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Feb 02 2009

Taking Off the Act

Thursday morning, my iPod was speaking to me. In a half hour walk to work, three songs all talking about the same subject–acting.

Is there anybody in there in this self-inflicted tomb?
If you peel away the layers, is there someone in this room?

Of course, they were all talking about it because I was already thinking about it. From an email I sent earlier in the week:

I’ve never met an actor who wasn’t in character backstage as well as on. They’re just different characters. That’s what makes acting as a profession so simultaneously appealing and appalling.

Successful acting requires that you be someone else for a while. It isn’t enough to speak the lines and to make the gestures called for in the script. We’ve all seen the sort of dreadful productions that result. You don’t have to dive into the excesses of some of the method actors, but you must at least put on the mannerisms–physical and vocal–and the body language of the part.

There’s no way to do this without being affected by it. It calls for an understanding of a fictional character that few people take the time to find. The mannerisms and body language change your emotional state every time they’re rehearsed or performed. Try practicing smiling in front of a mirror until you can put a sincere-looking grin on your face on demand. Then do it again where you can’t see your reflection smiling back at you. You’ll still feel happier for doing it.

Of course, most acting isn’t about being happy.

As an actor, if you’re any good, you end up living little pieces of the lives of all of your characters. You rehearse them in a way you don’t practice being yourself. You explore them and spend time with them in a way that the world tells you is a selfish thing to do on your own. If you act, you have to enjoy being someone else. You don’t have to enjoy being yourself.

I’m a good actor.

No, my love, we can’t be friends
In fact I liked you much better
When you’d just pretend.

The days of declamation and broad emoting are gone from most stages, and the places where they still find homes are mostly in comedy. Even so, characters in modern theater and film are just a little bigger, a little simpler than any real person. Simple is seductive. People like simple.

If you act, it’s all too easy to find the right simple character for any situation. Few and far between are the people who have the time and inclination to get to know you in all your complex, contradictory glory. It’s much easier to figure out what your audience wants and to give them only that. More rewarding too. Fewer fights. More praise.

There are a few problems with this, of course. One is that everyone wants something different of you. An audience of one is very manageable. More than that, and which audience do you serve? Whom do you please, and whom do you disappoint?

Beyond that, few and far between doesn’t mean nonexistent. While you’re performing for the people who want you to be predictable and easily categorized, what happens to the others? They aren’t the sort to appreciate a shallow facade, you know. Can you act a more complex character for them? Can you drop the act entirely, and what’s there when you do?


I’ll dance for you, pose for you
Take off all my clothes for you
Speak your words, sing your song
I’m up for auction, going, gone!

When you’ve gotten used to generating your behavior from the outside, it’s very difficult to relearn how to let it come from inside again. All of the voices in your head are yours, but none of them is you. Almost everything you do has become associated with a character, a person who isn’t you. What’s left for you to build you from?

I don’t know whether it can be done while you’re still acting. I can’t imagine giving up that immediate approving feedback of individual performance while still indulging in the mass approval that is theater, but maybe someone else could do it. My process required misanthropy, solitude and a certain ruthlessness, for which, ironically, acting had prepared me beautifully.

The first step was deciding who was worthy of being my audience and ignoring (hard to do at first) or avoiding (much easier) everyone else. Whom did it please me to please? That doesn’t sound like much progress, but it was, because what it really meant was who pleased me?

It’s a question that took years to answer, and the answer changed drastically over time. This is where the ruthlessness came in. I’ve abandoned or let lapse more friendships than I really care to think about. There are only two things that reconcile me to that. One is that it was necessary. I couldn’t find another way to do what I needed to do. The other is that it was successful. These days, I mostly add friends.

I don’t avoid people much anymore either. Ironically, I’m still acting around the mass of humanity. They’re still never going to appreciate complexity and contradiction, and I’m still giving them what they want. Only now I’m doing it because it’s easier for them. And I certainly don’t do it all the time.

Now I’m willing to stop to think about what it is that I want, how I think, how I feel. Now I’m willing to risk disagreement and disapproval, even (or especially) from the people I give a damn about. I’m willing to be that geek who will stop in the middle of a sentence to try to reconcile the three tangential thoughts that just occurred to me. I’m willing to be awkward and persuasive and flirtatious and serious and sympathetic and argumentative, because all of those are who I am.

No act. Just me. And that feels pretty good.

If you peel away the armor is something underneath
If you look below for hidden treasure underneath another layer
Are you hiding underneath the skin

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Lou FCD

    Bravo.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Well, brava, technically, but thanks. :)

  3. 3
    Kelly McCullough

    Interesting take. Very different process but a similar road in some ways to mine.

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yeah, I’m sure, Kelly. Why have we never gotten around to talking about that beyond, “Oh, yeah. Theater“?

  5. 5
    Juniper Shoemaker

    This deeply interests me. In college, I spent almost all of my time with actors. I even acted myself, a bit, but I suck at it. For no other reason than my self-centered interest in learning how to make myself vulnerable to others, I have tried to understand why.Some of the actors I went to college with are so talented that they have beat out thousands of competitors to build names for themselves in LA and New York. The best of these taught me things that I only have a shallow understanding of and therefore can only superficially employ. When public speaking, or reading aloud, I have sometimes parroted the inflections of gifted actors to elicit more positive responses than I could’ve gained with my interpretation alone. But I’ve never had an articulate, concrete understanding of why, say, calling someone a name that way sent that particular thrill down everyone’s backs. I simply do not have the talent.In an acting class once, a very talented friend of mine played an impoverished, unhappy American factory worker who comes home to find her ailing husband dead in their armchair. “What on Earth was going on during that moment when you fiddled with the coffeepot?” asked our instructor admiringly, when she finished and we all applauded enthusiastically. The actress shrugged. “I don’t . . . know. I mean, I came home. I thought, ‘He’s dead,’ and then I started to think about the things I usually think about after work, and then my friend asked me what I was going to do. And then I went to make her coffee, and then I looked at the pot and realized that I didn’t remember how to make it. I mean, I didn’t remember how to make coffee at all. And it started to unravel, then. And I just panicked.”Ironically, this is the kind of thing I have always innately understood as a writer. I can realize this sort of thing in a written narrative, where everything is controlled by myself and I’m just building things and aching and pouring myself out there. But there’s no bleeding way I can realize it in the flesh, while interacting with the totally unpredictable element of a fully real-time someone else! I’m one of those people who only knows how to deliberate over everything. You can edit a piece of writing, too!My best friend from college, like yourself, is very, very skilled at both writing and acting. (Do you act as well as you write? If so, wow.) One of my favorite novelists EVER is as well. You people fascinate me. I don’t understand how your brains work. It’s wonderful. Thanks for giving people like me a vivid glimpse in.I have bad memories of my days with theater and movie kids, but I have never ceased to love watching good acting. I love just being the audience member. I feel this way about good musicians and singers, too. I don’t have any of these talents, but I’m always so incredibly grateful and delighted that others can. A weird, intense, specific feeling. . .

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    Juniper, I’m the worst judge of what I do. I can say I’m in much better practice as a writer than I am as an actor, so no, I’m probably not as good. Doing it in writing is both easier and harder. It’s harder to dive into it, because there isn’t the physicality to drive my thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, the ability to stop whenever I need to makes it easier to take risks. So does the editing.

  7. 7
    Kelly McCullough

    If I had to make a guess, I’d say it’s because it’s a fraught topic, at least for me. Talking about theater in depth forces me to do two things I don’t much like doing. 1) Revisiting some of the dark places. 2) Saying things that are going to come off as arrogant whether I actually feel that way on the topic or not.

  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    Fair enough.

  9. 9
    Kelly McCullough

    Of course, none of that means it won’t happen in the future, but it’s a reasonable explanation for the original question.

  10. 10
    Stephanie Zvan

    True. Which reminds me that it’s been a very long time since we’ve chatted except as part of a crowd. Which makes it that much less likely.

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