Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is the Play the Thing? Or the Character?

The last time I addressed the notion of trying out for a show, even if you are not in love with every single aspect of it. While I of course stand by what I said, at some point in time once you are committed to being in a show, a decision must be made. I actually consider this one of the most important decisions an actor has to make. Not merely in any given show, but in one’s approach to acting in general.
It boils down to this often-controversial question: Should you be more devoted to your character or your show?
Two schools of thought are applicable here. One that says every moment you are on stage is designed merely to move the specific plot forward. In this viewpoint the actor on stage is a means by which a specific end is reached. (See also, David Mamet’s school of acting.) In this view, the show as a whole takes precedence over your feelings for your character.
The other school of thought dictates that any given moment the only thing an actor can control, the one thing he can own, is his character. It is the aspect of the show that he will spend the most time with, get to know the most, and of course will bring to life. Productions are symphonies of coordinated individual performances brought into harmony by a good director, and universal desire on the part of the cast. In this view, an actor’s particular character, and his relationship thereto reigns supreme. Call this the Laurence Olivier school. Or, in case you have not guessed it by now, the Ty Unglebower school.
Indeed, I am of the character-based persuasion in such a “showdown.”
Even if you love the whole show you are in, I maintain the importance of giving your character a bit more attention and affection than the entire arc of the production. An audience can afford to invest everything into the entire experience. The actor while in that show, cannot.
Why is this? It’s because I feel an actor should ignore the overall success of the play. On the contrary, every actor should have the success of the show as a priority Yet the best way to achieve that goal is to focus on nurturing your character, because no play is just one story. A play is a collection of individual stories, about individual characters. Any given character’s story may not be the focus of the play, or even of a given scene. Their story may not even get mentioned in the script, but their story exists to be told, if to nobody else but the actor portraying him.
I’m reminded of that ancient theatre story of the man who is playing a torch bearer in Romeo and Juliet. His friend asks him one day what the play is about. He answers, “Well, it’s all about this servant that runs around carrying a torch all night.”
Theatre may or may not be realistic, as compared to life. But it should at least be familiar. Even a farce should represent elements in humanity that we can relate to as an audience. This, I argue, is only achieved when, as in life, each character is empowered to control only his own circumstances, motivated by what he wants or needs. If an actor is constantly focused on how his actions and performance will set up some payoff five scenes from now, the performance loses something.
An actor should be aware of both the power and responsibility of assuming an identity not his own for two hours. This cannot be done when he considers himself a mere cog in the turning machinery of a larger vision. His story must be incorporated into that vision, not held hostage by it. As in life, tension between people, good and bad, makes things happen.
By no means is this view universal, and as I mentioned, this can be a controversial topic among theatre people, amateur and professional. Actors and playwrights and directors. Yet I have always believed in the old adage that the stage is an actor’s medium. I don’t shy away from that now, and I hope that you will not either.
(For further consideration of both of these “schools,” I recommend True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet for one side, and On Acting by Laurence Olivier for the other.)
(Originally appeared on on September 16, 2009. This version has been edited to fit the medium.)

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