Telling the Character's Truth

July 31, 2015

 

Laurence Olivier once said, "what is acting but lying, and what is good acting but convincing lying." Now, much as I enjoyed some of Olivier's performances, I couldn't disagree with him more. The prevailing theory of acting these days, particularly in the United States, is not about lying, but about telling the truth, and it is a theory - and an onstage goal - to which I adhere strongly. It is the character's truth, not the actor's, but the actor must fully understand and adopt it as his/her own. (For me, the one exception to this rule was when I played Harold in "The Full Monty:" If you don't know, the six main characters all do a strip tease at the end of the show, and are supposed to "go the full Monty," i.e. strip completely. The actors were offered "modesty pouches" - flesh-colored bags to wear over our naughty bits. I decided to forgo mine, (not out of ego, thank you very much,) but so as to face the same terrifying challenge as my character - to strip naked in front of an audience of over a thousand people - to actually live my character's truth. But that challenge, while frightening, was what enticed me most as an actor. Oh, and fear not, the audience didn't actually see anyone's wedding tackle.)

 

In most shows, the character's truth is not nearly so easily adopted: in this summer's three productions, I'm trying to marry off my son, suck up to the future King of England, and put on a play. Well, that last one isn't so foreign to me, unless you add to it the fact that I get turned into a donkey and become the love interest of the Queen of the Faeries. None of these truths are my own, but I must find a way to adopt them, to believe in them to the point where I can (hopefully) convince an audience that they are, indeed, mine. This is one of the central challenges - and central joys - of acting.

 

On the other end of the spectrum from Olivier, Daniel Day Lewis was once famously (or infamously) quoted as saying that he actually saw his father's ghost while playing Hamlet at Great Britain's National Theatre in 1989. He has since explained that he was speaking metaphorically. Some audiences, however, enjoy the idea that actors are a bit insane, that they truly believe they ARE their characters. But again, aside from a few notable (and sometimes apocryphal) exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Acting isn't believing with the frenzy of a madman; it's playing make-believe with the intensity of a child, the precision of an adult, and the creativity of an artist.

 

This is why I love Shakespeare. The comparatively modern plays of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and the like, provide wonderful fodder for modern American acting technique, focusing largely on emotional and psychological truth. Shakespeare provides these opportunities as well, but Shakespeare also lets me PLAY. His world is populated not only with very human characters in the throes of love, hate, desire, regret, etc., but also with Faeries, spirits, sea monsters, gods, and all manner of the fantastical. Let's face it: Shakespeare has EVERYTHING.

 

The Festival is about to re-open in Canton, with only three weeks left to the 2015 season. Come watch the ridiculous artifice of The Rivals. Come watch the dead-serious rebellion of Henry IV (with a little levity from Falstaff and company.) Come watch the hilarious madness of A Midsummernight's Dream. But above all, come watch us PLAY!

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