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The Secret Mind of the Theatre Artist

July, 2002

Theatre is a collaborative art. Of course. We all know that. Don't we? Well, we might have a few secret, shameful thoughts in the backs of our minds…

What is an actor, for example? To the costumer, the actor performs the indispensable function of holding the costumes up, which, after all, by themselves, would fall down on the stage in a heap. It’s hard to appreciate them properly that way. Also, if you have an actor handy, you can make your costumes move with minimal time and effort. This is really fairly difficult to accomplish otherwise, not to mention expensive.

To the playwright, on the other hand, the actor is rather like an annoyingly unreliable tape recorder. Wind him up just so – that's the director's job – and he goes about on the stage spouting those deathless words in the most satisfying way. The lack of accuracy is offset by the fact that most actors sound better than most tape recorders. Other than that, it’s really hard to see much use for them.

To the set designer, actors are very useful. Having a few of them around the set always lends a nice decorative touch. Even though they do have that awkward habit of moving and speaking, which distracts the audience from the scenery, it is nice to have them demonstrate all the working features of the set by opening doors and windows, going up and down stairs, using the furniture and so forth. Sometimes you can even get the director to make them part of the scenery by persuading him of the esthetic value of having an actor stay in one place for a long time. That’s really handy, because then you don’t have to build something to go there.

Meanwhile, the lighting designer knows exactly why the actors are there. They serve the same purpose as the scenery, the costumes, the properties and everything else on the stage. They give him something to shine lights on. However, they're more challenging than the scenery, because they usually provide a moving target, whereas the scenery usually stays put. That difficulty is offset by the fact that when they move, you can get them to move through beams of light in a very pretty way. That makes it harder for the audience to see their faces, which is unimportant.

And to the actor, what are all these people, the partners of his art? Well, if that ignorant Philistine producer won't pay for a butler, a maid and a cook, well, a few designers and technicians will do in a pinch. Backstage bitching and moaning is greatly enhanced when you have something you can blame a designer for. When the fabric doesn’t bring out your complexion, when the lights make your eyes hurt (why do they have to be so bright, after all?) and you’ve stubbed your toe on the set for the twentieth time just because that fool of a designer didn’t anticipate your obvious need to do a triple pirouette on the staircase while bringing your morning coffee and newspaper down to the breakfast nook – well, wouldn’t a bare platform under a naked bulb really be just so esthetic?

And so, in a long life of selfless service to the temple of Thespis, let no one think any but the most collaborative thoughts, framed in the deepest respect for our fellow, uh, whatever they are – oh , yes, the lady in the back row has a really good word for them – artists.

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