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August 31, 2005

Acting, Again

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I have an unwieldy set of small-t theories about acting. I'm not sure I can justify any of these theories, but there they are. Actors are the purest of all artists, for instance -- "pure" being understood in this case to mean something like "most genuinely driven by the need to express themselves and to give pleasure."

Another is that acting is the most mysterious of all the arts. How are some people able to interest the rest of us so directly in stories, characters, and situations? What gift is it that enables them to insert themselves so completely into make-believe that the rest of us follow, and find ourselves involved in make-believe too?

Another theory: Everyone ought to study acting for a few years. It can introduce you to such helpful-to-all-the-arts concepts as subtext and being-in-the-moment. Studying acting can be useful in many real-world ways too. It can help you learn how to read (and respond to) behavior. It can help you get a lot more comfortable thinking, speaking, and behaving on your feet. It can help you past a lot of uptightness and inhibitions; you learn daring, and how to trust your instincts. It can turn you into a more positive and appreciative person.

And, of course, acting -- even in the most modest, going-to-an-acting-class sense -- can be a heckuva lot of fun, despite the humiliations and tribulations. Plus, hey singledudes: Going to an acting class is an unbeatable way to meet entertaining, sexy, and otherwise appealing women. I spell that t-r-o-u-b-l-e, and mean it in the best possible way.

Small tip for anyone interested in giving acting a try: Start out with a good intro-to-improv class. You'll get a taste of what "acting" is all about a lot faster in an improv class than you will in any other kind. If you enjoy the experience, then think of moving into a more conventional intro-to-acting or scene-study class.

Being a mysterious thing, acting is one of the hardest of the arts to write about. How many essays or books have you read that helped you understand what performers are really up to, or how they go about achieving their effects?

So running across people who are informative, honest, and sensible about performing can be an especially rewarding culture-chat experience. I read some bloggers and I think, That's the spirit! I love it when Mike Hill, for instance, recalls his days as an actor, or discusses a performer friend. The way Mike processes his experience is the way a real actor does it. The Communicatrix doesn't just recount her adventures as a go-getting performer-about-L.A., she does so in the way a performer does. (That's a real writing achievement, by the way.)

It turns out that Samizdata's Brian Micklethwait has heard the siren song of acting too. Not a surprise, come to think of it: Brian's postings are almost always performance pieces in their own right. Brian, who did some acting in college, has recently taken it up again. In this witty and sweet posting, he weaves together many interesting thoughts and reflections: the impact of the new media on performing, the importance of delusions of grandeur to the actor ... Great stuff. I miss Brian's old cultureblog, and hope he'll be doing more cultureblogging at Samizdata.



posted by Michael at August 31, 2005


Actually, I'm a little confused as to what acting is, exactly, in a sort of philosophical sense.

I'm aware of three general philosophical notions regarding the purpose of the arts, including acting. These are (1) mimesis, or that arts should represent of some aspect of reality to their audience, (2) the notion that the arts exist to entertain or instruct or both, and (3) that the arts should be forms of self-expression.

I always thought that the goal of acting, and thus the central skill of acting, was in mimesis. This would seem to offer a certain standard of objectivity about an acting performance--does it seem 'real'? But a few years ago the L.A. Times asked several eminent acting teachers to rate various cinematic performances. Reading their critiques, it became apparent that what one eminent acting teacher thought was a performance of genius, another regarded as a form of dog poop.
The lack of such objective standards is not the only problem with the mimesis argument (which you seem to endorse in your post, if I'm reading you right.) Another is how difficult it is for experimental psychologists to really pin down people's emotions from their outward behavior (facial expressions, body language, etc.) This is really not an easy task, once you start to approach it without utilizing tons and tons of projection. (E.g., I know that in grip of terrific emotions I'm often quite inarticulate and blank-faced.) Another problem is what I would call the mimesis theory acid test: can trained actors really lie better than average people? Are they really better than average people at detecting lies? If their training actually improves their skills at mimesis, they should be able to lie and detect lies better than the average joe, but I would doubt that it's true.

Equally, I've always found lots of intellectual difficulties with the notion of 'self-expression', which center mostly around how it's possible for one person to read another person's self-expression. I mean, isn't any form of communication predicated on an underlying system of arbitrary conventions, a sort of Morse Code that both parties understand?

Hence, it looks to me as if acting really falls into theory #2, and is a vehicle chiefly for entertainment and instruction. My guess is that acting skill actually amounts to the ability to embody various social cliches about the behavior of people under the influence of emotion in an entertaining way.

I realize that it may not do, from the standpoint of teaching acting, to admit this, but I think that philosophically it is hard to end up anyplace else.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 31, 2005 2:31 PM

See? It's really hard to pin down, but loads of fun to think about and puzzle over. Which (both sides of that sentence) strikes me as the semi-essence of it, if acting can be said to have an essence.

I like your three art categories. For what nothing it's worth, I'd say acting has roots in all three. Most real actors really need to act (hence it qualifies as self-expression) -- in my experience, real actors are on the verge of acting 24/7, and need just the slightest of nudges to flow into a character and start performing. They're a particular kind of creature -- as distincitive as Aspergers types, or jocks, or daredevils. They're driven to entertain -- to project love and spirit, and to receive love and spirit from the rest of us. And god knows they're fools for the fantasy of doing some good in the world with their skills, so acting would qualify as #2.

Mimesis is an interesting one, since performing styles and traditions range all over the map, from hyper-realistic to hyper-stylized. Presumably the performers in Noh plays are every bit as truly performers as Method actors are. Yet Noh players aren't engaged in anything that could plausibly be called mimesis.

I take the continuity between Noh and Method to be a combo of 1) the drive to put on a show -- to get in front of a crowd and entertain, and be applauded, and 2) the drive to use yourself (your body, your voice, your presence, your emotions, your skills) as the vehicle for doing this (instead of oil paints, or ink on paper, or notes on a page). They talk about their bodies and emotions as their "instruments," and it sounds a little pretentious until you do some acting yourself. And you discover, well, your body, voice and emotions are in fact your instruments.

Actors: If mimesis is what's demanded, then, Sure, you bet! If holding up a mask and wearing a robe is required, then You bet! As that James Brooks movie was entitled, "I'll Do Anything."

I wonder if studies have been done about lying ... Speaking only from personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I'd say that actors are in fact much, much better at lying than civilians are. There are lots of stories around about this. Fathers in 19th century America would lock their daughters up when the theater troupe came to town, partly because the theatrical guys were known to be so good at seducing provincial lassies. And many a guy has fallen for an actress, believed her words of passion and love, only to wake up the next morning and discover that she's vanished and reincarnated elsewhere as a different creature entirely.

But I think the acting-thing calls the whole "lying" thing into question, or at least adds some shading to what we usually think of when we think about lying. Because good actors really mean it when they speak their lines. They're convincing (or at least amusing). I mean, an entire play or movie can be thought of as a giant lie -- nothing in it is, strictly-empirically speaking, true. Yet an audience might well watch it thinking, Yeah, I'm convinced, and play along with it. Actors mean what they say when they say it. Which means that they might contradict themselves 180 degrees five minutes down the line. But they mean it then, too. Does any of that constitute lying? Or is that just what these strange creatures are like?

In movies and plays, it's in large part the actors who create that illusion of truth. (Whatever "truth" happens to mean, culturally and to a given individual.) That's one of the reasons the current cyber-productions feel a little distant -- the actors aren't being given the chance to bring the kind of snap and reactiveness to the screen that they're capable of, and that (it seems) an audience's impression of "truth" largely depends on. Everything in a movie can be well done and in its place... But if that (indefinable, hard to talk about) spark isn't there in the performances, and in the interactions between the performers, then the billions spent on script, direction, and production values look inert and dead.

I'd love to read that L.A. Times piece, btw. Did you run across it online? (Hint, hint.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 31, 2005 4:01 PM

I do believe that acting is the least quantifiable thing that is the most fun to, as you put it, Michael, puzzle over.

I, too, love FvB's 3 arts categories, and agree with Michael that acting has roots in all three. I'll go a bit further and suggest that the BEST acting does ALL three, not necessarily in equal measure, but task-dependent.

#3 is the tricky one, really. While I do believe that the "best" actors are artists, all of us are technicians to a degree. Acting for the stage vs. acting on film vs. acting in :30 increments for a commercial require highly different techniques, but you can deliver a competent performance--even, on occasion, a compelling one--through the "magic" of technique (or sometimes, editorial/scoring/directorial techniques). But--and I've gotten in BIG arguments with fellow actors about this one--while we are creative to a greater or lesser degree in the execution of our tasks, we're not actually *creating* anything. So the expression of self in this case is literally that: how do you interpret that line, that action? How do you see that character walking or talking? And then, how are you going to get your real, honest-to-you self in the place necessary for you to exhibit the emotion/effect you've decided on.

IMHO, the best actors are like the best practioners of every art (ATTENTION: WOO-WOO ALERT!!): they excel at plugging into that universal truth, that all-that-is, that Spirit-with-a-capital-S, that what have you and then letting that truth flow through them. It requires some of the same skill set across the board, with different ones particular to acting (and even to different types of acting, e.g. soaps, Grand Guignol, musical theater, film, etc.). I really don't think we're better liars than the general population (or "civilians", as we call you); I'm one of the worst liars that ever lived, but I can get to where I am right now--i.e., the Truth as I know it--lickety split.

And that is why, Michael, I'm so 100% behind your idea of civilians taking acting every once in a while. I also second the notion that improv is a good way in, esp. comedy improv: (a) because it's way fun and (b) because you cannot NOT acknowlege the truth of the moment and be any bloody good. It's like yoga for the psyche: it keeps you limber and provides excellent non-corporeal benefits as well.

Learning to act was the best thing that ever happened to my writing, and probably my relationships, both romantic and platonic. Although I did not ever score in acting class itself, so I can't really recommend that as a way to meet chicks.

Besides, whaddya wanna date an actress for? Didn't anyone tell you we're all crazy?

Posted by: Colleen on August 31, 2005 4:38 PM

Hey, two weeks of actress-craziness can be a lot of fun! Plus, actresses don't hate you when the moment has passed -- a nice relief from the usual. But all that comes from the typical performer's devotion to the truth-of-the-moment (whatever the hell that is), no? When it's with us, we act on it. When it has gone, we find it elsewhere. I think acting raises all kinds of deep, deep philosophical questions, myself. Not least of them the nature of truth. Is there any way to nail down a constant meaning for "emotional truth"?

Anyway: The Communicatrix rocks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 31, 2005 4:49 PM

Oh, and such a good point about acting and writing. I think all fiction-writer wannabes should be required, REQUIRED, to study acting for a few years. It'd be far more rewarding (to the writers as well as their readers) than the baloney that's taught in most writing classes. Learn how to create and inhabit characters, how to create and inhabit make-believe situations; learn what a character arc is and how to construct one; learn something about suspense, subtext, and story. And get over some of that damn introversion and bookishness. ...

We'd all be better off if the gods forced, FORCED, all writers to study acting. 'Way too few fiction-books feature living-breathing characters and situations.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 31, 2005 4:58 PM

Writers study acting? Huh. That's a new one. Interesting. Never thought about it. For some reason it reminds me of this Economist review on some or other book by a doctor. The reviewer said it was nice to read something written by an author who had experiences in life outside of creative writing classes or workshops.

And it also reminds me of going to a book reading by an author, can't remember her name, whose book was about a kid with xeroderma pigmentosa at a special camp. Family at camp, family dynamics, etc. My companion leaned over and whispered, "that is such a work-shop book. Take a disease, set up a situation, go, go, go." I remembered stiffling a laugh and feeling guilty about it too: it's not a nice disease. I guess we were both responding to a certain breathlessness and earnestness in the author's reading. Frankly, I didn't buy any of it.

*Some day I have to tell you all about the actress/acting student who lived in my medical school fraternity (co-ed, natch, which is why I lived there) for a semester. An acting student living with medical students: ah, the hilarity. I cannot even begin to describe the emotional, mental, and general physical disconnect. She was touchingly insecure around us, but now I see it may have been her natural state. Man, I loved living in that fraternity...where else will you find kids sprawled out in the big living room with 'bone boxes' from anatomy class while other kids play pool and foosball nearby. Saturday night study breaks where you drink beer and quiz each other about the Kreb's cycle. Midnight raids on the other medical fraternity. I kid you not.

Posted by: MD on August 31, 2005 5:27 PM

Re: Acting and writers - They say Charles Dickens was a wannabe actor and kept a full length mirror near his writing desk. He'd act out the scene in front of the mirror, then go back to his desk and write what he'd just done.

While most books adapted to the screen need to be heavily rewritten, I've noticed that Dickens films usually transcribe great swathes of dialogue from the text verbatim.

He may have been on to something.

Ask any actor if Dickens' characters are fun to play and I'll bet they'll say yes.

Posted by: Brian on August 31, 2005 8:35 PM

Dustin Hoffman was so into "Method" acting that he always ran a distance before takes of MARATHON MAN so that he would be sure to arrive on camera already out of breath.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on August 31, 2005 11:05 PM

MB et al:

1. You say:

Mimesis is an interesting one, since performing styles and traditions range all over the map, from hyper-realistic to hyper-stylized.

I would slightly disagree. I don't think that stylized acting is at the opposite pole of realistic acting. I think that what we take to be realistic acting is merely another genre of stylized acting. To give two examples out of millions, I would say that I've never personally met anyone (except Method-trained actors) who behaved much like Brando is "On the Waterfront," but I've actually seen several people in real life behave quite a bit like Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" and even one or two who acted more than a little like John Wayne in "The Searchers." For the life of me I can't figure out how Brando's performance has come to personify "realistic" acting while Bogart is supposed to be doing some stylized star turn.

2. Nobody has picked up, I notice, on my point that there actually doesn't seem to be any generally-agreed upon, 'objective' standard of what constitutes good acting. (Note the disagreement between quite well-known acting teachers on merits of given performances.) Personally, I think this comes close to being fatal to any theory that actors are channeling some general Truth. Of course, I could be being led astray here by my general distaste for philosophic idealism, which seems to inform certain styles of acting...including, probably not accidentally, Method acting. (E.g., the notion that there is a sort of Platonic idea floating around of Anger or Hate or Love and actors are those lucky souls who get to serve as its conduit.)

3. I can't take credit for the three basic notions about art; actually, I'm not sure anybody can. Plato and Aristotle both discussed the central role (as they saw it) of mimesis in art, Horace the Roman poet (Quintus Horatius Flaccus to you)worked up a developed theory of how artists should go about being entertaining or instructive or both, and the notion of 'self-expression' is a major part of Romantic art theory. But isn't it sort of astonishing that virtually all theories of art basically come down to one or more of these ideas?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 31, 2005 11:29 PM

Everyone should really read Brian Micklethwait's piece, which is hilarious and insightful by turns. It also talks about what is essentially voice-over work or radio drama, a favorite art form of mine.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 31, 2005 11:56 PM

FvB -- You're asking for objective philosophical rigor from the acting world? You may be waiting a while yet!

When it comes to making a bit of sense out of acting, I think it can help to abandon the expectation of objective truth (while still maintaining a kind of philosophical interest in acting generally). On the matter of stylized acting vs. realistic acting, you're of course right that there's nothing but a large pallette of styles. At the same time, it's a conventional distinction that's found useful by people in the theater world, and that seems to work for most audiences too. Most audiences don't seem to have any trouble agreeing (roughly, of course) that Comedie Francaise-style acting is a more artificial thing than either Brando or Bogart, who are generally agreed to work in more realistic and immediate modes. The performance style in Noh drama is generally recognized as more "stylized" than the acting in "Law and Order," which is experienced by most people as pretty realistic. This doesn't trump your quest for a more objective kind of basis or nomenclature, but the theatrical world is concerned above all with what "works," and if the labels work, then they'll go ahead and use them.

Same thing with "truth." To clear up one thing, I'm not sure many actors would claim to channel truth. But all actors have had the experience of being in a scene that somehow caught fire. (Even untalented I, who only took a few years' worth of acting, had a few such moments.) Those moments are pretty incredible: as good as or maybe better than good sex. You have the feeling that you're tuned into and in synch with larger rhythms of some kind. And audiences can often sense whether this spark is happenin' or not. (Incidentally, it's not all that uncommon that it does happen. Good actors won't stop until they get a spark going...) These are the moments and experiences that help explain why people who love acting love it so much that they'll work as waiters for years for the sake a few hours here and there of getting to do real acting.

It's a powerful, powerful thing. I had, for what little my experience is worth, a combo of feelings: that I was having great sex; that I was having a religious experience; that I was on the verge of cracking up; that this must be what it's like to be a great jazz improviser ... It was a heady combo of what was real and what was not-real, and it was intenser and more "real" (again that terminology! but that's what it feels like) than just about anything in real life. Part of the turn-on is that you have these incredibly close and intense moments, emotional/mind-fucky moments with people you in fact usually barely know. Yet, for a few minutes, you're more into each other than you usually ever get with a girlfriend or a boyfriend. No wonder actors who work together, whether in class or professionally, so often wind up in the sack together.

For pretentiousness' sake, but also for convenience's sake, these moments are spoken of as being "truthful," and the thing that's going on at these moments is called "truth." I'm not sure either's the best name possible, but they've become semi-standard as far as usage goes, and it doesn't bother me to accept them. Doesn't bother me if people want to use different words for it either. But the experiences the words refer to are real, if slippery. Part of the fun of a good acting class, btw, is that a good teacher responds to the vibe in the air, the crackle between people, the feeling of a moment -- all these intangibles -- and after a short bit these intangibles become as real as any conventional "objective" reality.

I think what your point about how the different acting teachers saw and responded to different things may illustrate isn't that there's nothing to acting, but that the whole "acting magic" thing is slippery and elusive -- hard to talk about, impossible to nail down and measure, etc. Yet that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and doesn't deserve to be talked about, or at least respected and addressed. Acting throws a lot of the usual conundrms about the arts into high relief: the degree to which an art experience is subjective or objective, for instance. My experience (as an audience member) of a certain performer's work may be entirely subjective, but my subjective experience is as "objectively" real to me as is the chair I sat on. (Although I might also be fooling myself, or caving in to conventional opinions, or trying to impress a date ...) One acting teacher might not see any "truth" in one actor's work, where another teacher might see a lot. It's all very partial, and also related to the fact that performing has a lot to do with personality. I may not see in a given person what you do -- but hey, that's life. The whole theater-acting-teaching-movies life has to some extent evolved to take all this into account. Most actors don't study with just one teacher, or with just one director, or in front of just one audience, so they get themselves (and what they have to offer) looked over from many different angles, in many different circumstances. It's all patchwork, a lot of it's subjective, much of it can't be measured (although popularity and success are kinds of measures), and one audience member's experience might well be different from another's. Hey, that's the theater. But none of that means that it's entirely arbitrary either. Who you work with, how audiences take you, what kinds of roles you get cast in, what people see in you ... All these things come into play, none of them deterministically.

The fuzziness of it all drives some people nuts-- understandably so!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 12:42 AM

As for acting classes I have one suggestion: Make sure the teacher likes you and has no prejudices against who you are. The nature of performance, and getting a proper performance out of someone, involves a lot of critiquing, so you best be assured that it's your acting and not YOU who is the object of scrutiny.

Case in point, I had an acting teacher who hated hated hated men. This was a college course and we couldn't drop it without losing the money, so we guys persevered. The ones who were really going to try to go into acting merely re-took the class when a saner teacher came on board (the one we got was a one-semester-only "treat"). Still, we got nothing from her other than sheer hatred. Well maybe we got some life skills on how to behave around someone who openly loathes you because you are a man/woman/black/white/foreigner/Jew/Christian/etc.

So, I would suggest asking others who have had a teacher about his/her pros and cons, and probe for any nutball issues, like the above.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 1, 2005 10:05 AM

Good point, there's little that's more awful than a bad acting class. You're very exposed -- you gotta make certain you can trust what's going on... Thanks for that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 10:17 AM


You say:

It's all patchwork, a lot of it's subjective, much of it can't be measured (although popularity and success are kinds of measures), and one audience member's experience might well be different from another's. Hey, that's the theater. But none of that means that it's entirely arbitrary either. Who you work with, how audiences take you, what kinds of roles you get cast in, what people see in you ... All these things come into play, none of them deterministically.

Question: how good (or bad or indifferent) an actor is Keanu Reeves? On what basis would you decide?

Methinks thou dost protest too much here. In most other arts, while taste always differs, different observers would largely agree on, for example, who is a good guitar player and who is not, who is good at capturing a likeness and who is not, who is managing to dance in time with the music and who is not...etc., etc. So why can't acting teachers agree on whether (as I recall from the L.A. Times article) Kate Winslett did a good job in "Titanic" or not?
(And let me assure you they did not agree!)

Random thought: maybe what constitutes good acting is not so much being some kind of a conduit for Truth, but perhaps performers simply giving themselves (more or less fully) to the story or the drama they are enacting. That would, of course, make acting a sort of non-psychotic version of Jungian schizophrenics, who allowed themselves to be possessed by archetypes. This idea (while possibly idiotic) has the virtue of separating good acting from any particular 'style' of performance. (It is also suggestive of the religious origins of Greek theater.)

Hey, you know me...always obsessed with the religious origins of art...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 1, 2005 7:55 PM

Sorry, that 2nd to last paragraph should read:

Random thought: maybe what happens when acting 'catches fire' is not that the actors are channeling some kind of Platonic Idea (i.e., Truth) but rather that they have somehow given themselves over fully to the role they are playing. This would make acting analogous to what I understand of Jung's theory about schizophrenics. To wit, that schizophrenics are allowing themselves to become 'possessed' by archetypes from the collective unconscious. Actors, I hasten to add, are in much more control of the process and are obviously not psychotic. But this similarity might explain why Greek theater originated in the mystery cults, no?

Sorry to be so inarticulate the first time around.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 1, 2005 8:14 PM

FvB -- You write:

"Random thought: maybe what happens when acting 'catches fire' is not that the actors are channeling some kind of Platonic Idea (i.e., Truth) but rather that they have somehow given themselves over fully to the role they are playing."

Suits me fine, but does it explain anything more than calling it "Truth" does? The whole "truth" thing is just a convention -- a way of saying, "Hey, that's really cookin'. The moment's really happening. Connections are being made here." Etc, etc. It's like jazz musicians talking about "swing." (It ain't got a thing if it ain't got that swing, etc.) Can "swing" really be quantified? I don't think so. But most jazz fans and musicians seem to have a sense of what and who swings and what and who doesn't swing.

I think there are two elements that it might help to separate. There's the whole "skillful" question -- how trained is this performer, how many technical skills can he call on? Vocal control, movement awareness, an ability to shift between styles and meet challenges with something fresh, etc. You can get most acting-knowledgeable people to agree on whether someone's technically skillful. And of course there's always people's resumes. If they've been through good schooling with good teachers, then they've almost certainly acquired a lot of technique.

The other element is the more slippery one: the fire, the pizazz, the swing. Is it working for you, is the moment happening, is the ball being passed back and forth, etc. That becomes more of a judgment call, though I think you'd be surprised how clear it can be in an acting workshop (or in rehearsals) when the moments do start to happen, and how painfully aware of it people are when they haven't found the frequency.

Movies and cameras can gum all this up a lot, because sometimes people with terrific technique don't work at all well on camera, while the camera can eat up (in a good way) people with almost no technique. Stage performers project out, while part of what makes a good screen performer is the ability to let the camera find it in you. Super-proficient British male actors, for instance, are often duds on screen; for all their brilliance, they look like wooden puppets. Meanwhile, undertrained, narcissistic American slobs can work beautifully onscreen, because they're so self-entranced that the camera eats up all those inner dramas (or what look like them, anyway). Confusing things further is that the no-technique crowd sometimes develops a kind of no-technique technique. Keanu isn't a super-skillful actor in a conventional, academic sense (although he was awfully funny in "Bill and Ted"). But he's gotten pretty smooth at playing Keanu. I bet you'd be surprised if you saw him at work -- he has the ability to be a movie star, which is a kind of performing very few people ever manage.

But I confess I'm a little confused. Are you looking for objective criteria for judgment? Disputing the idea that there's such a thing as acting?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2005 9:51 PM

I have no intention of disputing the existence of acting, or the value of acting. My apologies to all and sundry if it came off that way. I'm just suggesting that the bits and pieces of what might be termed 'acting theory'--which seems to be handed out in fairly liberal doses in the books I've seen on the subject--never seemed able to stand up to even a slightly probing inquiry, or quickly led to philosophical positions (like Platonic idealism) which seem unlikely to be endorsed by many contemporary individuals. Hence, I began to ponder the notion that most of what we consider 'acting' is, in essence, a fairly artificial social construct which some individuals are much better at grasping and manipulating than others. In other words, 'good acting' at any particular time or place is essentially what the current social consensus supports, not something timeless and eternal. I doubt you would disagree that Noh drama comes quite close to what I have just described; I was simply suggesting that Method acting really isn't much different. I don't think my description undercuts what acting can accomplish or its value, but rather suggests what is really at the heart of acting, which rather than being about 'reality' may actually be about the mechanics of inhabiting one or more social roles, with greater or lesser conviction, and thus the fluidity of human 'identity.' Occasionally, some roles become so compelling as to virtually absorb our individuality. My final suggestion (in retrospect) isn't so random; the Greeks seemed to have been grappling with something serious and visible every day with their theory of divine possession as the root cause of art, whether or not we choose to take their exact explanation seriously.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2005 5:38 AM

Oh, I getcha. You're saying the postmodern thing -- there's no such thing as "Real Acting," there's only varieties of "performing." You'll get no argument from me on that, that's for sure.

Actually, I think you might be surprised by how few people in the field these days would contest your point of view. Acting's been hit and transformed by the po-mo thing a lot more than most of the arts have. "Real Acting" (ie., Method) Stalinism started to crumble very soon after you and I gave acting a try, and by now the Method-acting thang is just one option among many. They still speak about "truth" and such, but it's understood to be vocabulary that's specific to the Method tradition, although performers will never be too specific about things, or tied down to things.

Most of the young actors I meet these days are patchworky, multiple-points-of-view creatures. They're likely to have done some standup, some performance art, some clowning, a little Methody scene-study, dance, preparation for doing commercials, improv, etc. They're generally really well-prepared. I don't think many civilians realize how well-trained today's performers generally are.

The Method monopoly crumbled, as far as I can tell, for a few reasons. The charismatic prophets of the Method had gotten old or died off. Audiences were getting restless. And I think the performers themselves wanted to do something other than just have breakdowns and rummage through their souls. But also, budgets and schedules changed. People started needing to get work up on its feet faster than they'd once had to. And the Method process is generally slow. So, practically speaking, people needed performers who could move into action and interaction a lot faster than the Method crowd could.

The changes have been 90% to the good, as far as I'm concerned. I sort of envy the younger people -- what fun to have all these new experiences. (The breakoff seems to be around the age of 35.) And the open-mindedness of the new young actors is something to behold. They want to do videogames, they want to act in cyberthrillers, and they want to do Shakespeare and Robert Wilson. It really is all just ways of getting-to-be-a-performer to them. They're enviably uninhibited, and enviably able to throw themselves into just about anything.

The one downside that I've noticed is that they can skate over the surface a bit. In a way, many of them could use a little more Method than they're getting these days. When the moment comes to sink into Depth, they don't know how to. Who'd-a thought the time would come when I'd have a good word to say for the Method, but it does seem to be good preparation for certain situations.

The po-mo approach has been pretty much institutionalized at many schools by now. So much so that it's even started to freeze into place -- academics will theorize whatever they can get their hands on, it seems. It's being turned into a bit of a "school" and even "a method" (small t) of its own.

An interesting thing, I find, is that performing has been so open to these trasnformations, while some of the other arts have been much more resistant. Prose-fiction, for instance... There's still a lot of snobbery around about "literary writing." Architecture is the worst -- the entire profession -- at least the part of it that runs the publications and schools -- seems devoted to rehabilitating modernism.

I wonder why performing should have been so much more open. Maybe because it's the least intellectual (or at least intellectual-seeming) and most immediate of the arts? Intellectual self-deception isn't something that occurs much in performing. But it's very common in the brainier-seeming arts. And maybe people who are attached to the "intellectual" thing are more drawn to intellectual snobbery?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 2, 2005 10:55 AM

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