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The Actor’s Challenge

September 21, 2010

Ok. So. Why the hell isn’t acting so easy?

Seems straightforward enough: Learn your lines, act like someone else, convince a group of people who’ve paid money to see you that you are someone else, get paid, the end. (“Obsess over reviews but pretend you don’t care” is in there somewhere, too).

Even though he’s been discussing it for awhile, our seemingly endlessly brilliant acting professor again reiterated a profoundly simple idea today: “The actor has a supercomputer in his subconcious and a calculator in his brain.”

So, this supercomputer is what automatically generates impulses, it’s what spills out creativity without planning, and it’s what creates character, cleverness, and truth.  The calculator (let’s make it an old Casio) on the other hand, is there to tear it all away.

“You aren’t really in Elizabethan England, you’re on a stage, silly!” says the calculator. “That’s not a real gun you’re pointing at your scene partner. And his sword isn’t really sharp either. And besides, there is no need to fear him because you know the choreography and script and therefore you know your character ultimately kills him in the end. So even though you’re acting scared, you aren’t really.”

Hey. Calculator. Fuck you.

So now what the hell do we do? The art I’m supposed to create has to be believable. And if I’m not playing truth, everyone in the audience rolls their eyes at me like they do whenever Vin Diesel opens his mouth. And then I don’t get hired ever again. Roll credits.

So I’ll just believe it, right? I’ll just pretend everything is real.

“ERROR!” screams your calculator. “You know you aren’t a Danish prince. You’re a dude from Colorado.”

Alright then. Fine. I’ll ditch sanity, greenlight chaos, and completely and totally disregard reality in order convince myself I’m not actually acting, but that I AM, IN FACT, ANOTHER PERSON.

Bzzzt. Wrong again. Because that bastard the calculator also memorizes your lines and holds the keys to your mental stability and reasoning. The calculator is what keeps you from actually leaping into the audience and stabbing the patrons. Losing 100% of yourself into a character = insanity = stabbed audience = fired. Roll credits.

So. We’re faced with one final option. I may orchestrate every last detail of my performance, in order to effectively mimic and impersonate another person. I can imitate well enough that my friends go “oooh,” the audiences goes “hmm” and directors go “meh..” and then I’m enough of a half-assed actor that I can one day aspire to be jacked and juiced enough to become Vin Diesel II and make millions with my guns and ferocious ability to deliver one sentence at a time. OR. I can learn how to exercise my creativity and imagination so much that when I act, I’m playing. Convincingly (yeah, like a child in a sandbox). And who doesn’t love watching someone really play? Imagined reality can take over so much that you’ll be dying to know what I imagine next that you’ll have no choice but to take the ride with me. I don’t do voodoo mind tricks on myself or the audience. I don’t psychologically sabotage myself by insisting I’m another person. And I don’t wobble around like a choreographed puppet who kinda/sorta gets the job done. I play. You believe it. We all win.

Please hold for epiphany. That’s why they call it playing a role. (Holy umbrellas, it’s raining on my head).

Then, we may answer the question we started with: Why is it so damn hard to act? Why can’t just any old person do it?

Because, as it turns out, it’s damn hard to play. Contemporary American society requires that you:
A) Get a  job and be a productive member of society
B) Marry
C) Have 2.3 kids
D) Pay your taxes
E) Have a 401k
F) Remember to vote
G-K) Follow the rules, governing laws, moral codes, social norms, and accepted patterns of behavior.

If you don’t, you’ll be socially outcast, thrown in jail, locked in the loony bin, unloved, or just plain disregarded. So hey, we adapt. We stop rolling in the mud like its a jungle, and stop we climbing trees, and stop we dressing up, and stop building cities out of legos, and we stop playing.

That calculator goes into overdrive. Cranking out obedience and reasoning to fit in.

We get an urge to put on a pirate hat and talk with an accent?

The calculator stifles it, “you’ll look like a fool and probably get fired or the girls will judge you and you won’t get married.” Whew, thanks calculator! Another pure, organic impulse stifled by the mechanical creations of being a modern human.

You get the urge to play with your food; you want to fling a blueberry at your sister. “HALT!” says the calculator “the restaurant will throw you out, you’ll be labeled as immature and a bad son, sibling and person. Just eat it and don’t play.” Whew, thanks calculator. More conformity. Less play.

To be fair, this isn’t necessarily always a bad thing (and actually pretty useful), depending on what the impulse is.We’re civilized, we’re mature, we’re organized, and we’re maximizing the benefits of living by abiding by the rules that we’ve all agreed on. Maybe it’s less spontaneous fun, but killing thousands of impulses to play is effective in long-term order. Oh and also, it makes it pretty damn hard to be a good actor.

So this is the actor’s challenge. Get the calculator out of the driver’s seat and into the passenger side. Of your best friend’s ride. Which, as it happens, is your character’s.

Be protected by reason, not ruled by it. Let your supercomputer of impulse and fantasy and creativity take the wheel.

Play.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. jenn permalink
    September 23, 2010 8:51 am

    ahhh… the process of the MFA actor! as my music teacher in my grad program would say, “Commit or eat shit.” Keep it up Brendan!

  2. Sarah W. permalink
    October 25, 2010 6:30 pm

    Even as a mainly a non-actor, playing is so important and I learned how important it is to play. It is, in fact, vital to my life. So I will be professional at the office – but play on lunch hour – and get married – (lucky I have found someone who loves to play as much as I do) – but play when I can. American society discourages that wonderful joy, whimsy and playfulnness much, and I won’t completely fight the system (bonus that I enjoy admin work) and I won’t rebel, but I’ll be damned if they stop my from playing and from taking childlike wonder in little things.

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