This isn’t a negative remark. You heard me. Actors, directors, LISTEN UP!
We could get into a heady discussion of the usual pejorativity of the word “excrement,” only we won’t. Listening?
Excretions are a healthy byproduct of living: eat and drink and inhale, your body takes nourishment and/or poison from what you’ve ingested. Defecate, urinate, sweat, fart, belch, exhale the remainder. In other words, excrete.
Just so with emotions: we take in life through our various senses (including the sixth &c), derive nourishment and/or poison, and excrete laughter, tears, rage, ecstasy, and everything in between.
This is not an opinion, it’s simply how the organism works, or is meant to when we’re not squelching and metaphorically self-constipating. Yes, there are inappropriate places and moments for all sorts of excretions, but let’s pull this conversation out of the gutter, okay?
If an actor or director – or, worse, a playwright – has already planned what emotion is to be emitted in a given moment of a performance, your audience, not to mention your playwright and play, are doomed doomed doomed or, you might say, trapped in amber. Sometimes that result-oriented procedure can be admirable or beautiful, but rarely if ever moving, engaging, transformative.
A brief example. Recently I attended a play in which every actor/character forced out affect and emotion with every breath – directors, take note, the whole play at one level and all of your characters’ stories being equal translates to flat and boring storytelling. Although I laughed here and there, it was never involuntary or surprising: I saw the setups and appreciated the punches. Until the penultimate scene.
It was a tender little bonding scene necessary for the protagonist’s moment of transformation. The actors connected in real time and started to laugh. They hadn’t been directed to laugh there, so they stifled that laugh and went back to the emotions they were used to. And that brief spark of life in an otherwise well-oiled machine died a sudden, awful death. As did my nascent emotional involvement with the play.
What if the actors had been working solely with their actions, their objectives and tactics, eschewing planned emotions? They truly bonded in the moment they recognized that they were beginning to crack up, and had they pursued their actions, they’d have let the laughter out and a genuine transformation would have occurred. Not where the playwright intended – tho maybe their discovery was precisely what the playwright had meant for that scene, it was the only laugh line in a scene otherwise fraught with, well, fraughtness – but it was the ONLY moment of spontaneity in a 2-hour evening in the theater.
Next time you think someone is a really good actor, do this: parse them, moment-to-moment. Try, try hard, to distance yourself emotionally. If your emotions are continually caught despite this effort, it’s likely that the actors are leaving their emotions alone and playing their actions. This is part of “leaving room for the audience,” another favorite rant of mine.
No, I’m not advising “unemotional” acting. And I’m not ever saying to “be” any given emotion. If your actors are pursuing actions rather than emotional states – oh, my, isn’t the root of that word the same as that for “stasis”?* – then the play will live. If you’re rehearsing what they’re “supposed to” feel, you’re dead in the starting gate.
*Turns out, “state” comes from status (a “manner of standing,”) and “stasis” from “standing still.” Both, the antithesis of action.