Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. …
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this famous speech from Hamlet … ‘Hamlet’s advice to the players’. But I can tell you; I’ve never really paid much attention to it. I don’t mean the language or the poetry, but to the content, the intent. This is Hamlet, in the role of director, giving specific directions to his actors. And what is he telling them? “Do the lines as I have done them.” Line readings. “Don’t exaggerate the words like other actors do.” “Don’t use too many hand gestures.” Etc. Wow. A lot of manipulation, control and pure result directing. And this is from Shakespeare, who was also an actor.
What he’s really saying is “Here is how I want you to play it. And here are the things I don’t want you to do.” Now, of course, he was trying to “catch the conscience of the King” so he had a pretty specific effect he wanted to have on his audience. But don’t we all want to “catch the conscience” of our audience?
So here’s the discussion: Most directors think it is their job to tell the actors ‘how to play the scene’. And I can understand this. I mean that pretty much defines a major aspect of the director’s function. But doesn’t that edict take us one step further away from the very authenticity we are seeking? When was the last time you entered a ‘scene’ or moment, or event, or confrontation in your everyday life with clear instructions on ‘how to play that scene’ running through your head? Oh, I know, we all have those wonderful conversations with our Committee (voices in our head) about how we are going to handle an upcoming situation. We even play it out beforehand just so we can ‘rehearse’ it. But, that’s us as real life characters in an unpredictable world doing the best we can to control or manage or manipulate events as they come our way. But in this discussion, we’re talking about actors – actors who know pretty much what is going to happen. Their world isn’t unpredictable at all. They know what their character is going to say and do. They even know what the other characters are going to say and do. So there’s not much mystery or uncertainty. So, consequently, there can’t be much surprise. And then, on top of that, the director is saying, “play it this way” which totally removes from the equation any spontaneous interaction between the character and the event. Now you have a scene with a bunch of characters following programmed instructions (either from the director or from the actor) and underneath it all they are attempting to create something that has a feeling of authenticity, reality, real moment-to-moment interaction and behavior.
So, what would happen if we reverse the process? What would happen if rather than saying to the actors “play it
this way” we started saying, “let the scene play you.” In other words, enter the scene focused only on what the character wants and needs and dismiss any thoughts about how to ‘play the scene’, thereby allowing each character to truly engage with the unpredictable and the unknown. Because isn’t that what we’re trying to create, a replication of reality? And isn’t that what happens to us in every moment of every day?
When we ask someone, “How was your day?” we often hear things like, “Let me tell you what happened to me”. And that’s our life. We move through each day getting bombarded by stimuli to all six senses (yes there are six, I’ve even heard there are more than that). We see things, hear things, taste things, smell things, touch things and think things. Stimuli. And we respond. As Virginia Woolf said, “I think our job in life is to manage the things that come our way.” Great thought. Great observation. So we ‘manage things that come our way’. We don’t create them and we certainly don’t control them. We manage them as best we can.
In our attempts to create a semblance of reality wouldn’t it be more authentic if removed from the actor the notion of controlling or manipulating a scene or his character in order to fit someone’s vision or concept of how it ‘should be played’? And wouldn’t we take one giant leap toward authenticity if we just allowed each character to enter each scene as naively as you and I do in every moment of every day? And what if we just allowed the elements and stimuli of the scene to just ‘play the character’? What would happen then?
When Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” he was observing that all of us are simply acting out a play that clearly has no script. And that each of us is just muddling through and doing the best we can to “manage the things that come our way.”
Authenticity, it is obtainable. But we won’t get there if we keep faking it.
March 22, 2013