The Actor’s Art and the Estrangement in our Age

Speaking of Acting today most of us agree, that actors, like other artists, are practicing the specifics of an art form, not  a slavish adherence to  nature or  so-called real life. Heeding Hamlet’s advice to the players, they hold the mirror up to nature and perfect the mirror image, the representation of nature. They embody Alexander Pope’s definition of art in the creation and realization of their performances: the art of their acting is ” … nature to advantage dress’d, I What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”  In the profession’s jargon we could say, acting visualizes conflicts· and contradictions between people, so that the audience can read the story with their eyes. Acting creates situations, which seem to be real, but unfamiliar enough to the audience, that it enhances its willing suspension of disbelief. Theatricality, which is rooted in storytelling, focuses on the tension between the actor and the spectator. From Thespis to Teresias, from Lady Macbeth to Mother Courage, from Uncle Wanja to Wang, the Waterseller- all view the world as changeable and that people in it are changing. Every solution they find seems only a starting point for a new, better, different solution. The Ancient Greek’s  chorus, Calderon’s Great World Theatre, Brecht’s Alienation Effect, or Brook’s  Empty Space, just to  name a  few training  venues  for the  art  of  acting, enhanced  the  audience’s complementary perspective in re-viewing its world on stage.

If action is the deciding factor in human behavior – and since mankind can think there seems no doubt about it -, then the observation of people as social beings is the basis for actors’ choices how to depict human behavior for creating situations narrative to the audience. The actor’s artistic ability to copy human action or  behavior, with a realization of the contradictions in human relations under particular historical circumstances, and to show how people resolve conflict is especially useful for creating an understanding of the interaction between nature and society in the theatre. This special understanding, what thΟΡΝΙΘΕΣ 2eatre is, or could be, also determines the method of analyzing plays and individual scenes. But all brain storming finds only direction, if there is love for the theatre. Actors need love for the theatre: for plays as well for playing, for words, for deeply drawn characters and  feelings,  for  strange, weird situations, for  the  rhythm of  dialog,  for physical expression, for the human body, for poetry, for nuance, for imagery, and, yes, for life itself and all that it can teach people. Acting and actor-training are individual arts within a collective and collaborative craft process.

Plays are not only literary texts, but proposals to the actors. They are playgrounds to discover the relations (functions) between ideas, things, thoughts, characters. Their tools range from past theatrical conventions to recent events, reach far away or into the neighborhood. The stories the actor should look for are in the minds of their audience not on the pages of their script.   Remember Moliere’s use of stock characters – commedia dell’arte characters with which the audience was already familiar and to which it could feel superior – kept audiences comfortable and entertained. Under this guise, the plays could then attack (or at least mock) the culture that this very audience represented. Wole Soyinka told me once, why and how the part of Peachum in his Nigerian “Three Penny Opera” had been performed in the gest of the real-existing gangster-king Bokassa. We remember Schall’s Ui, who quotes Chaplin’s slapsticks as well as Hitler’s gestures in creating attitudes for the character of Ui. Acting always de-naturalizes “received truths” to challenge what is perceived “natural” (poverty, for instance). How an actor performs (carries out in due form) a body, so to speak “in recess”, since the actor’s space (as well as the spectator’s!) is “in-between” spaces (inside/outside) and “in-between” times (past/future) determines the artistic achievement. This thought leads to Brecht’s  Social Gestus, whose importance stems from the fact that it allows us to organize and develop theatre work as part of a contribution to ever-changing human relations ” in the direction of an increasingly stronger, more tender, bolder humanity” (Brecht).

As director I always try to keep the actor alert, that there is a relationship between the individual actions of the character in a contradictory or problematic situation, and the events of a scene. I insist, that an event – or episode – consists of several actions; a chain of events form the plot. The actors then can tell the story of a play most clearly by staging it event by event. No question, that such an approach belies and transcends any label that might be given to a so-called product of an acting school, or program, or method, or guru. By integrating dramaturgy into rehearsals, ideas, reflections, and intuitions, are no longer seen as something abstract and incomprehensible, but as things which can be used within the given concrete circumstances. Challenged not to care about a character’s characteristics, but to search for its interests in a situation transmutes the actors stage and life experiences into socially relevant artistic material. By focusing on storytelling acting has the say in the performance. No doubt, such way of working helps to develop an extraordinary level of skill in the craft of acting, it also organizes the habits of discipline which support theses skills, and it is a reliable access to creativity, imagination and self-­ expression.

The training venues quoted encourage the actors to exercise their responsibility as artists. Part of the game is to sharpen the eyes for the increasing and contrasting signs of human estrangement in the drama he works on as well in the society the actor lives in. If Hamlet would have to talk today to a group of actors on the proper means of playing their roles, he would repeat over and over again: It is a common and widespread error that = the sequence of events, with its structure of actions, exists ready-made in the text of a play, and that the actors have nothing to do but follow its sequence. The events must be laid bare, and that is not only a question of analyzing the play, but depends a great extent on the scope and profundity of the actor’s personal knowledge of reality outside the theatre. The actor must develop his faculties in the art of observing human relations in everyday life, as well as the investigating what might lie behind the society in which these relations occur. He must then combine his ability to copy social behavior in a gestic way with his own personal aesthetic, ethical, or political purposes. And if Hamlet would have to give advice, how a good actor does not act simply for the approval of the majority of his audience (touching the controversial area of”honesty” in acting) Richard III. could come to his mind: a bloody butcher on the one hand, who is the intelligent driving power of the play on the other? Why did Shakespeare give this “murderer” so much wit and charm, even sympathy? There is no doubt that Richard is one of the most complex figures that Shakespeare ever put on the stage. And not only because of his “negative fame”. Richard has the ability to analyze his environment down to its very essence. He acts according to the feudal tyranny of the Middle Ages – he murders by plan.

ΟΡΕΣΤΕΙΑ. ΑΓΑΜΕΜΝΩΝ. ΧΩΛΛ.The figure is divided into the “genuine” King Richard, who gains power and the throne by use of violence, and into the “player and jester”, who, in old English theatre, was hunchbacked and lame-the figure of Vice.

In this second role, he makes friends with his audience, and gives them a very plebian view of aristocratic history. He invites them (by befriending them and even adopting their jargon) to join him in his experiment. In other words, he shows them that “power” is man-made. Here  the  political  viewpoint  is mediated,  not  only  by the  historic  figure,  but directly  and  actively  by  the  actor,  who does  not  simply  merge  with  the  figure,  but actively represents the interests of the audience, when viewing the blood-soaked  history of the king. If an actor misses that point no matter how professional he is otherwise – his acting misses essentials of its art -the characters complementary perspective.

Being concerned with certain important techniques and goals for acting, that is what Hamlet teaches then and now. An actor, who lives up to the brain storming I tried to describe, will find a ”translation” for his audience to establish the tension his character is based on. Acting and Estrangement are a dialectical pair: the make-believe world of the stage is the training venue of the society.

A mirror of our time, calling attention to the flaws in our society, serving democracy and education between authority and representation the art of acting not only maintains its power but has assumed fresh strength and vision far beyond modern discourse. Evidently something in the nature of drama remains constant over the years-something as old, perhaps, as the deepest desires and highest aspirations of mankind.

Speaking of Acting, it should not be unmentioned, that it constitutes itself through the competence, cogency, and efficacy of representational practice itself, even as this practice privileges, and draws upon, pictorial form in diverse cultural context. Theatre only exists when the  two  worlds  of  the  actors  and  the  audience  meet  in  estrangement brought together every evening on stage.

To conclude: increasing and contrasting signs of human estrangement do not re-define acting, but put$ it back on its feet. The problems of acting transcend culture, theatrical experience, and educational background; they surface in all actors almost all the time. The art of acting requires great dedication and sacrifice. In one sentence,  as my acting teacher  liked  to  say,  actors  need  a  technique  that  is fully  developed, that  goes  into operation silently and unconsciously and seems unforced, and that clings to the actor’s approach like skin to a snake. But when I rehearsed with him Hamlet, I liked to contradict by quoting: “for the smallest social unit it is not the single person but two people”, and I continued “in life too we develop one another.” That ongoing quarrel was based on, what attracted me to    estrangements complemantary perspective:  “that there should be something approaching experimental conditions, i.e. that counter-experiment should now and then be conceivable. Altogether this is a way of treating society as if all its actions were performed as experiments”. {1) No doubt, I did not fight about aesthetics, but for the acceptance of contradictions in the society.

1) Bertolt Brecht, A Short Organum for the Theatre, in: Brecht on Theatre, ed.  John

Willett, New York: 1996, p. 193

Prof. Dr. Heinz-Uwe Haus

University of Delaware

Dept. of Theatre/PTTP

Newark, DE, USA