Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Go Out There and Be Somebody Else

My producer is concerned about the dialects.

He asked me why I think they're necessary and I told him: the two characters, from two different parts of the world, connect and share their experiences with each other via a third language; common to both, but natural to neither. Behrouz doesn't think in English, he thinks in Persian. Irina thinks in Uyghur. Mutual adaptation facilitates their communication, and the result has its idiosyncrasies. To the listener, the byproducts of those imperfections are unique richness and musicality and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm not staging Gladiator (if that's what you're worried about), with Joaquin Phoenix agonizing his way through faux-Brit just because his character's supposed to be the king of all the other kind-of-British people in Rome.

TA hasn't expressed a problem with the motives behind my position. He's very concerned that dialect work will get in the way of the acting work.

It's heartbreaking to concede it, but there is a valid point there.

In the Chicago storefront scene at large, I see three big deficiencies which sadden me. The first is makeup, the second is movement style, and the third is actors pretending they're other people on stage.

A shortage of makeup is easy to defend: stage makeup is expensive, needs constant replenishing, and anyway the stages are too small to make it necessary. Nobody believes or wants to believe that you (the actor) actually stabbed that guy in scene 3, and at four feet from the audience, the only deep sucking chest wound we can afford on our budget would smell like Hershey's and Palmolive anyway.

Movement style is a bit trickier. "But, Adam," you say, "I keep going out to see imaginative shows in which the actors create all sorts of inventive creatures through movement." I respond "don't count the goblinprowlers and the birdwomen," and if you've seen as much of this stuff as I have, you sadly nod, try to come up with a retort, and sadly nod again. People know the goblinprowler because it's not only easy, it's also a 'level' and Anne Bogart is made happy by it. They do the birdwoman because...I don't really know. I've never worked with a movement choreographer in Chicago. Nobody can afford one, for one thing. Fight choreographers are necessary because you don't want anyone to get hurt, and if there's a dance, somebody usually comes in to stage it and leaves. More dangerous to most directors, though, is that old crime of telling the actors what to do, which is not only bad for creativity but also bruises the poor artist immeasurably. Directors don't want to hear it when you say "Yes, the characters in the Misanthrope were trained to walk and stand a certain way. They were taught that experientially if not formally through living in a society that expected different things from a person." Unfortunately, I know what it looks like when you ask actors to rest on the laurels of their training and create. All the organic creativity you can foster does not guarantee a successful stage picture.

This brings me to that third little tidbit. I had similar conservatory performance training to a lot actors out there. I went to school more recently than some, but the majority of twenty-somethings I work with consider my education positively Smithsonian. I can understand that your eight acting classes focused on "finding the truth" in the work. I only got two semesters of stage movement (and one of those was really combat) and two semesters of dialects. I know that some folks get less. That doesn't mean it's right! That doesn't mean that being able to depart from your own corporal limitations onstage can be considered an elective! That doesn't mean I teachers aren't remiss when they don't address Acting 101 thus: "The job you are pursuing is that of the make-believer. If who you are and what you feel is interesting enough to satisfy an audience, you don't need to do plays or films or voiceovers...you can become a televangelist and make more money. What an actor needs to do is go out there and be somebody else. You are learning to be a liar. A bad actor is one who the audience knows is lying, but a really bad actor is the only one who thinks s/he's telling the truth up there."

Do you know how to tell that actors don't know this? It's one simple sentence which I'm sure each of us has said at least once:

"I don't think my character would do that."

In response to this, most directors either capitulate or spend scads of man-hours helping the actor search for a justification for the action the play needs. Seldom does a director give the efficient answer: "Yes, your character certainly does that. I know this because it's in the play. The play is a history of a fiction and you are simply a re-enactor of that preexisting record."

We (directors) never say that because we (actors) are always mortified to hear it. It's because we don't trust us with our work unless we know we really care.

And vice-versa. Still with me?

Why is so much emphasis placed on making sure creativity feels good for the artist and so little on making sure it feels good for the consumer? Why can't we say "you would be better at what you do if you had a broader arsenal of dialects and movement vocabulary and you stopped trying so hard to find yourself in the text"?

I want to see a world where acting teachers can compartmentalize that old sense memory and emotional recall stuff into a big box and label it JUST PART OF THE ART (does not allow user to fly). That little utopia, though, is contingent on an agreement to shrug off the timeless myth that Creative People Are Just Touchy That Way. We need to trust the artist with the truth that s/he's a liar. S/he needs to deserve that trust be being good at lying. We can graduate to that "lie which is nearest to the truth" stuff only once the first part's been established.

So, seriously, should I expect actors to be able and willing to speak in funny voices, walk in unnatural ways and throttle a swan without trying to rationalize what would catalyze themselves to throttle a swan? Should I be able to ask them to do all this convincingly? I think I should. The fact that so many can't or won't is institutional--I recognize that. The actor who knows and trusts enough to do these things has become the exception to the rule. Until the happy day arrives, I guess, we just have to work with exceptional actors.

The cast of Fucking Parasites, by the way, are exceptional actors.


  1. hey you should cross post this, is good

  2. For those of you just tuning in, I cross-posted at the company site here:


    Paul Rekk posted a thoughtful and sharp comment up there as well.