The Alchemy of Acting

I know I’m supposed to be on break, but this quote from James Dean won’t leave me alone.

When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn’t acting. It’s following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that. So the director’s task is just that – to direct, to point the way. Then the actor takes over. And he must be allowed the space, the freedom to express himself in the role. Without that space, an actor is no more than an unthinking robot with a chest-full of push-buttons.

So this semester at CMU has been crazy, and one of the conversations that keeps coming up between me and my colleagues in Theatre Lab (a class where the grad and senior directors, grad playwrights, dramaturgs, and the junior actors get to put on plays like they’re a group of cousins at Grandma’s house. Quick, experimental, and low stakes and safe, if you let it be.) Point is one of the questions that keeps coming up is “Should we treat actors like kittens?”

Now the subtext of that conversation is, how direct can you be with actors? Not only do you tell them when something’s not working, but do you help them make it work? There are many philosophies about this.

Some say don’t say anything about emotions, just tell them where and how to move. Some say explain the situation but leave the acting to the actors. Some say ignore the Stanislavski and give the actors extremely specific directions, let them know the end result you need.

The Wooster Group and some of the directors at CMU do this, what one of them calls “abstracting acting.” When Kate Valk, one of the veterans of the Wooster Group, visited CMU, she told us that Elizabeth LeCompte, the director (in so many words)’s goal was to give the actors so many tasks that they “stop acting and just do.” She might ask them to skip in place while speaking in monotone and counting backwards from 300, then all of a sudden Phedre takes on a whole new light.

That works for the kind of theater that Wooster and some of the directors at CMU do. Usually referred as experimental theater, the theater of “abstract acting” uses non-linear narratives, alienation, and many technical effects to create an experience that stretches audiences’ understanding of what theater is. Wooster has deconstructed many classics of theatrical literature including Chekhov, Miller, Shakespeare, and Gertrude Stein. (Redundant, I know.)

Wooster’s Hamlet broadcast Richard Burton’s iconic Hamlet behind the actors, forcing audiences to confront the legacy of Hamlet they often hold new productions to. (An oversimplification, but it’s hard to analyze a Wooster show quickly.)

But what happens when you do something that’s closer to Stanslavski (though just barely)? Caryl Churchill’s work is a good example. Like Wooster, she deconstructs theater and experiments with genre, character, and structure. Yet her characters have empathetic arcs, real emotional journeys that require the complex text-based approach of Stanislavski and James Dean’s favorite director, Elia Kazan.

Kazan’s approach was to make sure actors understood their characters’ every facet in a psychological sense. He wasn’t above manipulating actors either. He got James Dean drunk several times during production on East of Eden, and cultivated a rivalry between the young star and Raymond Massey, who played his neglectful father in this Cain and Abel story set in California. All that manipulation came to a head in a mostly improvised scene where Dean surprised Massey with a hug, which left the button upped screen veteran flummoxed to say the least. As Dean clutched his “father,” all Massey could manage was a furtive “Cal! Cal!”

This is where I come back to Dean’s quote. No matter what a director asks of an actor, even if they think they’re tricking them into just being puppets on a stage, there is an alchemy of acting that occurs somewhere between the instruction and the doing. No director, no matter how brilliant, can turn an actor into a robot without keeping them from being an actor. Even experimental theater involves this alchemy, a group of creative individuals finding the strange place where inspiration and performance blend to create something transcendent, the place where we sit quietly until something from outside ourselves makes us more than we are. The actors have to find a way to do the strange things they’re told to do without second thought, with courage and conviction.

Directors use a lot of rhetoric about actors, what we can “pull out of them,” how we “deal with them,” but the reality is that there are so many parts of performances that we can’t and shouldn’t try to touch, because we just plain can’t. We assemble the ingredients but the gold comes in the mixing, and half the time we don’t know if the ingredients are right. We just have to convince them that they are. That’s alchemy, and anyone who claims they know how it works is lying.

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One thought on “The Alchemy of Acting

  1. I love your alchemy metaphor because the history of alchemy is the history of the unknown ingredient. Centuries of work trying to figure out which addition would result in a magical transformation. Never quite finding the perfect ingredient, but inventing chemistry and physics and empiricism on the way. The journey, right?

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