Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In the Beginning there was the Word

In the beginning there was the word, and for actors there is no show without the words -- you can argue that but basically it is true. No words; no play. You can have plays without words, but not many. It's difficult to write a template for a show without words.

The words are the key to the action, to the thought, to the feeling, to the relationships, to the world that is to be created by the actors. The word is the single most direct tie to the artist that created this work and it is so horribly abused.

You walk out on the street, through the poorest, most deprived areas, and you hear the richest poetry. Emotions, relationships, feelings, thoughts spill out on the guttered sidewalks like bullets.

Get an actor up on stage to recite epic poetry or gritty modern day drama, and they flatten everything out. They are not married to the word. They are married to their idea of acting.

Schooled to become a generic beast, actors become pale copies of their source material; a lie within a lie

Actors should learn to use the words, to trust in them. The words guide the actor through the dramatic battleground. The words are weapons, they are shields, they are sniffing dogs. Words are the keys to character.

There are twenty-six letters in our alphabet and they are our linguistic binary system. We code and recode to form the words that we want, a simple and elegant construct, or a wordy convoluted structure that reveals more of the character than what he wants to say.

Words are keys to action; words make you laugh; words make you cry.

Interestingly, many actors would rather cry during their performance than cause the audience to cry. I suppose they feel that the actor is more important than the character and if Sally, who is playing Juliet, really cries, then the audience will be really moved and impressed by her display of authenticity. Of course its not authenticity - it is merely Sally taking time out from playing Juliet to feel wonderful about herself.

The word is a link in a chain and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. How can you hold a play - a world - together, like Atlas did, with weak links? Shakespeare creates his Verona in Romeo and Juliet with beautiful words, words that paint the audiences' imagination with hot dusty streets, young torrid love, and violent battles. David Mamet's earthy and poetic painting of a real estate office uses four-letter words to hold up Glengarry Glen Ross. You gotta say it like it's written.

Young actors tend to try to reinvent the artistic wheel, because they are young. Because they feel that they are expressing themselves, they try to twist that wheel into a square, or an oblong. They are rebelling against the world and its representative art, but in doing so, they are only dragonflies, skimming the surface, looking at their reflections in the watery glass. They see themselves in the art. They congratulate themselves for being artists, for lifestyle rather than life. They rebel against being slaves to the constructs of the art.

They rebel against the word.

Many theatre companies are shepherded by young people. They are finding a new way to use art as an expression of their feelings to rebel against the status quo. In this, they are unique, just like everyone else.

Great writers stand the test of time because of their brilliance, their talent of marrying the commonplace to the cosmic. Words and actions are the only clues they offer to tell us who these characters are. Misuse those words and you break the key. The actor offers the audience one half of the key and the audience completes it with their half. Broken words and broken keys litter the world of modern acting.

Shakespeare, and many dramatists before him, gave the actor a soliloquy to show the character's true feelings. Without a soliloquy, the writer might give the character a monologue, which can be like a confessional to another actor. But sometimes things are not so direct. Words and actions often only hint at what lies beneath the mask which the actor presents to his fellow actors, to the audience. As Shakespeare said, you may smile and smile and be a villain. We need the words to open the door to the villainy behind the smiling mask.

Actors are often left inventing their character's interior but they still have the words and the actions of the playwright for clues, and cues to action.

Drama is conflict and often times the words are the only weapons. These weapons have to be sharpened with practise and skill. Was that a thrust or a parry?

In the English language we have inherited words shaped and tested against time from the early mists of Anglo-Saxon England. English being a foster language, it adopted many orphaned words from other languages along the way. Greek, Roman, French, German, Dutch; we have a mongrel language that is fluid and that changes all the time. It is a living language. Words that meant one thing fifty years ago mean something else now. People are always inventing words and phrases and forever shifting the ground under our linguistic feet.

This makes the task of the actor a daunting one. He must find what the words mean. The farther into the past he goes to find that meaning, the less likely he will be one hundred percent correct. An additional problem is that modern academic interpretations of old words take precedence over the artistic ones. These interpretations conspire to help flatten the actor's interpretation. Not to abuse poor old Will Shakespeare too much, but artistic interpretations of his masterpieces do not exist in the footnotes. And thus the modern actor must fight through the fog of imposed academic bonds. No wonder the poor bard has difficulty in taking flight in modern productions. Poetry gives way to prose. Modern flattened sensibilities are imposed on epic earth-shaking tragedies, or modern cartoon sensibilities derail classic comedies.

Be true to the word, and it will be a beacon illuminating the path that leads to the genius in the script. Somewhere in there, you might even get to know and make peace with the writer.

Words are the only tools in the writers' hand. Tools to forge a living breathing character.

Actors use those tools to find and refine their ch

No comments: