(845) 246-6944 · info@ArtTimesJournal.com

Authenticity versus reality

ART TIMES Oct 2003

There’s an old, old debate in theatrical esthetics: do actors experience the emotions of their characters as they would in the real world, or not?

In Uncle Vanya, Vanya becomes so overwrought that he whips out a gun and takes a shot at the Professor. He misses. Suppose we compare what happens in the play to what would happen in real life?

In Uncle Vanya, if I’m playing the Professor, Vanya whips out his gun and takes a shot at me. I continue with my lines and blocking, playing out the scene as written. I respond with emotional expression appropriate to the play and the situation. Fear, shock, anger, appeal for help from the others—a whole raft of emotions might come into play.

In real life, if someone in an emotional crisis suddenly pulled out a gun and took a shot at me—and missed, thank God—I doubt that I would carry on the conversation; I doubt that my physical reactions would follow a carefully planned and rehearsed course; I doubt I would be giving a rat’s patootie about the validity and appropriateness of my emotional expression. I would either be attacking Vanya with everything I had in order to get the gun away from him, or I would be running like a rabbit on a potent mix of steroids and uppers. I would definitely not hang around to engage in an emotional scene with Vanya and the rest of the family.

And what would Vanya do? In the play, he breaks down emotionally; his inability to kill or even wound the Professor is the last straw in his complete loss of his sense of his own worth. He now feels less than a man, perhaps less than a worm. He throws away the gun and breaks down in despair. In reality, he would probably spit out some sort of four-letter word and take another shot, more carefully aimed this time. What’s uppermost in a theatrical Vanya’s mind is hatred of the Professor; what’s uppermost in a real-life Vanya’s mind is marksmanship.

Clearly, there is an undeniable difference. The actor shows emotion, but there is a great deal more going on; the actor continues to perform according to plan. I have been onstage with an actor who actually lost it; she was so swept away by the emotion of the scene that she could not perform properly. The rest of the cast had to improvise their way around her inability to deliver her lines and perform her blocking until we could get the scene to a close and get her off stage. What she did was highly emotional, but it was the complete opposite of good acting. Nobody in the audience had the slightest idea of what was going on with her. Her character and her place in the play vanished in her firestorm of genuine, real-world emotion.

On the other hand, we have all endured performances in which actors delivered fakery, so-called emotional response that was just not acceptable, completely inauthentic. We would like to say, "That wasn’t real!" But we know that the performance we would like to see isn’t "real" either.

I propose the following way out: what we seek in theater, and in all art, isn’t "reality." It’s something different: authenticity. It has to do, not with correspondence to what would happen offstage, but with the degree to which the communication from the performer to the audience is genuine, is from the heart, has legitimacy and validity. The performer may be playing a story that is a pure fantasy, that has no relation to any world or place in the physical universe, but if what is played is authentic, we will accept it and respond with authentic feeling of our own.

And that’s what we’re after. When Vanya takes the shot, the moment isn’t about trying to kill someone; the moment is about desperately trying to keep some tiny shred of self-respect. If the actor authentically communicates that from the heart, we will understand and respond from our own hearts. If the actor tries to fake it, we won’t. That’s the final demand the audience makes, the one thing we won’t give up on, the one thing we want and must have—the authentic communication from the live actor in our presence. It’s very similar to what we want from the people we love. Authentic communication from the heart, from someone who cares to those who also care. That’s what theater is about.

Return to Theatre Index

Art Times HomePage