I have the day off today and am in a somewhat convalescent state due to a kidney stone that is working its way through some of my internal plumbing (pain levels are currently very low, so not to worry). Usually I would be reading or watching a movie, but I thought I would try writing my blog a few days early, instead of on the day of its posting, and see if that gave me some more time to actually ruminate on a subject that I might want to tackle.
In essence, this blog (Gulfshore Playhouse’s blog, not this particular one of mine) is an attempt to pull back the curtain, to allow some deeper access into what goes into making plays at a non-profit regional theatre. Therefore I tend to write about acting, directing, and reading scripts, as those are the chief duties that I perform at The Playhouse. And today’s post will be no different, given that I want to talk about some of my philosophy of acting. What will be slightly different, is that this particular chunk of my philosophy, I think, can be allegorical for ways in which we can live better as humans…lofty, but, heck, why not.
Let’s start with Hamlet, because, ya know, Shakespeare is always a good place to start. In his speech to the players, Hamlet says, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
..to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature. Okay pretty clear there. And though there are many other schools of thought about how plays should be acted, and certainly realism and naturalism often come under fire in some theatrical circles, Hamlet’s exhortation to the players is nevertheless a good place for actors to start. And personally, it jibes with my artistic sensibilities.
So, how do actors find that mirror to hold up, as ’twere? Well obviously we need to be keen observers, watching the world and the people in it. In many ways, as an actor I am an aper. I need to listen to how different people speak and try to emulate that when the role demands it. I need to watch physical behavior, and try to put that physical trait into my body, again, when the role demands it. Not to be too cliched about it, but I am literally putting myself into another person’s shoes. But clichés don’t become clichés because they don’t have something truthful at their center. Putting myself in another’s shoes has certainly helped me be a better actor, and I would argue a better human being. At the very least it has made me a more empathetic human being.
But observance, aping, and empathy aren’t enough. Well, at least they aren’t enough for me. If you asked 10 actors what they think their personal approach to acting is, you’re probably going to get 10 different responses. So yeah, they aren’t enough for me. The next step is to actually make those clichéd “shoes” my own.
To elucidate this point, I will start with Socrates, because, ya know, so many things did. The unexamined life is not worth living. As with the earlier Shakespeare quote, this is also pretty clear. Doesn’t really mince words. And this is really true for an actor, or at least this actor. Keen observation of the outside world will only take you so far. Looking inward, figuring out the inner-workings of my emotions, my psyche, these things are just as important for me , if not more so. Time for another cliché (I guess a pattern is developing here. Pick famous quote and then pick cliché…well, we’ll see if I can keep it up):
Get in touch with your feelings. And I am not necessarily saying get in touch with the feelings that a certain role brings about, though that is helpful. I am talking about really getting to know yourself, all the time. Examine that life, baby. It is important. For when you are examining, when you are in there poking around, that is when empathy can turn to ownership. Am I making sense? Understanding and sharing another person’s emotions is a great start, but again, not enough to be able to pick that mirror up and show nature itself. I believe, in order to do that, you really have to own those emotions, not just understand them. And again, I think that ownership can make me a better person. It takes me one step beyond empathy for my fellow humans, and lets me have ownership in everyone’s journeys.
Okay, third and final piece of the puzzle of how to be a better actor and maybe, therefore, a better human, is exactly that, a piece of the puzzle. How do I fit in? What is my part to play in the whole? What unique and necessary part will I play? And boy, this is a tricky one. And this cuts right across all of our lives, not just artistic collaboration, but businesses, families, marriages, middle school (ugh). Where do I fit in? This is such an important thing for an actor. You can’t play all the parts (unless it’s a one-person show, but jeez is that tiring, or what?), and you can’t do other peoples jobs for them. You have to do your work as best you can, and let the other people do their work as best they can. And as a professional actor, I have really tried to hone this skill over the past however many years I have been doing this. And actors have to learn to do it fast. You only have a few weeks to figure that out. So in developing that skill, I think I have learned to apply it to most areas in my life. I like knowing where I fit, and really so much of that is up to me.
So there you go. Empathy, ownership, and knowing where you fit. These are great things to keep in mind as an actor as you are trying to hold that mirror up and show a life reflected. And I would argue that these are great things to keep in mind as human beings, too.