the velocity of acting, part two


The previous entry in this series comprises a Playbill article about actors Estelle Parsons and Steven Spinella, and how Parsons elevated Spinella’s already stellar acting chops in an Eric Coble play.

Much of the stage acting I see these days I dub TV-acting – sincere, committed, intelligent, filled with planned emotion – rather than permission for emotion to be what it is, a byproduct of life – and on the words. The lack of subtext or passing familiarity with a character arc, the casualness in battling obstacles, the paucity of tactics, the lack of objectives, the shinily bulletproof choices are the antithesis of “theatrical.”

This less-than-positive opinion is shared by more than curmudgeonly old me, I’m relieved to report. I’ve just been made aware of a 2006 rant by Arthur Penn. He’s a bit more harsh than I, the linked article is not for the faint of heart – to wit:

I saw a play recently that was festooned with understudies: Not the actual understudies, but the hired, primary actors, all of whom performed (if that is the word) precisely like a competent, frightened understudy who got a call at dinner and who raced down to take over a role. No depth; no sense of preparation. These were actors who had learned their lines and who had showed up. And that is all.


The actors I’m seeing do better than that, they form relationships of a sort and some have bravado, but I want excellence. I need it. The plays I write are dense and complex and don’t lend themselves to cold reads or off-the-cuff skimming, I need actors who are up to the challenge, actors who don’t need a director to explain it to them, actors who don’t need to be told to do their homework or *how* to do their homework, who think homework means reading the script and just getting familiar with their lines. I do not need easy actors.

The first rule? Ask questions. Foremost, ask them of the script and if the answers you’re getting don’t jibe with your idea of the character, change your idea. Remember that the playwright was there when the page was blank, that the character you’re playing or auditioning for came from that playwright’s experience, psyche, imagination, let the character be much larger than your experience in the world. Assume that your director knows the character at least as well as you do, and probably as well as the playwright.

The second rule? Question your questions and question your answers. Penn cites Kim Stanley‘s rigor as well as that of others – read and reread his rant, please, and glean how to be the right kind of difficult actor. Note that none of those he cites are tantrum-throwers, divos or divas. And after you do that homework and come into rehearsal with your lines learned and answers to your questions – sometimes a raft of possible answers that you’ll discuss with your director – take no prisoners. Number three? Show up in every possible way. Risk.

When you look up “theatrical,” there’s no “nice” or “safe” in the definition. Let’s elevate theater to its former stature, please, to the place we go to transform, the place audience goes to transform together.









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