Monday, July 28, 2008

Ramblings About Actors and Acting -- HONESTY

Jessamyn West in her office

copyright Wikimedia Commons

When at the age of 15 or 16 I developed an interest in acting, my parents allowed me to study with the actors of the Washington Theatre Club in Washington, D.C. This was magnanimous of my father, since he believed (or claimed to believe) to his dying day that all actors are prostitutes. I think my father's mind and mine must be similar, since one reason I admire actors so much is their willingness to get naked in front of us -- only unlike my dad I mean emotionally naked (though certainly many are called upon to remove their clothing as well, and often, too, to simulate sex -- whether or not to do this is also a matter of choosing how far to go; also unlike my dad I do not believe that every actor's avocation is hopping in and out of bed with other actors.) On the other hand, perhaps what shocked my father about actors was after all their emotional nakedness; he was an extremely generous man whose generosity seems the more marvelous when contrasted with his suspicion of anything which was designed, or which conspired as he most likely saw it, to move us. He did not want to be fooled and I think he saw acting as trickery. He even saw rock 'n' roll that way, and the more attracted to it he was (and I believe he was tremendously attracted to it, as he liked both folk music and true blues) the more furious he became.It is possible that my father confused fiction with falsehood and mistook it for the opposite of truth. Jessamyn West said, "Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures." Edward Albee added, "A play is fiction -- and fiction is fact distorted into truth." Pablo Picasso was more brutal in his assessment: "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." Alan Bennett, in his play "An Englishman Abroad," put these words into the mouth of real-life spy and traitor to the crown, Guy Burgess: "If I wore a mask it was to be exactly what I seemed."

Edward Albee

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Carl Van Vechten

Perhaps my father believed, as many do, that that actors can't be honest, that they have to act all the time. First of all, as I have said, acting isn't pretending (and it mustn't be dishonest), and secondly, it's hard work, so no one could or would even be tempted to do it all the time on purpose, much less be able to get away with it. Of course there is an aspect of acting that is playing too, a lot of fun and very gratifying, and I like that part a lot; it has a place in my life, but its purpose is not to fool people. I have some facility with accents. I am imitative and enjoy assuming personalities I have observed or using aspects of my own self to create characters. I do this with my friends, who know who I really am and who know I am playing; I don't do it to get good press coverage, win friends or influence people! (Yes, we each put on a charming smile during a job interview, even if we don't feel so great that day, but it's our own smile, isn't it? -- I don't think we need to feel deceitful about that.)

Joan Crawford's act wouldn't fool many today, but Michael Jackson's hype still draws crowds. Perhaps the difference is that Michael's fans know it's hype and like him anyway, or even because of it. Joan's followers believed her publicity absolutely. Still, Crawford had quite a machine working for her (as does Jackson) and those closest to her certainly knew the score. If my father, an intelligent man, was afraid of being taken in not only by an actor's hype (which does not have to be the concern of someone who enjoys the actor's work -- do we ask whether our plumber is cheating on his wife or whether the clerk who checks out our groceries has paid her taxes?) but by his or her work, whose purpose is momentarily to take us in, then was my father not in fact more afraid of his own susceptibility than of the actor's prowess? Indeed, an actor's ability to move the audience depends neither on its susceptibility (the advertisers, not the actors, hope we are gullible dupes!) nor on his or her dishonesty; it is an actor's honesty that moves us.

If acting isn't an inclination to be dishonest, or to pretend, or to fool people, what the hell is it? What makes people act, and how can they stop when it's time to stop? Beats me; I can only speak for myself. At first it was, as I said, a relief to be someone else for a while to overcome shyness, and a way to free myself to say and do things I otherwise wouldn't. It was also a way to interact with others in a safe environment, and to learn about people and experiences not normally within my environment. Later, pride in my craft became a factor. Interestingly, people with Multiple Personality Disorder use their multiple personae much as actors use acting, but with an important difference. The person with MPD most often uses other personalities to protect him- or herself from emotions (generally reactions to events of the past, appropriately or inappropriately perceived as being a part of the present) while the actor uses his or her inner population (and if you don't believe we have an inner population, read Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse) to reach out safely for new experience. MPD is an incredibly sophisticated, intelligent, frightening and inconvenient way for a psyche to survive the unsurvivable; acting is safer in that it has defined boundaries. I don't think Sam Beckett will leap into Bakula at the dinner table to protect him from a sudden unwanted memory; I would be surprised to learn that Jack Killian (or more frighteningly, Lucas Buck) emerged to protect Gary Cole from freeway traffic; most likely Martin Shaw has not lately seen much of Raymond Doyle.

Joan Crawford

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Yousuf

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