“The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” —George Burns
I first heard that quote from an acting teacher in college. He thought it was hysterical; I thought it was heretical. At that point I was every inch a callow youth of 19 years. Everything was measured in how authentic it was, how real, how vital, how emotional. And I had an overabundance of emotion—I wanted to be an actor, for goodness’ sake. Why would you need to fake sincerity? I thought. If you have it, you have it. If you don’t—get off the stage.
But as I’ve moved through the years, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in that phrase. Anyone who’s been in a show that’s run for more than two weekends (opening and closing) knows that a show can become a slog. It can become repetitive. It can become work. And no one has the emotional stamina to truly feel all the emotions in Oedipus Rex night after night after night. It’ll make you go a little crazy. After all, there’s a reason it’s called acting, and not being. You need the skill to act; you need the skill to represent a very convincing simulacrum of emotion, without actually falling prey to the same despair that causes people to stab out their eyes.
The important part is that the audience feel it. If a play—the actors, set, lights, all of it—does a good job of representing the worst of us, the audience will happily feel the most wrenching of emotions and thank us for the opportunity. That catharsis is why people go to the theatre.
I think that all too often, we theatre people tend to respond the way Mr. Coakley did to the idea that theatre is about “faking it.” After all, such ideas constitute heresy, especially since Stanislavski taught us about emotion memory and the like.
Of course, I wonder how many of us have actually read Stanislavski’s words about his ideas and have dealt with the fact that his “System” seemed to change a bit over his lifetime and that he really never intended it to be a way of training beginners, let alone beginners in another country than the Russia he was in while he was developing it.
When I was doing my doctoral course work, I did a major paper on Stanislavski for a course and read just about everything he had written (in the translations available at the time) as well as a number of things about his work. Since the paper dealt with his work as a director, my focus wasn’t really on his words about acting, but I did read them, nonetheless.
Based on that reading (and some subsequent review) I think a good deal of what is taught as “Stanislavski’s System” is simply wrong. I think (it’s what he certainly seems to say) he was trying to figure out a process for already competent actors to improve their competence, to be able to maintain a higher standard of excellence throughout a lengthy run and over a longer period of time, and that most of the aspects of the “System” were intended to help the performer to get a firm grasp on how the character might think and feel so that these can be performed at a higher level of simulated reality.
Of course, the playwright has already told us what the character does. The actor’s job, then, is mostly making sure that what the playwright requires the character to do makes sense to the audience as what that character would do in that situation. I think that may well be what Olivier (whom many people think probably knew something about acting) was driving at when he commented that you should “Have a very good reason for everything you do.” I think what he meant was that for an actor to maintain sanity and be effective, she/he must have a completely worked out sense of the character being portrayed to the point that she/he understands not only what the character does at all times, but why she/he does that.
To me, that implies an importance to a thorough, careful analysis of the character, so that one can, in a sense, portray, or “become,” the character. Note: I said “in a sense.” Olivier also said “Acting is illusion, as much illusion as magic is, and not so much a matter of being real.” I think that he meant here that the emphasis shouldn’t be on “being real,” but on creating the illusion of being so. As Coakley said, “…no one has the emotional stamina to truly feel all the emotions in Oedipus Rex night after night after night.” He’s right, you know. Even just creating an illusion of such emotions can be pretty draining.
There’s also the fact that, no matter how hard we may try to really believe down on a basic, in-your-gut level, most of the time the audience won’t believe us anyway. And why should they, when we make a point of calling attention to the fact that theatre is “Let’s pretend?” After all, we take a curtain call at the end of the performance to show that Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes and Polonius really aren’t dead, but don’t you want to recognize the great job the actors playing them did? Why is it that it’s become commonplace for advertisers to point out that the people in their ads are “Real people. Not actors.”? I don’t think it’s because they actually believe that we viewers don’t think that actors are, actually, people. It’s because it’s an actors’ job to convince us that something which isn’t real, seems to be.
If everybody else in society seems to understand and expect that acting is not believing, why do we keep trying to insist that it should be? Especially after Coleridge made a point of talking about theatre as requiring “the willing suspension of disbelief”? Making the pretense of acting appear to be real is hard enough. We don’t need to complicate the issue even further (and possibly endanger our psyches in the process). My former colleague, Terrence Mann is quoted as having said that “Movies make one famous, Television makes one rich, and Theatre makes one good.” I think that makes a lot of sense.
More people see movies than live theatre and your performance in a movie can survive for a long time. Thus it is easier to achieve fame from movies than from doing live theatre. Television can make you a lot of money, but it, all too often, works so fast and changes so often that, while one can get rich by doing it, there’s often not enough time to develop a character much beyond the surface and, on occasion, the characters are rather “typed” to be pretty close to the actor cast (or the actor is cast because of a reputation for playing that type of character). Theatre, on the other hand, as Sherlock Holmes said in the West End Horror “…is a singular calling, a noble art but a dreary profession….” It requires an almost fanatic dedication to doing the same thing over and over again, knowing what the result is going to be before you start, yet pretending that you don’t; and having to convince the audience of this, ridiculous, idea. If you can do that over an extended period of time, to a variety of audiences, you have a real skill which is a large part of what we might call “good.”
Still, it IS a noble art, and as J. M. Barrie said, “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” For those of us who are, or have been a part of the theatre, we understand that its challenges are what push us to be (as Terry says) “good.” The worst thing about acting, to me, is that the best performers make it look easy. This leads “civilians” to think that it is easy, but those of us in the “business” know that it is accomplished through great effort and tremendous dedication, often with sacrifices that many people would not tolerate. It is (at least it can be) a “dreary profession.” It doesn’t always pay that well, it requires long hours, is incredibly insecure, is tough on personal relationships, etc. It’s an incurable disease which, once caught, can drive one most of his/her life.
On the other hand, when it “works;” when everything in the production comes together and it all fits; there is nothing like it. There’s a satisfaction which may not come too often, but it makes you want to get it again, so you keep chasing it. I understand, I’ve been there….