Sunday, December 11, 2011

Checking the Performance

It breaks my heart a little bit when actors speak disdainfully of live theatrical performance, complaining of its repetition. When we apply the craft for film, the camera and the editor record our performance forever, while live theatre is ephemeral, immediate, and less subject to our control. The live spectator may glance anywhere and react unexpectedly to the events they are witnessing. Its presence cannot be figured out and managed in the same way that an actor learns the camera, or senses how the camera perceives him.

It is natural to prefer the controllable and predictable, but it is also an adventure denied.

It breaks my heart a little bit to remember professional actors saying, "Nine shows a week" as if resigning themselves to repeating something canned, going through the motions, instead of coming alive within the structure of the rehearsed scene.

Performing Private Fears in Public Places suddenly became a drastically different experience when spectators began coming and they surprised us with their reactions -- and this is so often the case. The first performance or even the first few performances are usually vivid times, when what has been rehearsed suddenly crackles with fresh spontaneity and meaning.

It doesn't need to go away, but actors often lose that sense and begin checking the performance in a self-conscious way. "It feels flat tonight." That sort of thing. The comments reveal a changed attitude about the audience as well: suddenly they've become intruders, a hostile witness. Actors say things like, "They're not with us." "They hate it." "Why aren't they laughing?" "What a bunch!"

Zen Master Seung Sahn called this "checking mind." Evaluating what's going on from an alienated and insecure position, instead of immersing oneself wholeheartedly in the situation and acting. This is not just a problem for actors on a stage, it is how human beings often position themselves during their day, and end up missing out on their lives.

So it is with actors, missing out on the opportunity to fully embody their scene. Even worse, actors can infect each other with these comments, making backstage an incubator for increasing self-consciousness and alienation from the work. Once it starts, it can feel like the show is slowing down, shambling haltingly towards its grim conclusion, consigned to the locked vault of embarrassing memories.

It is self-sabotage and deeply sad to watch unfold, for one who loves and has always loved the live theatre -- and has seen what effect it can have on a room full of human beings.

[Photo: Edwin Soto and me, in a scene from Private Fears in Public Places, currently playing in Las Cruces, New Mexico]


Kelly said...

I don't have much opportunity to see live theatre, but always enjoy it when I do.

In a different vein, I got to see a live performace of The Nutcracker last night that was quite enjoyable!

quid said...

I love the theatre, and wish I had more opportunities to see shows of all kinds.

Interesting to hear about it from the perspective of the performers.


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Really liked your work in Private Fears - also the play as a whole

Algernon said...

Thanks, Kelly and Quid, I hope that in writing about one craft I am pointing to things about life as well.

And thanks, "C.I.P.," for coming to our show and for stopping by here. You are always welcome.

india said...

We recently started a complaint tin at work. 20p for any moans about the project... Of course people have started to put a pound in in advance :)
It does make you think before speaking though.