Last night, a few of the roommates and I got into a discussion about the effects of acting on the actor and on the audience. Most of it stemmed from my too-brief reading of this unnerving article from James K.A. Smith. Of course, we didn’t agree on anything, but here are a few points that I can remember (mostly ones that I tried to make):
The best way to portray a character onstage is through honesty. Acting is not about lying, it’s about learning and communicating truth.
When an actor portrays a character getting angry (Screwtape yelling at Wormwood), the actor is not getting angry with a fellow actor, the character *is getting angry at another *character. How can you tell the difference? Here’s a quick test: Once the two actors have left the stage, do they remain angry at each other? The characters have a story arc that they live out through the course of the play. The actors have to tap into that, then leave it behind when the curtain falls. If they don’t, they are being unprofessional, and in all likelihood, sinning. This is one of the reasons why sexual content is so tricky in plays. Can an actress play a character who incites lust in another character without inciting lust in her fellow actor? Does the sin see its fullness in the play and remain onstage at the end?
If the actor does *get angry onstage, does that make his character’s emotion more or less real? If you cast two young people who are twitterpated with each other as the main character and their love interest, are you going to have a good show? Are you going to have a better show than if you cast two disinterested actors who don’t let their guts run away with their heads? The first casting choice might result in brilliance (“The passion practically leapt off the stage!”) or chaos. I have told my actors in the past that they need to forget about their crushes when they are onstage, even if they’re sitting next to *her *or holding hands with *him.
If you as an actor bring your personal agenda onto the stage, you are being selfish. Selfishness has no place in art or entertainment. It puts sickly green shine on everything that you produce or perform. A personal agenda can be emotional, or intellectual, or even ethical, but you must put it aside. It’s the director’s job to worry about the agenda of the play, not the actors’.
A good play will not compromise anyone ethically (unless their system of ethics stinks, in which case a good play will make chowder of it). In a good novel, the author writes bad guys from the inside, meaning he understands the world from their point of view. Over the course of the novel, that point of view is shown to be twisted, or powerless, or wanting. In a play, an actor must act from the inside, meaning he understands the world from his character’s point of view. If his character is evil, that can cause problems unless the character is dealt with. Without Macduff, Macbeth is a tyrant, and Shakespeare is a fool.
There are a dozen problems with these thoughts, questions that remain unanswered. For instance, how does a character affect the actor who plays him? What happens to the audience when they watch actors commit horrific sins, even it *is *just an act? If a character commits a sin (say, anger) but repents, is the actor still guilty of committing the sin? The topic is deep and multi-layered (but fascinating). I am starting to understand why St. Augustine was so suspicious of the theater.