The word “truth” is something actors hear a lot about. Meisner’s famous formulation that acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is invoked again and again, by me and many other acting teachers, whether they teach Meisner or not. Actors come to understand that truth is synonymous with good acting. But is that really saying anything?
What is truth, anyway?
I think a lot of people equate truth with believability. But this is begging the question. What makes an audience believe something?
The answer that I think most people walk around with in their heads is that a performance has to have the appearance of real life. It has to look like real life. It has to be life-like. It has to be natural. It has to appear real.
But let’s think about that for a minute.
A few observations:
- I ran into some recent grads from the acting program at the Yale School of Drama not too long ago. I asked them about the curriculum there (it’s been a couple of decades since I walked the hallowed halls there). I was interested to learn that while they were introduced to a number of movement modalities during their time there, the only one that they were required to study for all three years while they were there was the Alexander technique. And what is the Alexander technique? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a practice of bringing an awareness of the design of the skeleton and muscles to everyday life, so that as we move through our days, we do so with less effort and greater ease than we would otherwise employ. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, but that’s my nutshell description. Anyway, Yale requires all actors to study three years of it, and that is the only movement form that actors are required to study for three years. Why? Because actors who make use of it are just better than they would be otherwise. Alexander work has a dramatic effect on a performer’s work. BUT, in real life, most people are going through their days without any awareness of the Alexander technique, so they are just using their habitual ways of moving, all of the ways of moving that the Alexander technique teaches them to leave behind. So how is this life-like? The Alexander technique helps actors to appear more “real”, more “natural”, more “life-like” than they otherwise would, anyone who has witnessed its effect on actors can attest to that. But yet people in real life have all of the constricting bad habits that the Alexander technique is meant to help people to overcome. Is a puzzlement, as the King of Siam would say.
- Perennially, in class, I see people in scenes shift their weight on to one leg or the other, so that their hip is “popped”, like a teen-ager. By asking them to shift their weight so that their weight is evenly distributed over their two feet, their performance immediately improves. I could talk about why this is ( the hip-popping is a stepping out of the physical attitude of engagement and confrontation, that is, of relationship, it’s a signal that says “I am not a threat” to their scene partner), but that’s not really material here. What is material is that standing with the weight evenly distributed invariably makes their work better. And yet, people in “real life” sometimes to pop their hip and shift their weight on to one foot. In fact, I just recently heard an Alexander teacher explain to people why that wasn’t a good thing to do. And she wouldn’t have had to explain it if people didn’t do it. So what gives? Standing “over the center” makes people more engaging to watch, as well as, somehow, more real to watch, and yet people in real life do stand with their weight not over their center, but rather shifted to one side.
- Another one: eye contact. Actors often want to disengage visually from their partners before they start to speak. Often, this is about trying to remember their line (the eye contact is distracting and makes it harder to concentrate on recalling the line), and then there is also the matter that if I am looking into someone else’s eyes, they are looking into mine, which is scary, because of that business about the eyes being the window of the soul, and all that. It’s intimate. So it’s less scary, in the moment when starting to speak, to express one’s self, to look away. Here’s the thing: when I stop said actors from doing this, when I ask them to always make eye contact with the partner before starting to speak, and then I insist on it, and stop them every time they don’t do what I’ve asked and call attention to that, until they make the shift into eye-contact-when starting-to-speak, their work gets much better! Again, I could get into the reasons for this (they are finding the impulse to speak in the partner by looking at them when starting to speak), but that’s not really the point. The point is that they get indisputably better, more engaging to watch and more authentic, when they submit to this discipline, and yet, and yet, people in real life look away when they start to speak. They do it often! So, again, what gives?
In all three of these cases, a technical, physical adjustment was requested of actors, and the adjustment made them better, more engaging, more real. And yet, the habits they were letting go of were things that people do in real life! How can that be?
In the history of people thinking about art, there was a dispute about whether art was like a mirror or a lamp. Prior to the late eighteenth century, art was (grossly speaking) understood to be a mirror: it showed you what life was like. It reflected the surfaces of life. It reproduced life.
But in the era of Romanticism, this was broadly challenged: the Romantic ethos looked at art as more like a lamp, as something that was a source of illumination, something that allowed us to see something not normally visible, something beneath or behind the surfaces of life, something that the surfaces ordinarily conceal.
The notion of truth that most people walk around with, I think, is based on the idea of “believability”. Believability asks: do I (in the audience) believe this? Does this look enough like life that I can suspend my disbelief? Has the actor successfully reproduced the surfaces of life in such a way that I accept what she is doing? This is the actor as mirror: have I made my performance look enough like real life so that it is believed?
But what the examples above suggest is that there is another criteria for truth, which we might call expressive power. An actor who can, while reproducing the surfaces of life, also reveal the depths, has this expressive power. All of the adjustments I talked about above make it more possible for us, as the audience, to experience what is happening in the core of the actor, in ways that we don’t really even realize as we watch (mirror neurons! ). We can see into the actor. So acting is not just reproducing the surfaces of life, but doing so while simultaneously letting us experience the depths. A friend of mine, a very good actor and a playwright as well, once said she thought that a good actor was someone who could make themselves transparent. I remember being surprised by this at the time, but now I know exactly what she means.
Real people aren’t transparent in everyday life, in the way that a great actor is in enacting a life prepared by a writer. The actor is a lamp, not a mirror. He lets us see something ordinarily invisible.
I think this helps us understand what Stanislavsky meant when he said that acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” Most of us don’t walk around being aware of our own souls, or anyone else’s, all the time. That’s what art and spiritual practice help us to recall and reconnect with. What Stanislavsky was saying is that the actor is someone who, as she enacts a story, pulls back the curtain and gives us an experience of her soul. She shines a light.
And that, my friends, is the honest truth.