There is a romantic notion in our part of the world that ‘acting’ is a God-given gift and it cannot be taught. Even if it is true, the art of acting, that is to say, breath control, voice projection, physical mobility and self-control, etc has to be acquired through training. Likewise, the power of observation, sharp imagination and study of literature –– necessary adjuncts of this art –– can only come through study and hard work. In the five decades of my professional life as an actor in the West, I never came across any notable actor who was devoid of a sense of literature.
Acting is a mystery. In a sense it is a craft and yet it is also something that is obscure, enigmatic and beyond comprehension. All of us are actors, consciously or not. We simulate feelings we don’t feel, we pretend to be what we aren’t. It is this skill that gives many people the belief that they can become actors. If one can do an actor’s job in life, then one can do it on the stage as well. It is a curious paradox that what seems so familiar and attainable should be so exasperatingly difficult to do.
There are other paradoxes as well. An actor must be conscious of himself, but not be self-conscious. He must know his limitations, but must, on stage, forget himself. He must be selfless, but is not. It is an amazing, incredible combination: to draw and seek attention to oneself but not be narcissistic, to perform but not show off, and to find the balance between the heart and the head, reason and instinct.
To delve into literature, actors have to develop a taste for reading
Most professional actors are genuinely cooperative, supportive of each other’s efforts and positive. They bring to their work creativity and attention to detail. But actors come in all shapes and sizes, and few of them are saints. Each one wants something different for himself. Paranoia, bitterness and professional jealousy are the daily diet of many actors. What causes all this is insecurity. Most actors are out of work at any given time. They earn pitifully small amounts of money, in short bursts of activity, flanked by long periods of uncertainty. They depend on television and commercials for a living.
Although acting requires skill and professionalism, at heart, actors have nothing more to offer than themselves: their charm, their emotions and their vulnerability. And so their neuroses manifest themselves in different ways: the over-assertive will do anything but get down to work; the obedient, nervous ones, who are so pleased to get a job at all, will do everything you ask and give a dull performance. The aggressive young men, resentful of not having been allotted a major role, throw away their lines in a patronising manner.
Our young actors and actresses, having a poor educational background, are not inclined to read books, let alone literature. They have to be motivated to read simple tales. It is only after they have developed a taste for reading that they delve into literature. Two out of a hundred who do so enrich not only their performances, but their lives as well.
It is often difficult for people who don’t work in the theatre to understand such a neurosis. It is this neurosis that gives rise to the image of actors as fops, spending their time telling each other how marvellous they are and behaving with complete strangers as if they have known them for years.
“Who but the actor has the ability to transform the commonplace, making gods of men and men of gods?” — Laurence Kitchin
An actor has to concentrate on bringing the characters he plays to life in a way that is clear, drawn from the text and makes dramatic sense. How can he do that unless he has read not just the play, but the dramatic literature of the period in which the play was written? This is why the performances of some of our actors lack depth when they play certain characters. Their lack of understanding of the literature of the particular period fails to reveal the emotional complexities of the character they play.
Acting the roles written by the great naturalist dramatists of the 19th and 20th century (Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, etc) is a thrilling challenge. Each has the ability to give everyday chores a tremendous resonance (lamps being lit in Ibsen, fireworks going off in Williams). In their plays, psychology is always made concrete, emotion is particular and human beings are defined by the material world in which they live. The art of acting is to attend to the naturalism of the writing. The director would, of course, help the actor in comprehending what the scene is about, but unless the actor has the intellectual capacity he would not be able to release the innate poetry of the naturalist text. This consists of much more than observed reality. The words of dramatists such as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard are carefully crafted drama whose intricate surface and finely chiselled textures have their own unique beauty.
In our county there are two kinds of actors who work in the theatre: those who have had some training and those who are ‘celebrities’, known for something other than theatre acting. Often it’s a part in a television serial or in a soap opera. They usually find the technical challenges (voice production, tempo, pace, breathing and physical mobility) of the theatre to be daunting.
The better ones want to learn and can be a revelation, but most of them are too insecure to expose themselves to those in the presence of other trainees. The committed actors know that their work is not done after the successful run of a play. They keep their eyes and ears open; they observe how different individuals speak, walk and laugh. They read not just drama, but other literature as well and they try to extend their limits. These are the young men and women who will keep the torch of dramatic art alive. To quote Kitchin again: “Although his traffic in entertainment can lead one to forget it, the great actor is one of nature’s miracles. He brings aspects of music, poetry, literature and sculpture within the capacity of human beings and transmits it to a crowd.”
The writer is an internationally renowned artist and president of the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa)
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 15th, 2018