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Just an Action is Not Enough

ART TIMES Jun, 2004

Modern acting theory is founded on the idea that an actor must play an action. I doubt there are very many acting teachers out there who would disagree with the statement, "An actor cannot play an emotion; an actor can only play an action; emotion must arise out of action."

From one side of the fence, this theory is impeccable. It is true that trying to play an emotion without playing an action is a kiss of death; it leads directly to hollow, phony, insincere, inauthentic acting that will not be accepted by an audience. In short, it’s a good way to be bad.

And that, indeed, is where the idea came from. Pioneers of modern acting, from Stanislavsky and his contemporary revolutionaries on, saw this in the work of the theaters of their day and didn’t like it, didn’t want it, didn’t need it. They wanted the opposite – full, complete, rich, emotionally authentic performance that moves the audience irresistibly.

The problem is that there is another side of the fence. It is, unfortunately, eminently possible to play an action without the emotion that should be there. Even worse, playing the action is no guarantee that the feeling that needs to be there will be there. In music, it is hideously possible to play the music correctly, but without feeling – it’s in the right key, it’s in the right tempo, each note is played on the correct pitch, with the correct duration, and as loudly or softly as the composer has indicated, but it means nothing; it ain’t got that swing; it hasn’t got the emotion it needs. So it is in acting. The actor can play the action, but miss the emotion.

There are also very powerful moments in the theater that do not really have a clearly connected action. In the Japanese theater, there is a deservedly famous moment in the play Kumagai Jinya (General Kumagai’s Army Camp) in which the general Kumagai must contemplate the decapitated head of his own son. His grief takes the form of laughter – incredibly harsh, tearing, bitter laughter, laughter torn up by the roots from his soul. It’s quite safe, I think, to say that you cannot make your mark as a great actor in the joruri plays of the Japanese drama without mastering this role and this moment. Yet it is also quite safe to say that this moment completely resists analysis according to modern acting theory. There is no action here. It is not a moment in which someone does something to someone else in order to get something they want – the core concept of "action" as understood in modern acting theory. It is a moment in which a man rips open his own soul – but that doesn’t qualify.

Nor is this limited to the performing arts of Asia. In the classic comedy of the German dramatic literature, Minna von Barnhelm, we find the moment when Major Tellheim, believing that he must give up the woman he loves for the sake of his honor, similarly tears himself open in bitter laughter. In Shakespeare’s Lear, it is not a laugh, but a howl, as Lear enters carrying the slaughtered body of his daughter Cordelia. (It’s not written as a laugh – but it could be, and what a horror of laughter that would be!)

We’ve got to fill this hole in our concept of acting. We can’t just say, "Here’s the action – now do it with feeling," with this or that association or memory or image. We must find ways to address the honest heart of emotion itself, to draw from ourselves the emotional truth that lies in a moment that doesn’t have action. Only then will we have the complete toolkit we’ve been searching for since Stanislavski’s time.

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