Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Defining Acting, Living in Truth

One of the courses I am teaching at NMSU this semester is an introduction to acting for non-theatre-majors.  Many of the students have little or no prior experience acting aside from, perhaps, high school plays.  Some of the students are majors at the film school and are required to take this course; others are electing to take it as a humanity, or perhaps are considering changing majors or adding a minor.  Some of the students are currently majoring in psychology, sociology, computer science, and more.  One student is planning to enter law school and thinks some exposure to acting would be helpful.

For this semester, I picked two texts for them to read that represent different eras and widely different styles and vocabulary about acting.   One is the Six Lessons of Richard Boleslavsky, which appeared in 1933.  The other is the Practical Handbook for the Actor, a book produced by six actors at the instigation of playwright David Mamet, with whom they had worked closely. 

Both books confront the problem of defining what the art and craft of acting is.  The difference in orientation and style between the two books is illustrated in their attempts at that definition. 

From Boleslavsky, the Polish actor and teacher who trained under Stanislavsky in Moscow:

Acting is the life of the human soul receiving its birth through art.

And from the drier and more secular Practical Handbook: live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play. 

Soul is one of those terms that means so many things to different people one might question its usefulness to this discussion.  If it is assumed to point at the matter of one's true self, then I think both of these statements point at the same reality.  How simply and honestly can the actor relate to the circumstances of the play?  Even within an elaborately researched and realized character, how authentically has the actor invested in the scene? 

In order to do a good job of pretending, the actor has to connect freely and truthfully with self.  This is why directors and acting teachers sometimes bark, "Stop acting!"

The Practical Handbook is a book that is often skimmed, and I think a lot of readers miss a very powerful statement that it makes about society's need for live theatre.  And look, there's that soul again! 

In our world it is becoming harder and harder to communicate with each other simply and honestly, on a gut level.  Yet we still go to the theatre to have a communion with the truth of our existence, and, ideally, we leave it knowing that that kind of communication is still possible.  The theatre can put forward simple human values in hopes that the audience may leave inspired to try to live by such values.  Seeing an individual doing his best against impossible odds and without regard to his fears allows the audience to identify that very capacity within themselves.  That iron will is the will of the actor bringing not some "magnificent performance" to the stage, but his own simple human values and the actions to which they drive him.  When truth and virtue are so rare in almost every area of our society the world needs theatre and the theatre needs actors who will bring the truth of the human soul to the stage.  The theatre may now be the only place in society where people can go to hear the truth.  

[Image: The studio where I teach my classes for NMSU's theatre department]

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