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The Useless Knowledge of the Actor

March 2003

Let me tell you what acting is. Then let me tell you why it is important to know what acting is. Then let me tell you why it is useless to know what acting is.

Acting is responding spontaneously with voice and body, viscerally and authentically, with truth and in beauty, to fictional circumstances and stimuli. And it’s a little bit more than that as well. So let’s have at it again.

Acting is being able to behave authentically under theatrical circumstances. Theatrical circumstances aren’t entirely fictional, for they include the physical realities of the stage, the auditorium, your fellow actors and all the stuff you use in the performance. Nor are they entirely real, for they include your character, what your character is doing, what other characters are doing, and where and how it is all going on. However, theatrical circumstances are absolutely inauthentic; they are not what they seem to be, they are manufactured to represent, not to be in their own right, even though they do manage to exist in one way or another. If you can act, you can respond to these theatrical circumstances not as if they were real, but as if they were authentic, which is a very different thing.

You can immediately see the difference by watching what happens when one actor accidentally drops something, but doesn’t realize it, while another actor does. If the second actor is trying to deal with theatrical circumstances as if they were real, disaster strikes. Conscious of the stage, conscious of the audience, conscious of the script, conscious of the way the performance is supposed to go, conscious of all those things as if they were real–which indeed they are–the actor will pretend the dropped prop isn’t there, pretend the audience can’t see it, even pretend not to step around it while stepping around it. However, if that actor is dealing with theatrical circumstances as if they were authentic, none of that is a problem. The actor simply picks up the dropped prop and hands it to the other actor, as one might authentically do in the fictional world of the play. The right thing to do is to be fictional, but authentic; the wrong thing to do is to be real instead of fictional, for then one cannot help being inauthentic.

If you are an actor, it is important that you know this so that you will have some idea of what you are about. No one on earth knows how to do this perfectly all the time. We all try to do it as completely as we can, as much of the time as we can. Just as no baseball player ever batted a thousand for a season, no actor ever manages to perform perfectly all the time. Acting is athletic; it is of the voice and body as much as it is of the mind and heart, and just as athletes pursue impossible perfection, so do actors.

However, if you are an actor, this knowledge will not be directly useful to you. The more you try to make yourself do it, the more you will fail. It is only when you get out of your own way and starting letting yourself do it, instead of making yourself do it, that you will succeed. The baseball player studies hitting diligently; he studies the mechanics of his body, the details of the way a baseball flies from the pitcher’s hand, the intricacies of seeing it and hitting it in a hundred different ways. But at the moment the player swings the bat, thinking about all this can’t be a part of it. It has to be a fundamental physical response. So it is with the actor. Actors study psychology, motivation and character; they study story and conflict and circumstance; they study movement and gesture and expression, but at the moment of performance, all that must be in abeyance; the soul and body of the actor must simply respond from the core of being of the body and mind.

Being in that state is intensely pleasurable. Watching someone perform who is in that state is magical. Getting there is what all the hard work is about; being there is effortless – for as long as it lasts. Then you have to get there all over again. Knowledge helps, but only part way; after that, you can’t know, you must be. That’s why the knowledge of the actor is ultimately useless – even though it is vital.

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