Talking Point

I get bored at the theatre a lot because I notice that there’s not always a connection between the actors. They may be technically proficient, but they’re not surprising each other. I’m thrilled by actors who make choices that are surprising.

Lusia Strus

9 thoughts on “Talking Point

  1. Ian, I think there’s a couple of deeper things going on in that statement than just “surprise.” So I’m going to take a SHARP right turn and go in another direction. I apologize for not answering your question directly. I’m about to turn now, go to the next post if you want to save yourselves.

    Well, I think Lusia is looking for surprise themselves. I don’t think they (going gender neutral here) would ever admit to paying thirty or forty bucks a ticket so that the actors could have a good time….but most folks assume that if the actors are having fun they will too— “if they feel it….if it’s real for them, it will be for me too.”

    What’s that great quote about all bad poetry being sincere…

    And between professionals, I consider “surprise” and “spontaneity (or perhaps, seeming spontaneity)” to be a part of “technical proficiency.” Making it happen as if it’s the first time is a technique….a very valuable technique. And then perhaps it’s not even the “for the first time” thing as much as it is it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-do-or-how-you-do-it-as-long-as-I’m-engrossed-by-what’s-going-on-stage thing, that I think theatre goers are looking for. They’re looking for a rich rewarding experience and most think it comes from spontaneity or reality. By the way, no one would ever say this of a dancer or musician or even an athlete for that matter….”They just weren’t surprising each other.” I double dog dare you to say that to a Cirque de Soleil company.

    Let’s see if my soapbox can get a little higher here…. I think people today (artists included) regard spontaneity as truth. How often are we caught up in news reports that are all amiss in facts, but it’s happening now and in the moment right in front of us so it most be truthful, while at the same time, at an agreed upon time in an agreed upon venue a lone speaker approaches a podium to deliver a prepared speech and no matter the content or the context listeners will always be suspicious of the validity of the statements…no blame, I just think it’s in the air we breathe.

    I suppose you could track music the same way. We’ve moved away from clever and witty (Dorsey, Ellington) to raw and “from the gut”… sometimes we don’t even understand what they’re saying but we know they are “feelin’ it!” And often, that’s the real test of truth in a performing art.

    I hear it all the time from a director I’m working with now, “That’s too clean, let it be messy” As if clean, graceful, articulated, thoughtful action is bad and that messy, chaotic, let-it-happen-differently-every-night is the mark of success. And even if it were, we never pursue crafting and articulating a “chaotic” moment we just “let it happen.”

    So going back to the original post we started with, this person wasn’t getting the juice they were hoping for from the performance…try a different company that’s more in lines with their artistic flavor.

    “Try a different company,” and not, “that company should…” because ultimately were talking about tastes and flavors here. One person’s reality is another person’s dry mundaneness while one person’s raw in the moment-ness is another’s frantic self indulgence.

    Thus desendeth he the soapbox….

  2. Good questions Ian, ones that I wish an average audience member would take a crack at. It’s impossible to answer without getting into a certain amount of ‘artspeak’, so fair warning…

    Our particular challenge as theatre makers is to create a product that seems as real as life, to create a situation in which the audience feels somehow voyeuristically thrilled and uncomfortable by being so close to heightened emotional situations. (Please note that this is my personal opinion on the nature of theatre, and I am fully aware that others hold differing opinions. Please feel free to challenge mine.) The problem is, of course, that it is not real life but a facsimile, and the people on stage are actually regurgitating lines that they’ve memorized and repeated about a billion times. So the problem then becomes; how to give the impression of spontaneity, of saying and doing those things seemingly for the first time to achieve the desired effect on the audience? Here’s where I agree with Ms. Strus.

    If you, as an actor, can remain emotionally connected to yourself and to your partner(s) on the night, in the moment, and not in a preconceived idea of what you should feel at any given time, what you give back and forth to one another will always be fresh, unpredictable and surprising.

    We are always bound by the constraints of the blocking, but there are a million choices you can make within those constraints that can keep everyone on their toes. That’s one of the things I look for, or more accurately, feel for when I watch a performance. The feeling that the actors are alive and challenging each other emotionally. It’s entirely a visceral concept, and one that makes theatre so thrilling.

  3. Well said David, and that’s a huge question mark for me; how do we quantify “good” performance? It’s such an ethereal concept and everyone is convinced that their’s is right.

    Do other kinds of artists look at the art of others in their style and think “their technique is wrong and I don’t believe it?” How do theatre artists rank on the hyper-critical-of-others scale compared to other disciplines?

  4. “I think people today (artists included) regard spontaneity as truth. How often are we caught up in news reports that are all amiss in facts, but it’s happening now and in the moment right in front of us so it most be truthful . . . ”

    Well said David!

  5. Hi Simon,

    So you’re saying that, for you, actors that are more emotionally engaged with each other on stage are more likely to give fresh and satisfying performances.

    Are there some forms of stage performance that demand a different approach? I don’t know of any examples, but I’m wondering if there is some playwright who’s famous for creating detached characters – or some performance style that intentionally subverts or short circuits the emotional bond between performers to achieve some effect?

  6. Yeah, I think that’s really it Ian, and even more importantly emotionally engaged with themselves.

    There are really two broad schools of acting (with hundreds of subsets): internal and external. (Read [grossly generalizing]: stage v. TV.) I see an awful lot of external acting on stage here, not surprising from a TV/film town, and I think that’s just the method a lot of actors are taught, give it all to the physical. And when a performance is based in the body it tends to get stuck in certain patterns. Base it in your emotions and things are always in transition.

    I can’t think offhand of any playwright who writes specifically to detachment, even the Absurdists relied on connectivity between performers to tell their stories. Maybe some avant-garde theatre approaches performance this way, but I confess to be pretty ignorant about most of that.

    I know, however, that there are many playwrights who would like to see the play that exists in their own head be performed by whomever is enacting it at any given time, which tends to favour a physical style of acting to a more inconstant emotional one. I think these kinds of playwrights must live in a constant state of dreadful disappointment. Albee, for example, sees the script as a classical musical score that must be followed to the note, to the comma, for it to work. I see mine as a rough outline to be played as jazz by artists who bring their own experience as humans to it.

  7. Let’s not forget our cultural context here. Remembering our theatre history, Olivier, Bernhardt, Booth, MacReady…Hell, even Burbage were labeled as the epitomy of emotional truth. Read reviews of their performances.

    In his Short Discourse of the English Stage, Richard Flecknoe says of Burbage that “he was a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his part and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never (not so much as in the ‘Tyring House’) assum’d himself again until the Play was done…. He had all the parts of an excellent actor (animating his words with speaking and speech with action … never falling in his part when he had done speaking, but with his looks and gesture maintaining it still unto the heighth.”

    I don’t think any of us today would label mister Burbage’s performance as “real” or “truthful”. Society changes its values and as it’s values change so do its artistic tastes… for example, eighties pop music!

    DD

  8. And what’s wrong with eighties pop music?

    Don’t answer that, I know what’s wrong with it.

    I would argue that society changes its values with the art that it’s presented though, the theatrical norm of the Elizabethan era was quite big and physical, but these were actors playing to the back of cavernous theatre with rowdy drunken crowds too. Form following function, as it were. Shakespeare himself was quite clear in Hamlet that he favoured a natural approach to acting.

    As Chekhov and Stanislavsky et al started moving the form towards emotional realism the houses got smaller as well, and audiences began changing their definition of natural acting along with them. There is, however, still an abiding love of “theatrey” acting out there, so who am I to say? I just know what I like. Intense acting in small theatres.

    None of this expains eighties music, however.

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