Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"A Robin Redbreast in a Cage, Puts All Heaven in a Rage."

I don't really understand those who feel that actors have minimal or no investment to make into a piece. Don't laugh, this view is more common to theatre these days than you may think, in all levels of performing. The notion that all emotions, motivations, character traits, quirks, back story and creativity in presentation are none of the actor's affair. A notion that reduces fine acting into nothing more than projecting one's voice, and not tripping over anything on stage.

I try to preach against theatrical monotheism here on the blog. I avoid, when I can, the notion, that any given method is wrong. Getting to the truth of a character, remaining consistent throughout a performance, and doing so with passion and energy is my acting credo. Whatever a person needs to do in order to maintain that, without denying it to someone else, is generally fine by me.

Yet once in a while, I feel an almost visceral need to reject certain notions. One of them is in fact this idea of actor slavery to text, to directors, to the whims of stage managers, and basically, just about to anything but their own creativity. The "actors as living furniture" view of live theatre, which dictates that the true nature of the experience is exclusively the director's vision, (read as "dictates" to many), and the words of the playwright. I have always found this to be particularly offensive.

In too many places the actor is considered subservient to some other person or institution. Yet that is the nature of some media. Movies. Television. A certain degree of acceptance to the idea that actors are lower on the totem pole in those two industries is inevitable if one wishes to be part of them. It has been that way for decades. Yet part of the compensation for this acceptance was the idea that live theatre remained the actor's medium. Yet in far too many circles, (amateur was well as professional) an attempt has been made to shift the theatrical tide towards less actor oriented, and more director centered, spectacle driven productions. And I say, enough is enough.

Mechanical, uninspired, and lazy is the director who insists on one unchanging vision from first rehearsal to opening night. The same goes for the playwright that leaves no room for personal interpretation of his text. And even applies to those actors who feel that they can only perform when being placed like a pawn on a chess board. None of these types breathe much life into theatre.

The stage is an actor's medium, despite a trend away from that notion in recent years. Directors who want to be tyrants should get into film. That is where directors must be given the highest amount of freedom in the creative collaboration. Writers who want to be gods ought to enter television, where their talents and positions generally reign over that of others. The peculiarities of those industries require such hierarchy. But I stand vehemently opposed to the encroachment of these philosophies and practices into live theatre. As I said, it is the actor's medium, and those involved in it, directors, playwrights (and yes, actors) should learn to accept it if they wish to create the best possible result.

This means in fact that within the teamwork and collaborative efforts of a stage production, actors ought to be the one with the greatest amount of freedom. Unlike TV and the movies, the very specific draw of live theatre is exactly that. It is live. It is visceral. If we rushed the stage from the audience, we would encounter human beings of flesh and blood. That is live theatre, and it is what people pay for. It is what people as a whole fall in love with when they come to the theatre. Directors and playwrights, stage managers and set designers who think otherwise are quite simply unwilling to relinquish power and are afraid of not having 100% control over things. Equally unwilling are they to concede the notion that people do not generally go to the theatre to see "how something was directed". We have cinemas for that. People attend theatre to see how it is acted.

Naturally, directors and playwrights are not irrelevant. A script needs to work according to certain rules, and somebody must be directing traffic. So this is not an advocacy of eliminating the director, or of ignoring/changing a script in the middle of a performance. (You can face legal issues there.) It is rather, a call for those involved in all aspects of bringing a live theatre production to life to recognize the freedom that actors deserve. And a plea to not be afraid of same. Let us do our jobs, and the magic will happen. (If the right actors are selected, which is another actual job of the director.)

Actors, don't accept a shrinking influence in your own medium. You are not in a movie. You are not in television. You are in live theatre. Don't let anyone take that away from you. And if they would, go be in another show, with people who know their place and are willing to let you do your thing, and won't silence you and your need to connect with what you are doing. Don't accept limitations on your creative power in order to maintain the false and insecure notion that any one person in theatre is sacrosanct. Truth and passions are the sacred things of theatre. The rest will follow if you possess them. If you do not, it's a crap shoot at the best.

There are directors out there who understand this. Find them, and be in every show you can with them. You will better for it, and so will theatre itself.


heatherconroy said...

It's good advice you give to vote with your feet. Would many actors be willing to do this? My perception is that acting work is hard to come by. I may be mistaken of course because I have no theatre experience and I am not an actor. I do love the theatre though. Live theatre is all about the actors and the story. I didn't realise how stifled actors feel when they are tightly directed. Just my observation from the stalls. I really enjoyed your writing. It was a treat.

Anonymous said...

Bravo....I've been saying the same for years.

Ty Unglebower said...

Thank you both for your comments, and for reading the blog!

Heather, as to your question, it is a tricky business. It really is hard to say how many actors would be willing to embrace my viewpoint here. I will say that there seem to be fewer of them as time goes on. Long ago actors were so much in charge of theatre they tended to make stuff up on stage. I don't want to go back to those days, but it does seem that many actors, especially those with asperations to be professional or unionized, become willing to give up a great deal of their artistic freedom, just to "play the game." Which has become, to many, even worse...they prefer to have as little creative control as possible.

I can say I do know others who agree with me, (anonymous it would seem is one of them =) ). So even though I may be a bit of a minority, I know that I am not alone, which is a comfort.

Heather said...

It occurred to me some days after reading your post that actors are unlike other artists. Painters, (some)musicians, (some) writers, work fairly autonomously on their creative pursuits, but actors take someone else's work and communicate it to an audience much like an interpreter. Actors also share this job with the director who remains behind the scenes.So it is a collaboration much more than a solo performance. Could this be the (?a) reason for a sense that actors are not in control, or that they bring little to the performance? I think that the audience credits actors first and foremost for the production, and realises that there are others behind the scenes who have had a hand in the final product.
I must admit that I hate group work and would be very unhappy having to compromise and collaborate in my creative pursuits in the way you must have to. I don't mind doing this in other parts of my life. I have been married for 21 years and have 2 grown children :). You have given me a lot to think about.

Ty Unglebower said...

Thanks for the comments Heather. (And are you the same Heather as the first person to comment on this post, or a whole other Heather??)

I of course agree with you that audiences tend to credit actors most for live performances when they come to see them, as per the philosophy behind the original post. I don't think they are unaware that there are many people that bring a production into existence, but I think they focus upon the actors.

Which is exactly why the actor SHOULD be quite free artistically when on stage. This can be defined in any number of ways of course, but in general I stand by what I said in the post. (Which you read, so no need to reiterate those details here.)

You point/question about actors having less of a chance to produce their work independently is a very interesting one. There certainly is more direct autonomy in something like painting of photography than there is in acting. Yet that is another reason why I am so adamant in the stance I made in the entry...actors can in fact be given a great deal of autonomy within a performance, in regards to interpretation and delivery. Not as much as a painter, but actors can, and of course should, be awarded such freedom. As an actor I can attest to the fact that a good director understands this, and I have been lucky enough to enjoy that high degree of autonomy with my art and craft at times. Thank the divinities for that.

This is an understanding I wish more people had. Consider a playwright who never has his work produced. True, there are those who write plays simply to be read as text, but most people who write plays hope to see them performed. A very large portion of the playwrights art is absent without actors to bring it to life. So playwrights of all people should understand the autonomy problem, and be willing to enjoy the absolute power they have when they are writing, and let actors have their day once they release the work.

And on one side note, even the autonomous artists you spoke of, painters and such, tend to find themselves and their works subjects to less tangible pressures. Trends. Interpretations. Marketability to a gallery, etc. And while the actual process of creating the work can be a solo act, releasing it may require a collaboration of sorts that I am sure is unfair to those type of artists as well.

Heather said...

Yes same Heather :)