's personality to the stage! That's the basics of acting - you should know that by now!" I was stunned, and embarrassed. And, so, for the next several years this is the way I approached theatrical roles - I did everything I could to leave my "self" out of it.

    That is, until I started doing film work. It seems as though, in film, actors are hired BECAUSE they bring themselves to a role -- so much so that actors tend to be typecast based on that very self. (And often, they leave their characters out of it entirely, which is subject for another blog...) How refreshing it was, then, to start working with The Seeing Place and find out that my "self" would be valued more highly than any affect I could put on.

    What Brandon talks about goes against much of what we learn in school. But I challenge you to give it a try - take a risk and see what happens in the moment. What you discover might be crap, but it also might be magical. Either way, it's alive and I think that's what audiences crave.

    And if you live in the NYC/Tri-State area, I invite you to see for yourself the results of this kind of risk taking: see one of our shows! Join our mailing list by clicking here:

  2. Comments: #1) To get this out of the way- it's dire "straits," though we could have a heyday on the subliminal meaning re "straights" (heh heh heh). Ok, enough of that. #2) I too once went onstage in performance, leaving a crucial prop on the props table; incredibly, within character, I made a show of having 'misplaced' the prop, dashed offstage to fetch it, finished the scene, &tc. Afterward, an audience friend told me she thought it was part of the show. (!) And someday I'll tell you about the sound cue failure when the rooster didn't crow during "Granola! The Musical" -- but enough of that too. Moving on. #3) One of MY acting teachers warned us that an audience can tell when an actor is in or out of control. Videlicet, "Free and available" is one thing, "Loose cannon" is another, and audiences can tell the difference.

    1. Very aptly put, David. All three points are right on the money! :)

    2. Thanks for your comment, David. I agree that we should aim for free and available. And this is one of the major misconceptions about organic work and "method acting" in specific. Many people seem to think that by really living through something onstage and giving into that reality, there is some strange psychosis that an actor falls into. And yet, one major thing Lee Strasberg taught actors is control over their acting instruments. We take from that in this company and set repeatable creative work in order to be able to freely live within the author's circumstances. I am not sure if we are always able to tell whether an actor is free and available or a "loose canon" from an audience's perspective. But I do know that as an audience member, I don't want to know what an actor is going to do before he does it. I want to discover it in the moment with that actor. It is also, however, necessary to be able to see the seams a little bit in a dangerous encounter (a fight scene is a good example) onstage. Otherwise, I worry for the actors, and that can throw an audience right out of the play. :O)


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