Monday, September 3, 2012

Acting & Playwriting

If frequently occurs to me that many people, beginners and old hands alike often have no idea what a play actually is and how what it is relates to acting. Let's start with some basic concepts of what a play is and what it is not. In the main, when I write "play" in this article, I mean both a stage play and a cinema script.

Aristotle in The Poetics says "a tragedy [the most prevalent kind of play of his time] is an imitation of an action." This simply means that it is a story about something that happens, and that the story is told my acting (imitation).  Drama, then, differs from narration in that it is acted out (imitated).  Aristotle also mentions that a drama "is a thing done."  A narration is something that is told. The narration can tell about things that happened and that are done, but these things are only told by the narrator. A play is acted out by actors. Indeed, some theorists say that a play is not a complete work of art until it is fully produced in a theatre before an audience.

A play is not discourse {the examination of an idea through discussion}.  George Bernard Shaw may disagree with this, but the fact remains that in plays, the story and how it is enacted by the characters is far more important than the philosophies or ideas presented in them.  When I say how the characters enact the story, I am referring to what the characters do as emotional responses to their situations.  It is these responses that cause things to happen and the things that happen ARE the story.  It is also true in the vast majority of our theatre and cinema that the emotional impact of the story is more important than the intellectual understanding of the message the story may embody.

Thus, what the playwright writes is not conversation as we ordinarily understand that word.
A conversation is discourse--a discussion of an idea or ideas.  But what a playwright writes --what we call the dialog of the play is not discourse; rather he makes a story told though the emotional and physical reactions of the characters to their situations.  Everything a character "says" in a play, his lines, are his emotional and physical reactions to that moment in the story.

Now we add the actor.  If all of the above is true, what the actor does is to represent the characters' emotional and physical responses.  Oh.  Had I indicated that these are one in the same? Any response by the character is both emotional and physical simultaneously. The actor, then, must both say the line so it represents the emotional reaction of the character; AND, at the same time, the actor must do what the line represents the character is doing.

If you have been reading carefully, I hope that you have understood how I have kept the character and the actor separated in this discussion.  This is very hard to do in any discussion of acting, but there are things about the character and the actor that all who work on plays or enjoy them as audience members must understand.

First, the actor and the character are not the same thing.  The actor is a person who represents or 'plays' the character in a play.  The actor is a real person who has a life outside of the play. The character is an imaginary creation of the playwright who exists only in the play or film.  Even in the representation of historical or actual personages in a play requires some fictional creation to make them more interesting than just their factual existences may be or may have been.

Second, in most cares the character is entirely fictional and has no existence (unless indicated by the playwright in the stage directions or dialog) before or after his or her experiences in the play. Because of this fact, I am entirely against the foolish practices of actors creating an imaginary biography of the character prior to the story that the play tells (of course in the case of actual personages there is a real biography of the character prior to the story that the play tells and this information is of great value to the actor.) It also is not of much use to the actor to make up something that the character was doing prior to each of his entrances in the play.  A good playwright will make it clear what such things are when it is necessary to do so. 

Finally, I implore all theater artists and playgoers everywhere to learn to differentiate between the character and what he does in the play and the actor and what he does when representing the character in the play.  It takes a bit of practice, but it will be worth it in the clarity with which you express your experiences with the play. I remember once reading a review of a play in which the reviewer wrote  as he explained the story of the play to his readers (I, of course, paraphrase after all these years): "John Smith [the name of the actor] is having an affair with Mary Jones [the name of the actress]."  I am sure Mr. Smith's wife and Mrs. Jones' husband were dismayed to read this in the newspaper.  Of course this critic should have written "Peter, played by John Smith, is having an affair with Polly, played by Mary Jones."  At least it separates the innocent from the guilty and shows the critic knows something about play writing and acting.

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