Choices for playwrights, directors and actors in theatre and in education
Blinded and deafened by ideology and cultural straitjacketing, theatre has the potential to be an inconsequential adjunct to the closet of humanity.
What does it take to put oneself or any content in front of an audience?
To answer this we come back to theatre’s value and purpose. What is its role within a culture and society? Imagine theatre’s function is really that of the Elizabethan version of the All Licensed Fool. He was supposed to challenge the thinking of the Queen or King. Others might have risked death by doing so. The ruler was able to see what was hidden beneath the veneer created by sycophants and cultural perceptions. In some cases the All Licensed Fool was actually whipped if he was not truthful enough. Today, theatre can provide the same function.
Considerable skills and attitudes needed
Children are often chosen for main roles in school presentations because of talented traits. They can be loud, extroverted, imaginative and physically dexterous. Such qualities though are not necessarily enough to qualify for acting. The child comes to believe what they have been told. So the situation becomes worse. Parents, teachers and friends delight in telling the precocious child how talented they are. One day they will be in the movies! Things change. Reality sets in. The child becomes an adolescent. The idea of a career in acting becomes laughable. It is time to get a job. Acting can still take place in the community, if not as a career. So the myth of talent can be integrated into the safety of amateur theatre. There is nothing wrong with this. I’m sure the world would be a better place if more people participated in creating theatre for whatever reason.
But where in this is the commitment to theatre as cultural vitality?
The artist and the narcissist
I wrote about the phenomena of “lock-out” and “lock-in” in an earlier post. I suggested we consider a ratio of “Letting Go and Control” needed for an actor to work effectively in front of an audience. A performer needs to be more than a narcissist looking into one’s own image or identity. An actor is not a person who simply presents a moving picture. Acting requires more than control of techniques in voice and movement. It requires an attunement to space, sound, nuances in other actor responses and spectator involvement. Performers need a childlike playfulness that is open to total immersion in a focus. The narcissist, on the other hand, is preoccupied with seeing oneself and seeking the ego hit of adulation. Over-preoccupation with appearance and conceits of one’s technique block the creative and connecting flow so necessary for effective and high level performance. Waiting only for compliments and applause is deadly and indicates narcissism. Yet paradoxically this is what often triggers the desire to act. Too often aspiring young people try out for acting schools only to be rejected. It is a puzzle because they have achieved a lot in school and community productions by the time they leave school. They have done exhaustive acting classes; taken extra dance and movement classes; indulged in additional voice lessons; shown exemplary interest in their developing craft! But no success … Parents, teachers and friends cannot offer any real condolence.
The aspiring actor
The aspiring actor needs to be aware of what others think. However, they must also find the internal confidence to challenge the views of others while privately assessing their own progress. This requires an amazing degree of self-awareness and realisation. This is probably a most important aspect for any Drama school. But the aspiring actor’s need to realise this is paramount.
The subdued ego
In 1977 I began professional work at La Boite Theatre with the Early Childhood Drama Project (ECDP). We were never allowed to say something was good or bad. So the performance worked or it didn’t! It meant I had to clip my own egocentricity. I was in tears more often than I wish to admit. Breaking down one’s ego is painful. The actor must go through this process.
A certain kind of personality
So if you are offended by words, any words, don’t become an actor. Actors are like licensed fools who perform outside the limitations of social etiquette. They are willing to unselfconsciously objectify themselves in the acting space to present a huge range of figures and characters. The key word in this discussion is “unselfconsciously”. The actor is comfortable in being uncomfortable. So all realities on-stage and off-stage are viewed with scepticism and a degree of detachment. Even belief, faith and culture are up for healthy devil’s advocacy. So the actor possesses a personality imbued with what the poet John Keats described as “negative capability“.
Keats said “negative capability” is the "willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity". Obviously I am talking about some kind of ideal actor. But to be a sieve through which extreme realities and ideas may pass requires negative capability embedded in one's personality. An actor is a sieve; a conduit for conflicting and competing relationships and perspectives. The actor may or may not take on the qualities of the shaman and wander the desert to experience extremes of deprivation. However, the actor is in possession of unique qualities that separate them from the rest of society. By definition, the actor is an outsider. Like the Licensed Fool, the actor constantly lives with sharpened barbs that can be injected into quality performances.
On a personal note
I was initially drawn to theatre and acting when studying philosophy and sociology. Theatre seemed like an art form that was free and extolled social subversion while undermining authority. It released the binds of repression. Playfulness was a virtue. Theatre acknowledged the absurdity of existence. Yet, at the same time, revered the serious nature of human vulnerability. The tension between the two provided the basis of art and artistic expression. I liked the fact that theatre had no specific allegiance to any faith or creed. Rather there was this phenomenological approach to everything it touched.
Theatre opens windows from the edifice of orthodoxy. It meant practitioners were able to adopt stances against the sacred cows of of the dominant culture. Therefore, nothing was off-limits: sex, politics, religion … and nothing was assumed.
However, acting was not for me. While I enjoyed many aspect of creating characters and stage relationships, I lacked the discipline for reproducing the psychological and physical demands made on actors. Perhaps I needed to spend those forty days in the desert to experience and discover the extreme negative capability of the shaman. I could never fully sacrifice the self on a regular basis. So much of what I have done when performing was really pretending!
Unfortunately, this is what too often passes for acting. And it shows up as mediocrity in our arts and in our cultural expectations.
So who should act?
Having said everything above, I can’t answer the question. I can only say what might be considered in making the decision to act. The actor is both artist and instrument. A decent acting school will hold up a mirror to the student and have them examine the reflection. Any instrument needs delicate skill and care. So it is for the actor. But how many young prospective actors are encouraged in their narcissism? How many understand the notion of sacrifice or the notion of being a conduit for ideas, relations, experiences etc? How often does the theatre mistake egoism for talent and the pretender for the actor? So, who should act?
And so too for writing and directing in theatre
There are no definitive answers! All I can suggest are questions and provocations for all of us working in the theatre. At base is the necessity to develop the healthy scepticism that is a part of negative capability. The die-hard "this is the one true belief" approach is counterproductive and detrimental to theatre creation and presentation. This thought applies to theatre education as much as performance.
Deadly theatre acts as if there is no dynamics in culture and social interaction. It reduces everything to a financial misconception that people only buy and value what is in the past and known. But this knowing is ill-conceived. While the bones of theatre might be present in the form of outdated and once-dynamic works, the flesh is gone and the living organism of theatre becomes non-existent. It is theatre presented in a vacuum suggesting it knows nothing, hears nothing and sees nothing.
Just as significant is theatre presented within tightly controlled ideological, religious and cultural parameters. This blinds the practitioner to any hope of actually revealing the underpinning realities of the world. While there are issues around cultural appropriation, it is only through stepping outside one's cultural straitjacket that seeing and knowing about one's existence can really take place. Theatre is a key avenue in this process.
So in approaching theatre as a practitioner, teacher or student or even as a member of the public, we need to be cognisant of the world and what is happening in order to process the artifice that is our medium. The reality of the present needs to inform our paradigm creation for the development and presentation of theatre.
Probably no leading practitioner exemplifies such a notion more than Peter Brook.
So as Peter Brook says: 'You change things not by preaching but by doing – just get on your horse’. (Michael Billington: THE GUARDIAN (2017). Say no more!