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Notes on theatre, music, and the spoken word.

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The fruit of exercise

The style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise.

Edward Gibbon, from his Memoirs.

Might not this sentence, misappropriated, be true of acting? That the style of an actor should be the image of his mind – that is, his actions are a clear expression of internal psychology – but the way in which he communicates that, through verbal and non-verbal language, is the fruit of exercise.

Perhaps this is self-evident. Intellectually we know it to be true – that any creative endeavour requires a combination of talent and technique. But in acting the technique, beyond simple vocal projection or physical flexibility, is not as precise as in music or dance. Its material is human nature, which is fickle, elusive, imprecise, and intangible.

Stanislavski's key challenge to his actors was 'I don't believe you'. But are there objective standards? Might I believe in an actor, while another member of the same audience does not?

From a director's point of view, I have to trust an actor that he or she will successfully form a truthful image in the mind that will inform their every onstage activity. I can help them, but not compel them. I can guide them, but not teach them. It is their intuition, their talent, that will find the great performance.

But the way in which they communicate does have standards. Lines either make sense or they do not. Movements are stiff and awkward, or they are not. Here I can help. And I would argue that the more I assume responsibility for this side of things, the more the actor can give themselves up completely to the other.

Strange as it may seem, the rigorous attention to minute technical detail should allow the actor to feel safe and supported. But when it is done so rarely, and with careless insensitivity, it can feel like an imposition. And yet if actors embrace it fearlessly, and the director is sensitive enough, it can liberate the imagination and the instinct to an astonishing degree.


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