Monday, October 22, 2012


Since I started the two blogs about Alvina Krause, the famous acting teacher, one for her notes and one for comments and context, my cousin -- who has no background at all in theatre -- remarked that she was surprised that I would put something like that online.  She thought everything about acting would be private if not secret.  I suggested she read the notes herself, so she did and was surprised all over again.  They were perfectly sensible suggestions about the practical presentation of plays.  She expected -- um -- maybe emotional excess, revelations of illusion, something taboo?

I’ve been reading a Ph. D. thesis:  The Space Between: Uncovering the Lived Experience of Actor Communication by  Shawna B Mefferd Kelty.  You can download the PDF:  It’s a hermeneutical phenomenological study that looks at how undergrad student actors feel when they are acting.  “Hermeneutical phenomenology” just means trying to figure out what your feelings mean, what they stand for, what’s happening.  Kelty is studying the rapport that develops between two actors while they are acting out scripts onstage.  That “feeling” is like “flow.”  When it emerges between two people who know their stuff and trust each other, it is magical.  But it is NOT mysterious, it is quite dependable if you know the ingredients.  It is what I’m after with my ideas about the liminal and the “bone chalice”, which is another example of how theatre and religion are twinned.

Kelty throws in some new angles, historical references I didn’t know, like an acting teacher named Richard Hornby, who wrote “The End of Acting: A Radical View.”  (1992.) Since it goes against the ordinarily assumed ideas about acting, I immediately ordered a copy -- I think I’m paying eight cents for a used paperback.  One of his issues is about how much of what an actor does is unconscious, but another question is even more interesting.

It is “whether an actor’s sense of self is fluid or fixed.  He argues that American acting methods reinforce a fixed idea of ego:  ‘It is in American actor training that we also find an emphasis on the conscious self, the ego, which is to be exhibited on stage in role after role. . . The American actor seems condemned always to act the same ‘self,’ even though it is only a small part of his total persona.  The fear hovers that should he stray from his accepted ‘self,’ not only will the public be confused, but his acting will become hollow and artificial.’

That was before Meryl Streep, I assume.  It’s the John Wayne Theory -- actors need not act because it’s simpler to just cast to type.  And soon they will have become a marketable “platform.”  God help them if they try to escape that public notion of who they are.

Then the next reference is to a book by Jonas Barish called “The Antitheatrical Prejudice” (1981)  “which traces cultural biases against actors from the Greeks to present day.  Barish suggests that the prejudice against theatre, specifically actors portraying other people, is rooted in the problematic idea that self appears fluid rather than fixed.  Centuries ago in ‘The Republic’ Plato warned his readers against the dangers of the fluidity of the self.”  It is a virtue to have integrity, to be consistent and dependable.  If a person is a flip-flopper, an etch-a-sketcher -- well, we won’t vote for him, will we?  

Perhaps the public association of the theatre and prostitution has something to do with pretending to care, to be truly moved.  Maybe it’s not just the money or the secret sinfulness, but an even deeper secret hope that THIS time, it won’t be faked -- that true love will break through the pretense.

We assume that a person’s personality is defined by a kind of sphere.  If they are different, especially unexpectedly, we can be startled or even alarmed.  Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde upsets us.  Shape-shifters and tricksters slide in and out of the stories of all cultures.  They change things, which is why they are loved by playwrights.  But we don’t want to come home to find Mom not herself.   We are worried by witness protection plans and spies.  When we try to imagine people with multiple personalities, we tend to think of them as having a head full of spheres, like bubbles, each with a different identity inside.  

But that’s not quite how brains work.  The little self-contained structures are evidently sorting matrixes or translating centers.  Something as global as an identity is a kind of interacting “music” throughout the whole cerebrum, kind of like what comes out of a pipe organ with all the foot pedals and stops to pull out and tiered keyboards.  Very complex and able to shift from one mode to another or play two melodies contrapuntally.  So the actor on the stage is able to be his or her character but also his or her true self.  When two actors are interacting, it’s like two pianists playing a duet together, totally in sync but never forgetting who’s playing which part.  The enmeshment is deeply satisfying even to listeners, but esp. to the musicians.

To be confined to one identity that’s not allowed to change is to be trapped.  I dunno, it sounds more like upper class England than America!  Maybe it’s because I’m a Westerner, but I love playfulness and tall tales, the kind that end impossibly when “the bear et me.”  The thing about being always predictably and dependably the same sounds like a cigar store Indian, very stoic, while a fluid identity that adapts to circumstances sounds like REAL Indians, full of jokes and paying close attention.

I’m working my way through all the episodes of “Law & Order SVU”.  I'm up to year four.  It strikes me over and over that none of the people are what they seem and THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT!  Neither the perps nor the cops are one-dimensional.  They each have primary roles, of course, but not even the ice queen lawyer is forever frozen.  The VICTIMS are all the same.  Most of the time.  But the scriptwriters set up the other characters to be in situations that will reveal new sides to them -- and that’s why we watch.  It’s the unexpectedness but then the cleverness of the explanations of why they did that out-of-character thing.  We search our experience:  what would cause them to behave like that?  

It’s not entirely explanatory when B.D. Wong gives it some big five word name ending in “syndrome.”  We want to remember someone we knew or even ourselves.  That’s what was worrying my cousin -- that I would reveal something about myself that would make her see me differently.  And I still might.  But she needn’t worry.  I'll still be the same.

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