What is acting anyway? I mean, what are we trying to accomplish up there on the boards? Are we trying to recreate reality or are we trying to get at something more, like a higher truth? Are we merely ourselves saying words as if we were the character or are we trying to create something like a soul that inhabits us while we play on stage? What is the GOAL?
I think the answer might be this: We are interested in finding truth onstage, but we should stay away from the attempt at recreating reality. Why? Because REALITY is freaking BORING!!! It is. No one wants to see the reality of human existence no matter what they might tell you. If someone were to take a two hour excerpt of my life and put it on stage, the audience would be demanding their money back within a half hour. What would they have to see? Me sitting at my computer typing away. Me eating a sandwich. Me talking on the phone.
Even if it were the most exciting part of my life (and I, like everyone, have had particularly thrilling moments), it would still be incomprehensible and pretty boring to watch. Even if it were the most exciting part of Winston Churchill’s life, or Ghandi’s life, or Attila the Hun’s life, we would still find a two hour excerpt of the actual reality of their lives unsatisfying. This is because it would lack story construction, naturally include trivial, everyday occurrences like going to the bathroom and such, and have little context. We rarely get any context in real life. Try walking in on the middle of a conversation and you’ll see what I mean.
Plays and movies are constructed the way they are so that they keep the audience’s attention, take them along with them on a story that the writer and director are wanting to tell, and mostly adhere to some accepted norms in story construction. To put it simply, we want stories of exceptional people in exceptional circumstances in a way that we can follow, understand (on some level), and appreciate.
The actor MUST be aware of this when creating a role. We want to see characters that radiate and transcend our everyday experiences. Think about it. Who has won an Oscar, a Tony, or an Emmy that was simply playing the reality of the character? Think of the characters you truly love in film and theatre from Hamlet to Han Solo, from Hedda Gabler to Hermione Granger. Are they people you meet in everyday life? My guess is probably not. But there is something about them that we identify with and relate to. These characters resonate with a higher truth of the human experience. Our goal as actors is to find and play this higher truth with an eye towards artistic detail.
Stanislavski, who is to actors what Buddha is to Buddhists, revolutionized acting by creating “The Magic If”, “If this were to happen to me, what would I do?”. It transformed acting, yes, but Michael Chekhov thought this was somewhat flawed. No one cares what I would do on stage. If I saw the ghost of my father that told me to kill my uncle, I would run screaming from that castle and never come back. Hamlet chooses to stay, to try to figure things out, and ultimately to avenge his father’s murder. My job as an actor is justifying the action of the script and simply doing what I would do, would probably not accomplish that task.
I often think of an experience that happened to me during a rehearsal of Antony and Cleopatra. We were blocking the play and the director gave me the direction to come in and say my line to Antony stopping him from leaving the stage. I entered but paused a moment to check my notes and line and the actor playing Antony simply walked off stage. When I lifted my head to say my line, I found that there was no one there to talk to. Antony had already left. When the director asked him why he had left, his response was, “Jeff didn’t stop me from leaving”. I thought this was the dumbest thing in the world. His character had more lines to say in the scene. The news I had to give him affected the rest of the play for him. His leaving at that moment would change the play from “Antony & Cleopatra” to just plain, old “Cleopatra”. The rest of the play depended upon him staying to hear the news. Him leaving was never an option.
The main job of the actor is to justify the words and actions in the script. As such, we are never free to be “ourselves” on stage or do as we would actually do in real life. We must always have an eye towards the play as a whole and the story that is being told. Whereas Stanislavski asks the question, “What would I do if I were in this situation”, the actor trained in the Chekhov technique asks, “What would my character do in these given circumstances”. It might be the same thing and it might not. The actor’s job is to figure out the character’s behavior, not his or her own.
Chekhov recommended we take a good, hard look at the characters we are playing and ask ourselves, “How is this character the same as me and how is it different?” For the similarities, we can check those off and satisfy ourselves that we don’t have to work on those elements really. However, the differences are where the work lay for the actor. Those differences should get our full concentration in creating a character.
Chekhov felt that the greatest mistake an actor could make is to always try to use our own voices when playing a part. He felt that this put the actor into a prison of his own personality on stage. Incapable of transcending his own ego in creating a role, an actor is doomed to play the clichés and banality of his own personality. The actor must be an active contributor to the writer’s work. He or she must be aware of the story being told and create a role with a sense of artistic truth and a Feeling of the Whole.
However, artistic truth is very different from hard reality. A true thing is not necessarily a real thing. That is why we can enjoy stories of fantastical characters trying to throw a ring into a volcano without having to actually have seen a volcano or a troll or a giant, flaming eye. The higher truth of trying to overcome insurmountable odds is what we identify with, not the reality of having hairy feet (although this might be your reality. No judgement here).