Written by Jesse GrothOlson
What is the actors perspective on storytelling? Are they as important as the celebrity buzz would have us believe? Are the actors rock stars? The foundation of film? My answer is simple. Yes—I mean no. Well, kind of. In some ways, but not in others.
Let me explain…
We have to start with defining story. Some want to define it narrowly, but I see story as being any means of intentionally bearing meaning to an audience and baring meaning to an audience. By this definition photography, sculpture, music, dance, cinema, and nearly art form qualify as story.
It’s important to know that the meaning’s intention needs purposeful execution. Let’s take a fictional art installation as an example: rocks that spilled onto the ground are not a story. But someone intentionally spilling diamonds into a pool of blood does convey something. Someone chose diamonds and blood because of the ideas that those items represent. They’ve chosen the placement of those items to communicate the chaos and pain involved at the intersection of wealth and humanity. It’s the age-old story of human greed.
When rocks fall off a cliff and land on the valley floor below and no one incited it, then you just have happenings. Without someone to resonate with the image, then it’s just the proverbial lonely falling tree in the forest. A storyteller imparts meaning through a medium in order to communicate to another human. Story without audience is just an exercise of the storyteller’s craft. It’s a practice,
or a chore. It’s a meaningless compilation of metaphor and symbolism, meant to serve only the creator. This is where a lot of art loses me—so many artists are so self-involved or self-important that when their craft doesn’t resonate with an audience they simply blame the audience. They’re missing half the art!
That’s a pretty broad definition for story, but you have to go that broad because as a storyteller you can’t control half of the equation—the audience! You can produce art to intentionally draw other people to a specific aspect of Truth; unless you can control who is interacting with it and how, you are only initiating the story. The audience completes it. The above art installation will probably have a very different effect (or tell a very different story) to the owner of a diamond mine, a newly engaged couple, and a tile installer. The mine owner may see a story of litigation, while the young couple may see guilt. The tile installer may enjoy relief since his trade deals with industrial diamonds and not blood diamonds. Same art, different audience, different stories.
What makes actors unique is their gift of embodying fictional human existences in order to achieve a desired effect with a surgical precision. Whereas the diamonds are inanimate objects with socially constructed meanings, the actor presents a rounded picture of a unique human with whom an audience can resonate more specifically. Non-narrative or avant garde films may not use humans to convey their stories, insufficiently utilizing their own strengths to take their audiences on a journey. Through actors, narratives use the lens of human experience to create an intensely resonant impact.
Photo Credit: Nathan Jeffers. You can find more of his work on his website.
Jesse GrothOlson is assistant professor of Cinema & New Media Arts and director of the theatre club at Houston Baptist University. An award-winning actor, he has an MFA in Performance from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, and has taught acting and directing at multiple universities, as well as private coaching for actors in Hollywood. He is also well-versed in technical production for film and theater, serving as a production designer, stage manager, sound designer or lighting designer for more than 75 fully staged plays, films, commercials, and music videos.