How Actors See the World
A good actor not only believes in him or herself onstage, but also understands the specific level of belief that is relevant to the project at hand.
As a university faculty member I was requested, on occasion, to adjudicate a performance for the American College Theatre Festival. The term adjudicate has, of late, fallen on hard times, smacking of judgment and finality. We now refer to them as “responses.”
But back in the day, they were adjudications, and I went to see a production of Peter Pan that was, to this adjudicator’s thinking, of less than superior quality.
We (they sent us out in pairs, then) instinctively sense that there are issues, particularly when the director is making far too much of our presence. A battery of ready excuses is presented, suggesting that sickness, politics, misfortune, conspiracy or some other forces have taken action against the production, limiting the success of the result. (All of which may be, and probably are, true.) The director is certain, however, that trained adjudicators will see beyond the adversity to the quality of the initial vision. Somewhere in the background of this conversation linger issues of tenure as the director seeks something on paper to bear witness to the quality of his or her work, while the school is contemplating, perhaps, the opposite accumulation of evidence.
This night was not to support the argument on the director’s behalf. Which is not to say that the director was a bad director or a bad person. But tonight’s show was not so great.
When a play is not executed well, the adjudicator/respondent becomes more suggestive than direct. We make very few sweeping statements about the-quality-thing,” and discuss more specifically the “choices” which might have been made in a more opportune manner.
As the evening, and our response, drew on, it was difficult to limit the many “choices” which we enumerated, so that, however delicately we may have couched our criticism, and however wittily we may have tap-danced around serious issues, the impression was ultimately left that the play did seem to lack in that ever-elusive category of quality.
The next responsibility of the adjudicator is to get out of town without doing any more damage than absolutely necessary.
Evidently everyone was walking on eggshells tonight, and I cannot say for certain that the quality issue was not exacerbated by a difficult cast, or the trap of some nasty inter-departmental politics. I simply suggest that the director’s demeanor did not start me thinking with confidence about helmsmanship.
I was approached by one of the thirty or forty cast members, one that I assume, has gone on to bigger and better things in the many years since this conversation.
“I was just wondering if you could tell – you must have been able to tell – that there was one actor on that stage tonight who had lost all the joy of performing?”
“You must have seen – I mean, how could you not have seen – that there was one actor on stage who simply didn’t enjoy performing any more.”Well, there were, like, thirty-five people in the cast.
“Yes, I mean, how could you not tell? I was completely bored and put off. I just don’t even actually know if I want to be a performer anymore.”
[I looked at him more intently. Some memory of our post-show discussion (in which this actor had been an active participant) clicked in the back of my head.]
”Um… the suit kind of covered you up from head to toe. There wasn’t any part of you that was actually showing.
“Yes, but certainly you could tell in the general… listlessness of my character, that all the excitement was gone.”
You know, given the fact that the suit pretty much covered you up… and most of your ‘lines’ were, like, barks and growls, I have to say that I wasn’t really reading that much into it. I mean, beyond a certain requisite level of… of friskiness, which, I must say, you performed beautifully, the general… malaise that you seem to be describing didn’t quite come across the footlights.
Need I explain how difficult the actor found this to believe, and how earnestly he told me of the sadness of his disenchantment with the theatre?
Nor did I have any difficulty imagining the struggles in rehearsal, as the dog questioned at length the details of its motivation.
This is the way that actors think. It is all about them. The audience must be so committed to the details of this actor’s particular, individual performance that they are, in fact, reading the actor’s mind! Even beyond distances of a hundred feet, amid a crowd of a cast of thirty-five, and through the intervening, obstructing veil of a dog suit!
If you are not an actor, you may not get what’s so funny about this. If you are, you are laughing with recognition of a significant percentage of the people you have worked with.
But this also points up the impossibility of an actor truly knowing how he comes across, or sensing the “big picture” of what the play is all about. To that actor, the play was about him. The inconvenient presence of Peter, or Wendy, or Captain Hook, the bands of pirates or lost boys, simply took away from the story of the dog… who was now disenchanted with the art of acting.
A good actor not only believes in him or herself onstage, but also understands the specific level of belief that is relevant to the project at hand. The rules are different for children’s plays than they are for adult plays. They are different between musicals and dramas, between dramas and comedies, between farces and fantasies, and between lavish pageants and psychological explorations, and when you treat a fantasy as seriously as you would treat Anton Chekov, for instance, you are expending a lot of unnecessary, and probably counter-productive energy.