Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lesson #27

Successful artistry is also a form of self-discovery - it is the discovery, in the lawfulness of one's actions, of the innermost character of one's intentions.

Aaron Ripley
Every actor has theatre stories, which they will tell on a moment's notice. The longer an actor stays in the business the more stories he will accumulate. This one happened fairly early in my career so I'll call it Theatre Story Number 27.

Acting is doing something. An actor is one who does something. An action is something that is done. It all seems so simple and logical. Right? Then why do some people have such a hard time learning that?

This took place on the stage during a performance of The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov. It was at a moment in the play when most of the characters are getting ready to return to Moscow after having spent the season in the country. The main action was going on in the center of the stage. I was sitting in a chair in the corner near the front. At one moment a servant girl came in, brought me my overcoat and walking stick, I rose, she helped on with the coat, handed me the stick, I thanked her and sat back down. It was a simple moment and didn't detract from whet else was going on.

One night I turned, looked her right in the eye and said "Thank you." she smiled and left. When I sat back down it was one of those moments of realization when your life goes from black and white to technicolor. What had happened?

Wht happened was that she really helped on with my coat and I really thanked her. She didn't pretend to help me with the coat and I didn't pretend to thank her. I really thanked her, genuinely. It was a moment of real contact between two human beings. This flesh and blood was talking to that flesh and blood, person to person. And it was, for that moment, the only thing happening in the universe.

I don't remember the girl's name. In fact I don't think I ever knew it. She was probably a student brought in to take care of a few simple tasks during the play.

What that experience taught me was that acting is doing something. Not pretending to do it, not acting as if you were doing it, not showing the audience that you're doing it, but actually doing it.

Naturally, on the stage we shoot blanks and choreograph fights. But the real intention to kill or harm has to be there to make anything real.

After that experience I was able to play any scene with the honest intent to act out the events. And when I worked with other actors, particularly older, experienced actors. I could actually look them in the eye and genuinely talk to them, genuinely listen to them, genuinely respond to what they said, genuinely feel the intensity of the emotions and let the audience eves drop on the event. I'll never forget that moment, which happened every night after that, and that girl, whoever she was and wherever she is, who helped me learn a great lesson in acting, and gave me Theatre Story Number 27.

DB - The Vagabond
Tomorrow: A desperate tug of war.


Gerry said...

"The Seagull" by Chekhov was my favorite play of his and what a thrill it was to get to see it in Salt Lake with some very good acting by someone from Broadway who inspired the local actors to do better work. I remember what used to annoy me the worst were actors who who rolled their voices in a dramatic manner that did not resemble human speaking in any form. Local Shakespearean actors would do it and you couldn't understand a thing they said, and sometimes famous ones did it, too, but one fellow, a veteran, (there were a lot of those older guys taking advantage of the GI Bill after returning from war) absolutely enthralled me and the rest of the audience by being able to sound like a real person when he spoke that Shakespearean dialogue. He became the most popular actor that season and in all the seasons he performed at the U of U. H.E.D. Redford. I could never forget that name. When he was on the stage he never failed to do what you describe yourself doing that night in The Seagull and ever after. How fortunate you were, too, to have the opportunity to act in that marvelous play.

Ben said...

I loved the story, DB. It reminded me of something told to me years ago by a friend who was studying theater. In an exercise in improvisation, several acting students were put on stage and told they were in an airport and just learned their flight was being delayed. Students starting milling about, looking at their watching, sighing over and over in frustration. The teacher stopped them all and pointed out the one student whose response to the situation was to find a chair, sit quietly, and wait. That, the teacher said, is the genuine reaction, not a flurry of movement just for the sake of being seen doing something. It's the actor's challenge: chasing the truth.

I loved Gerry's comment as well. Shakespeare's syntax, rhythms and inflections are a real specialty that many actors, even very good ones, often don't have. I thought it was interesting watching a Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park some years ago and noticing that Neil Simon's work is the same way; some actors "get" how to do it, and some don't.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Being real, and not acting, is so important. As an actor, knowing when to kick this in must be a life long strugle :o)

salemslot9 said...

"This one happened fairly early in my career so I'll call it Theatre Story Number 27."
you're so funny
in a good way