Written by Jesse GrothOlson
How do actors create impactful narratives? Modern trends say that the actor must create a character so life-like that he sweeps the audience into the story, which is designed to intentionally show moments of that character’s “life” to achieve a desired reaction. They want the audience to sympathize with a character who is so captivating, compelling, and unpredictable (you know, like real people in real life) that they won’t be able to help but be emotionally and personally impacted by seeing this story.
Brecht’s Theatre of the Absurd took the opposite tack. He constantly reminded the audience that what they were watching wasn’t real. The message of the story was more important than the absorbency of the spectacle; every part of the performance was stylized to shock the audience out of the imaginary world and into their own so they could personalize the message.
Supporting Casts of Craftsmen
But actors do not act in a void. Their craft is built upon the strengths of so many other craftsmen. Structure and intent are so essential to dramatic craft that even the word playwright connotes the construction of something. It’s not playwrite, but playwright, like shipwright. The inception of the story is intentional and belongs to someone else entirely. The writer has engaged in her craft and handed it off to a director. Her job is to synthesize all the supporting crafts of costume, makeup, production design, cinematography, and acting to best convey her story. Then there is the business of funding, overseeing, protecting, and distributing the film. As much as this side of storytelling is often (and often rightly) vilified, it’s as necessary a component as any other. Without men in suits, we’d have no audience; we’d have only half of a story.
The words, the story, the interplay of conflicting human objectives and the sustainable repetition of conveyed human emotion, interaction, and Truth are where the story makes its home. The other crafts sustain the story, but the actor carries it. His performance is what is being captured. In today’s world, his craft is the main element for distribution and consumption. The actor has the upper hand in the intent of story because he is the channel through which the audience resonates. And so because of that, the demands on an actor have become monumental. With great power, and all that.
Everything else has been put in place for the actors to do their jobs. Are they more important than the other craftsmen? No! A good sports analogy is that of the quarterback. The individual players work separately in their own positions, yet coordinate as a team in order to win. The decisions and focus are on the one guy with the ball. Without lights, mics, costumes, cameras, sets, and makeup, actors would be talking to themselves naked in a dark room, which would be a fine exercise, except the men in suits want their money back. They need to have some modicum of predictable financial success to conduct their business. Let’s not forget that show business is both: show and business.
If that’s where story lives, how does the actor do that? The actor needs to have enough technique to live equally in the imagined and the real world. They must react naturally, truthfully, and purposefully with the scene’s circumstances while also hitting a mark, repeating the performance, and synthesizing all the requirements placed on them by the artists in charge. They must take a life that is created by others, personalize it, and then relive it on demand. Actors and directors have been trying to generate a comprehensive technique for this for hundreds of years. From Chekhov to Chubbuck, people have tried to codify methods for achieving consistent successes and compelling performances. The biggest problem is that we are all wired differently. Story and performance are subjective; the ideal methodology is the creation of consistently compelling performances that appeal to the largest percentage of the audience.
Read on to learn more about consistency in Part 3. Jumping in the middle? Go back to Part 1 and find out where this all began.
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.