Saturday, November 19, 2011

Don't Be "Interesting"

My scene partner in two recent plays has an acting teacher who reportedly tells her she needs to find ways to make a character "interesting."

I noticed that word, "interesting," again the other day, when I volunteered to be an actor for a directing class at NMSU. The student director was to direct a rehearsal, and then solicit feedback from us on his procedures as a director.

Generally he seemed great, so they are definitely doing something right in this program. Yet this issue of how to make things "interesting" kept cropping up. "Maybe what would make your character more interesting," he said to one actor, "Is if he had a very demanding father growing up, and every time [the other character] says that you are hearing your father's voice again."

The actor nodded and then asked, "Er, is this father a character in the play?"

"No. Just thought it might make things more interesting."

Going so far as to invent characters that do not even exist in the play and whole storylines? Much better to investigate what's going on in the actual play, don't we think?

So there are two things going on here. One is the concept of a "back story," or what used to be called "the spine" of a character. The other is this issue of being "interesting."

First, spine. The concept of a character's history has its uses and misuses. When you walk on stage in the guise of a character, it is critical that you are not walking in from a vacuum. Your character is in the midst of a life. Being a good actor, you have made specific choices about where your character was the moment before entering, what she is expecting when she arrives, what she wants in this moment of time and how she's going to go about it. This will change from moment to moment, and in rehearsal you practice embodying every moment and fulfilling each action completely.

Sometimes, that process is helped by making a few creative choices about a character's biography. It is important, however, to go to the text first. Here is an important operational rule: most of the time, the text will provide what you need to know to perform that play. You need to go there first. Examine the text. This is why "table work," where actors and director sit and read the play aloud and look for answers to their questions, is so important (yet so frequently skipped because "we don't have time," so sad).

After scouring the text, it may be helpful to the actor to make a few choices for himself in order to personalize the character's experiences. Sometimes this is elaborated into a full-out biography of the character that may or may not have anything to do with what the playwright invented. To the extent that these "spines" divert from the playwright's creation, I feel rather wary. Again, most of the time, what I need to know in order to act out the play is in the text. Making up new stories and new characters presents the danger of straying further and further away from the actual play. The play's the thing, yes?

Second issue is this pressure to be "interesting." What is the concern here? What makes live theatre compelling is a living presence. When you take your seat in a theatre and the doors close behind you, you are occupying a room where human beings behave truthfully in dramatic circumstances. When you achieve truthful acting, this is plenty interesting. If you've ever seen a really good evening of theatre, you know what I'm talking about. It doesn't need to be kooky or explosive and full of bells and whistles to be compelling. In the presence of truth, tears fall, palms sweat, laughter is released, compassion arises (and don't forget about catharsis), the whole range of human experience becomes present. Good theatre makes you feel alive.

Adding a bunch of actor-ish bullshit doesn't make things more "interesting." It just makes the performances more fake, and it also induces a paralyzing anxiety in young actors: that they themselves, and truth itself, are not enough, not worthy of an audience's attention.

Quite the opposite. They themselves, and the truth itself, are exactly what makes live theatre compelling and worthwhile. Sadly, I think fewer and fewer audiences experience this, and this has something to do with the dwindling interest in live theatre.

Fuck "interesting." Be completely awake and act fearlessly by investigating and embodying truth in dramatic circumstances. That's plenty interesting.

[Photo: Yours truly performing with the Pan-Twilight Circus in New England in 1997]

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