Acting is a strange business. What exactly is it? In particular, what exactly is stage acting? It's very different from acting for the camera, isn't it? As a film actor you learn how the camera works, how shots work, how the editing process works... "Learn what you're feeling and then hide it" was what one famous and very successful actor said to me recently... It occurred to me that this is what we do in real life all the time; we hide our emotions. It's extremely rare that we allow exactly what we're feeling to surface. Well-written plays take this into account; characters usually don't know what their intentions are, let alone understand them, and so with people. Much of our lives are spent trying to figure out why we do what we do. When we analyze a play or a screenplay, we're trying to determine what our characters are doing and why. Sounds simple, doesn't it?
The problem is that anyone can (and does) call themselves an actor. Unlike music and dance which have very easily identifiable technical requirements, the technique of the art of acting is much more difficult to define. Olivier said something to the effect of "No matter how good your work, there will always be someone of reasonable intelligence who simply doesn't care for it." You become very used to rejection when you're an actor. Another problem is that there are so many different schools of thought as to how to go about creating a character. We're all influenced by Stanislavsky, but how many of us have read the books? How many of us have been influenced by television (probably all of us, but—God help us—which shows)? How many of us start from the play, or from the character, from the intentions, or from the emotions, from internals, externals, from our own life... I've heard two very famous and well-respected actors sound off: "Anything that you do on the stage MUST come from your own experience. Anything else is a lie." and: "No one CARES about your pain. All they are interested in is the pain of the character." Whew. What to do? Where to go? How to proceed?
One thing I know is that the moments in the theatre when I've been transportedwhen I've forgotten that I'm watching a play, that I'm watching actors, that they get paid to do this, when my disbelief has been completely suspended (and what else do we want when we enter the theatre?)have happened because of SHARED EXPERIENCE. I have no more favorite phrase to describe the theatre. When an actor serves up a moment in time and space to another actor who receives it honestly and simply, and who serves it back again with honesty and simplicity (no matter how complex the moment may be)that's a shared experience. When that is itself served up, honestly and simply, to an audienceTHAT's a shared experience, and it's a miracle. It can be one actor with a monologue, two or three actors in a scene, or a huge group of actors with back and forth dialogueor no dialogue at allthe schematic doesn't matter. What is important is that the experience is shared. Theatre doesn't work in a vacuum. I'm always very encouraged when I learn about someone that they go to the theatre, because it seems to me a perfect metaphor for life; it can't work when we're on our own, it only works when we are together. J.B. Priestly says it in An Inspector Calls: "We don't live alone."
This is what we're trying to achieve right now. It IS different from film, because in a film an editor takes the individual shots, combines them with other shots (groups, locations, reactions, effects, etc.) to create the illusion of a shared whole. There's no such help in the theatre. All we have is each other. We try to play together, to honor the truth of the moment, the truth of our characters, of the scenes and the play. However we approach the work, this is what we're striving for. It's unbelievably demanding and elusive. It's a lifelong study. The search is very rewarding and very painful. When it's not working it feels as if our lives are worthless. In rehearsals it often doesn't work. I tend to get quite irritable and frustrated at this point (and not much fun to be around). When it does work... there is no better feeling. A performance is shaped by these moments, which we find, one at a time, in the rehearsal room. Then we try to create an environment where we have a chance of discovering the play, night after night, as truthfully as we may have discovered moments of it in rehearsal, but without mindlessly repeating itfor no truth can come from mindless repetition.
Truth can only come from honesty, simplicity, from honoring the moment in space and time. From listening. From sharing.
So that's what we're doing right now.