Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Acting is an art that is constructed upon different details. One by one they are studied, developed, and made up. Sometimes they are the result of pure improvisation. These are usually the best ones because they spring directly from our unconscious. Then, they have to be put together, like shrunk. They are no more isolated, they must not be repeated mechanically. They must be applied to the acting, to the character. They must have originated from a feeling, and that feeling from an identification of the actor with the character. Before all this can take place, before details are applied or even thought out, they must be observed somewhere. Nature, daily life, the human psyche, these are the greatest sources an actor should take from. Observing the human nature, the human behaviours, even the simplest and less significant ones, can render our acting true. It is in fact in the simplest and less significant details that it is possible to distinguish the good actor from the approximative one. The good actor will take care of the minutest details regarding the personality of his or her character.
More generally, independently of the role and its characteristics, a character has to speak. A character has lines, and these lines make up dialogues, monologues, soliloqui. Acting includes moving as well as staying still, staying silent as well as speaking. One of the general patterns I usually notice, especially in non-talented actors, is the trend to stop moving and to interrupt an action they have been carrying on for a while when it is their turn to speak.
Let us suppose a scene requires an actress to cook. It is all happening in the kitchen; wife and husband are normally talking to each other. Often, so often the actor will break the action, he will suddenly interrupt it when the character has to speak his lines. So, the wife, who is cooking some yummy besciamelle, will stop stirring when it is her turn to speak. She will tilt up her head, look her husband in the eyes and talk with him. She will be emotional, sure, maybe she will cry, or maybe laugh, her emotions will even be genuine, maybe. But not true! This is not what happens in real life. How many times we replied to our wife, or mom, only to be told "Can you stop doing what you're doing for a second and answer properly?". Actions and words must be performed at the same time. Isolating what we are saying in such abrupt a way makes no sense. If we decide to break the action and retake it only when the line is over, there must be a reason, and a convincing one too. If there is not a reason, our portrayal of the action taking place in that kitchen will not be true. Breaking the action to add emphasis to the words seems to happen ever so often on the stage: the action is broken and the movement frozen because the character has to speak. What he/she has to say is too important to be ruined with action.
Different reasons can lead an actor to do this. Even involuntarily. One of them is that it is very difficult to perform two planned things at the same time. Moving our body, or a part of it (the hand and the arm to stir the besciamelle) following precise patterns of movement, while at the same time speaking out lines we have memorized requires an intense concentration and great coordinative abilities. Many actors are unable to achieve this because they believe that a line is much more important than a movement. So, they feel entitled to substitute the one with the other without apparent or convincing reasons. This can be done with classic dramatic characters like Hamlet, or Othello. Their words, their thoughts are sometimes of such an abstract nature - or, they are just so beautiful - that it would be just a shame not to isolate them. But it would not be possible to do the same with characters such as Stella DuBois, or Linda Loman. Do you fancy Algernon Moncrieff in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest speaking without chewing and tasting with delight those cucumber sandwiches?
It is instead necessary to understand that performing certain small, minutely precise actions that belong to the character's daily life can be indeed a way to emphasize a word or a line. But in order to look true, blending actions and words must happen effortlessly. This can only be achieved through hours and hours of memorization (this is why memorizing one's own lines is the first, first thing to do before anything else. Memorizing the lines is the first nuisance we must get rid of). Once this is done, a good way to gain spontaneity and to learn to blend actions and words is by saying the lines (aloud) while actually doing some pieces of housework. Only once the lines flow out in the middle of the action without the need to think or to concentrate, only then can we say: "I'm ready to start taking care of the details, of the emotions, and of everything else".
Certainly, the action can be broken to isolate a line in certain cases. In the craft of acting, rules do not exist. Performers do take possession of certain conventions ruling daily life. As cinema and theatre portray aspects of daily life, then those conventions can also be applied there. Nonetheless, it is also necessary to consider that certain situations are not very conventional, and so are not certain characters, certain behaviours, and certain human reactions. So, the wife will be stirring patiently the besciamelle; in the middle of it all, her husband comes in the kitchen and says, out of the blue, "I don't love you". In this case, it would be pretty unconventional for the wife to ask, "Then why did we make love last night?" with a whining voice, and at the same time keep stirring the besciamelle without a wink. This would be the typical case where words would cut an action off for a valid reason. This is in fact a case where the performer should find a good and convincing reason to actually keep stirring the besciamelle! This is the case where who cares about the besciamelle! Who cares if it gets burned and the fire alarm goes off.
Anything and everything is possible. Unfortunately, though, without a most true and convincing reason the besciamelle, which needs to be continually stirred until it is ready, would brown and burn to no avail. And that would really be a shame.

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