Posted on 24 June 2015
I have been directing people to get good comic performances for some time. Recently, I was asked to teach a course in comic acting. Acting for comedy is different from dramatic acting, and not enough attention has been focused on the distinctions. Nevertheless, I dipped back into some of my favourite standard acting books (the ones by Uta Hagen), then looked beyond to unexplored works by respected trainers.
I was disheartened by much of what I saw. A number of prominent acting techniques do not do enough to protect the emotional well-being of the actors. Worse, some techniques come off as religious cults, where people are expected to accept abusive behaviour. Here is an example from Sanford Meisner On Acting, documenting a real class Meisner held:
“Don’t do anything, never mind say anything, until something happens to make you do it. What’s the text?”
“Good. Turn around with your back to me please. Concentrate on the text. Don’t do anything until something happens…” Casually he reaches around her shoulder and slips his hand into her blouse.
This is unacceptable. Actors are asked to represent life, all of life, but such representation must come from informed consent, not pressure to conform. When an actor agrees to take on certain characters who are going to be experiencing traumatic events, then great care must be taken to ensure the emotional well-being of that person. This will be true in comedy as well. Actors need to remain aware of when what is being enacted is humorous only to abusers.
I decided to write a list of issues that need to be addressed when training or directing actors.
- We need actors learning how to cooperate in order to build scenes with one another and the director.
- We need actors to let go of their daily persona.
- We need actors to let go of acting as a form of wish fulfillment.
- We need actors exploring the diversity of human being.
- We need actors exploring painful and uncomfortable emotions.
- We need actors to be both thoughtful and spontaneous.
- We need to create a safe space for exploration.
- We need to be respectful of boundaries.
- We need to ensure there is space for actors to give informed permissions for certain behaviour, and have their decisions respected.
- We need actors practising emotional warm-ups and warm-downs to ensure their mental and emotional well-being.
- We need to help actors and creators of all sorts to maintain their sensitivity and capacity for vulnerability, and all the creative potential that lays within these states.
- We need to nurture the creativity of all involved in theatre-making from playwright to director to crew to actors.
- We must keep people’s empathy, ethics, and compassion in tact every time we create art and in particular theatre.
- We must ensure that no art devolves into a form of coercion.
- We must demand respect for actors and crew, as well as producers, directors, and playwrights. Theatre is a collaborative art.
Actors may be a dime a dozen in the field of performance. However, they are still human beings not “cattle”. The quality of your public storytelling will only be as good as the actors you bring on board to tell that story. Those actors will only be at their best when they are respected and actively engaged as co-creators. In the fields of theatre, cinema, and television it is important for actors to maintain a good reputation as someone who is easy to work with, respectful, and cooperative, but these qualities have to go both ways.
It is time to build acting techniques that are known to be not only effective, but are humane and nurturing of the humans that are lending their personal experiences and creativity to build great theatre.
Peace and kindness,