Thursday, July 2, 2009

I SHOULDA LISTENED TO MY MOTHER (or “How Acting Like a Jerk is Making Me a Better Person”)

Hi, my name is John, and I’m thrilled to be a new-ish member of the BSC Theatre Department … the best-smelling theatre department in the world!


My momma taught me not to judge a person until I had walked a mile in his shoes.  Well, I’ve found that other people’s shoes are pretty hard to come by … and they usually don’t fit very well.  But in the unique discipline of acting I’ve found that it is possible, however, to do the next best thing: walk someone else’s mile … in your own shoes. 


Lemme ‘splain.  No, it’s too much… lemme sum up.


Over the past nine months I’ve walked, let’s see … one, two, three … nine of those miles here in the BSC theatre department, playing nine different people.  Among them, a former male prostitute, a politician, a laid-back grandpa and a beggar – each one a very real person with very real circumstances, desires and beliefs that shape his life and actions. 


Most of our study here follows a Stanislavski-based approach to acting – in brief, actively engaging the imagination in a detailed exploration of the character’s internal and external life and circumstances.  For example (and I know I’m preaching to some of the choir here), when a character says or does something in the script, the actor may ask himself/herself such questions as: Why is he saying that?  What circumstances have brought this about?  What’s going on in this person’s life to which he is responding?  Is it hot or cold in the room?  Is he tired or hungry, or has he been drinking?  (“Did I leave the iron on?”)  How concerned is he with what others in the room think of him?  What is he trying to accomplish? …


Perhaps, more importantly, he might ask questions such as: What does this person believe and why?  How are those beliefs shaping his actions now?  What may have caused him (in his past) to develop those beliefs?  How strongly does he cling to them?  Is he willing to change his beliefs?  What are his expectations for this moment in his life (we all have them), and what are his hopes for the future (we certainly have those, too)?  What is at stake for him in this moment?  How critical is it that he gets what he is after right now?  How far is he willing to go to get it? … ad infinitum.


As you would imagine, this kind of thinking (to the nth degree) can take you deep into an analysis of the mind, will and emotions of the character.  Then, however, acting provides an opportunity like no other study I know – the opportunity to turn that analysis into behavior.  To do what that character would do.  To experience what it is like, not just to think someone else’s thoughts and feel someone else’s feelings (someone who may or may not hold the same beliefs as you) but to actually put them into practice.  To act on them.  To walk that person’s mile…


…but in your own shoes.  Even the great Stanislavski acknowledges that the idea of “becoming” the character you are playing is a ridiculous notion.  You cannot separate yourself from yourself.  In fact, you are your greatest asset – your experience, your convictions, your beliefs.  I’ve found that my own beliefs are an invaluable touchstone for illuminating in my mind the beliefs of the character I’m playing.  When playing someone who holds beliefs that are consistent with my own, the playing of those beliefs is strengthened immeasurably by my own conviction.  When playing someone who holds opposing views, it is the contrast with my own established beliefs that makes them vivid in my mind and allows me to play them with clarity.  Of course it’s usually not a simple either/or scenario but a mix of the two, with some of the character’s beliefs and views matching my own and others in contrast.  Either way, I find I’m walking in my own shoes.


When we were working on Dead Man Walking, I learned that Susan Sarandon (who played Sister Helen in the film version) had called acting the business of “forced compassion.”  I’ve found this to be a very accurate description of the acting process.  Here’s why I think so …


When playing a character who holds views that differ from my own, if I am willing to play him honestly, I must look intently at his beliefs, to consider them, to consider his justifications for those beliefs, and the depths of his conviction.  Then, acting on them, to play them as sincerely as possible.  Through this process I come to see him (and all who share his views) more clearly, perhaps in a new light, often with a greater understanding.  This honest process “forces” me to find compassion for this individual, even if I continue to disagree strongly with (or even despise) his views and actions.


Sometimes I’m compelled to acknowledge that my own beliefs and actions need to change.  And isn’t that a good thing?  Sometimes the opposite is true, and I come out with even greater clarity and conviction of my beliefs than before, having put them to the test.  And isn’t that a good thing, as well?  I’ve come to think that the constant scrutiny of my beliefs and values which acting affords me is a very healthy thing for me!  And I have a lot to learn about our world and myself in it.


Jesus Christ once said, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”  We all need truth - to know what truly is and what is not.  To see clearly.  Our world.  Our times.  Ourselves.  Sometimes it’s hard to look (and sometimes I shy away); but if I am willing to commit to this work and all of its opportunities, I believe theatre, as much as any good philosophy or religion course, is an excellent tool in the search for that truth.  (At the very least, it’s more than just goofing off!)  Am I saying that acting is guaranteed to make you a better person?  Of course not.  But I’ve found that it can be a very useful tool for someone who wants to be. 


Perhaps Shakespeare said it best in the voice of Hamlet when he wrote, “the purpose of playing … was and is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”  We’ll be diving into his world in January for our interim production.  Don’t miss it!  (A shameless advertising plug, I admit.)


If you’ve read this far, you’re either: a) a fervent fan of the theatre, b) a close personal friend of mine, or c) you’re trapped under something heavy.   Either way, thanks for reading.   Having quoted my mother, Jesus and Shakespeare, I don’t think I have anything more to say… except, perhaps, that my mother was probably right: You shouldn’t judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (which probably means you shouldn’t judge them at all) … and you shouldn’t put anything in your ear other than your elbow.

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