Can acting be taught? My mother, an eminent actress of European descent from an earlier era, thought not. Unfortunately, I was never able to pick her brain because she died when I was very young. During her formative years the Stanislavsky System was in its infancy, so beyond elocution and ballet there wasn’t much training anyway? Perhaps she thumbed her very elegant nose at formal acting training, because she didn’t like Strasberg, who directed her in a disastrous play on Broadway.
I like to think that Stanislavsky was like Einstein. Exploding an atom equals exploding a personality; the violence in both processes is triggered by precisely organized steps. In order to act, one tears oneself apart, and if successful, creates a nuclear fission that virtually transforms one’s own structure - and by extension those spectators who fully give themselves to a well-performed play or film. This happens in varying degrees and can be either comic or dramatic, or both simultaneously. It’s sleight of hand, magical, intuitive, artful, but also planned, cunning, scientific, dangerous. It’s Jacques Tati, absurdly hilarious, skewering the French Bourgeoisie as M. Hulot or Jamie Foxx in The Kingdom out-sneaking the sneakiest of murderers in his attack on Saudi terrorists, whose weapon of choice is pipe bombs filled with nails and shards of glass. A personal favorite are performances which cut both ways; Marcia Gay Harden, excruciatingly funny in God of Carnage, but closest of all the characters to the God who’s trying to figure himself out through the carnage of the play.
Watching excellent performances, even when other performers are the viewers – I’ve done it myself – the character can be mistaken for the actor. There was the performance of someone with whom I had once been intimate, but had not seen for ten years, playing an eccentric, ninety-year old Rabbi. After the show, I went backstage and watched him breaking down the set - it was closing night – there was something peculiar about the way he was joking and playing around with the other actors, some wackiness I’d never noticed in him before. Unconsciously, I thought he might have actually aged and perhaps gone a little insane. I found out later he was very fond of the character, a way he had of slyly angling his head, lip-smacking at a pretty girl, and pretending a deathly wheeze. It took a while for the actor to dispossess the joyous old fart and re-inhabit his own supple frame and laid back, gently melancholic demeanor. So often one falls in love with the actor not the person; much star power would lose its luster without this identity confusion.
But what about the actor himself, his or her identity, is it fixed or does it wiggle around with the character? Ah, that’s a big question. It depends on the actor, of course, and the material. Chekov’s Sonyias and Vanyas in films directed by the incomparable Nikita Mikhalkov seem inseparable from the wild emotional landscape of Mother Russia, but Claude Miller’s actors in Las Petite Lili, loosely based on Chekov’s The Seagull, seem to spring directly from the rigorous formation of a French intellect. How is this possible? General McChrystal, in speaking of how Americans must re-position themselves in Afghanistan in order to succeed in our fight against the Taliban, says [NY Times, October 19, 2009]: “What I want to do is get on the inside looking out – instead of being on the outside looking in.” This is what actors do; they get on the inside. And it is always a battle, against the other characters, against the outside world, but primarily against themselves. Yes: the actor splits in two – I call it ‘doublethink.’ And it will be the subject of my next blog.