Sunday, June 26, 2011

Respect for Acting: The Characteristics of an Actor

I meet so many people nowadays who tell me they've always wanted to be on stage and perform, but didn't know if they had it in them, how far they could go with their natural talents.  Most of these people also aren't very familiar with the necessary training one needs to acquire to really harness the gift, but it all starts with a few personal traits and disciplines within yourself that will get you far.  Uta Hagen outlines a few characteristics of actors who are excellent at their craft in all fields in Respect for Acting.

"For a would-be actor, the prerequisite is talent.  You can only hope to God you've got it," Ms. Hagen writes.  I feel as if this could be a debatable point when it comes to 'natural talent' and if it's the foundation of successful acting.  Acting, apart from other artistic mediums, can be a primal trainwreck if out of control of the art itself.  The natural talent, I believe, comes from the understanding and awareness of the gift and the basic idea of how to control and manipulate it.  It's a trait that can be discovered anytime in life, but comes without formal training.  You may come from a family of artists or you may be the 'black sheep', but there's no denying whether you've got the 'talent' or not.  

Talent, as Ms. Hagen defines it, is:
"... an amalgam of high sensitivity; easy vulnerability; high sensory equipment (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting - intensely); a vivid imagination as well as a grip on reality; the desire to communicate one's own experiences and sensations, to make one's self heard and seen."
To me, talent and ability walk a fine line together.  There are people with outgoing personalities and possess unique traits who don't fare as well as actors because of the lack of training and the focus that comes with it.  The natural ability makes the training much easier, almost necessary to understand the training itself.  I believe everyone has this natural ability because it lies as an innate reaction, albeit more dormant in some people than others.  The natural ability comes from having an open and curious mind to the world and to learn about it as much as you can in the short time that you have, and the talent lies in the desire to communicate what you've learned to the world.  Ultimately, you want your human experiences to be heard and seen, whether they are literal or translated through the character.  How do we develop such diverse skills in emotive and physical communication to successfully portray a 'natural' character?  What do we need to develop within and outside of ourselves as unique individuals to be able to connect with these characters we portray?

As actors, our most basic tools is our body, our speech, our mental health to create the character from paper.  Training of the 'outer instrument' can be compared to the a musician's maintenance of a master instrument or a driver's regular checkup of his vehicle to ensure the best performance.  It's important that your mind and body are ready to meet the physical and emotional demands of the character's speech and movement, especially on command during rehearsals and performance.  Many theatre teachers may recommend that an actor take fencing lessons or ballet to improve on form and learn movement, and although these forms of movement grace the actor with an improved posture, it doesn't give the actor a complete understanding of the body's potential.  A homeless person wouldn't necessarily have the square posture of a fencer, nor would a ballet dancer be able to recreate the imperfections of a character flaw, such as a limp in the walk as the result of an accident or physical disability.  Classes in theatre movement are more widely available now, helping the actor physically explore expressions through the body, focusing the mind on executing physical manifestations of emotions, social interaction and understanding of natural reactions to everyday situations. 

Not to negate these art forms, they can be very useful in acquiring skills that may enhance your performances, especially if your character requires a specific skill set; for example, playing an instrument, knowing how to knit or paint, dance and voice training - the list goes on for miles!  My martial arts background has been very useful in a few stage-fighting situations, and I've had the chance to incorporate my flute playing in a few roles, as well.  (You're also probably familiar with that other little thing that I do on that other blog I have, y'know?)  Acquiring these skill sets not only sharpens your mind as an actor through applicable experience, but can also give you a new appreciation for the art form itself.  Having these skills also gives you an advantage over your other actors as viable performing skills that can be used within your character's realm.  At the same time, it is also important to be able to step in and out of your natural habits and adapt new traits - this would be a test to your 'limberness of the outer instrument'.  Ms. Hagen provides an excellent example of the consequences:  "A young actor who fails as Romeo - no matter how brilliant his inner technique - because he hasn't been able to shed his Brooklyn speech or his pigeon-toed walk has only his own laziness to blame."  We see many current Hollywood actors who have been able to easily shed their own native accents and fall into natural speech patterns with enough practice.  Most American audiences didn't realize that Hugh Laurie, playing a cynical limping doctor in the television drama House, is a British actor who walks just fine, thank you.  He has had a prolific television career, most known to his British audiences for his sketch comedy with fellow actor Stephen Fry.  To hear his Westernized diction is rather impressive when one wouldn't know the difference.  The same can be said for John Noble, an Australian, playing the role of Dr. Walter Bishop in the sci-fi serial Fringe.  The ability to shed their own native accents to adapt to their characters is not an easy exercise, much like trying to carry a conversation in a language you're slightly familiar with.  A command of the English language is necessary, as is the language that most classic theatre is written in, or has been translated without original records. 

A familiarity of theatre history is important, as is any craft, to understand its roots and culture, and how you can contribute to it.  Studying the works of the playwrights of ancient Greece like Sophocles, Homer and Aristophanes can give an idea of how the basic formations of chorus work began, while the works of Shakespeare can be the epitome of palpable speech and lush poetry that has invoked a passion for theatre in audiences worldwide.  History itself is abundant with material that can help connect the actor to the character's roots, even understand the subject matter of the play itself.  Many prominent works of theatre are based on actual events in history, one of my favourites being the rock opera Evita, Andrew Lloyd Weber's work about Argentine political leader Eva Peron and the dictatorship of her husband, General Juan Peron.  The study of Eva's scandalous rise to success and how it affected her relationship to the working class of Argentina during the Depression in the 1940s would be an important advantage to the authentic portrayal of the role, so as to respect the decisions made from the character's perspective.  Much like if you were to play a soldier in No Man's Land, or a pregnant single mother, or a successful politician, there is something in humankind's history that can be researched and observed to help make genuine connections and a sense of respect for the role you play.  However, be careful not to 'overthink' the role, you run the risk of thinking yourself out of a real impulse.  The grey area lies within the understanding of human nature in this sense and trusting your initial reactions, which are usually never wrong and need the littlest 'tailoring' to the character.

A sense of personal character and ethics are always an important aspect of personality when it has to do with the choice of role.  Heroes and heroines, for example, are easy to connect with because we are easily swayed to believe the greater qualities within us, what makes us good human beings.  The choice to play the antagonist is to face darker elements of your own psyche, regardless of degree of negativity.  In both roles, there is a common thread of choices made by the characters that lead them to the scene, both believing their choices were made for the best of intentions in whatever lives they lead.  Examining your own character and ethics in these situations ("What would I, not the character I play, do?") allows you to understand the bigger picture of the choices made by your character.  You may find the flaw in the hero, or the 'wrong turn' resulting in the villain's making.  Don't be afraid to explore a role that may lie opposite your moral ethics and character; you may find the performance and conviction to be much more convincing and find yourself armed with more information that may enforce you opinions on the subject.

This exploration of personal ethics may be part-in-parcel with your views about the world in which you live in.  With the heightened senses the actor possesses, it is most likely the code of ethics may result in a more sophisticated and expansive understanding of society and its diverse mosaic of culture and experience.  Ms. Hagen writes:  "A point of view [about the world which surrounds you] can result from the desire to change the social scene, the family scene, the political life, the state of the ecology, the conditions of the theater itself. [sic]"  Many artists are driven by certain social statements in their work, acting as unofficial ambassadors to the cause.  Musicians, actors, film directors and playwrights have all contributed to the awareness of many social issues by presenting educated information to their audiences, whether literal or through subject matter.  Many of these 'statements' result in some of the most powerful works in history, most even being the most forward-thinking of their time.

I'll give you my favourite example in this case:  Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, premiering at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 1879.  He had written it as a "modern tragedy," arguing that "a woman cannot be herself in modern society [since it is] an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint."  Ibsen was witness to the troubled marriage of his good friend, Laura Kieler, who had taken out a secret loan unbeknown to her husband.  Upon discovering the loan and her attempt to gain independence, Laura's husband had divorced her and committed her to an asylum.  Laura had urged Ibsen to intervene during a crucial point of the scandal, but felt that his involvement wouldn't serve appropriately.  Laura's perseverance and dignity throughout the ordeal had lead to the inspiration of his heroine, Nora, a woman who decides to leave her husband and son in a search of self-fulfillment.  The play was so controversial at the time that Ibsen's German agents urged him to change the end of the play to suit critics and protesters.  He conformed and provided an alternate ending, resulting in Torvald, Nora's husband, ushering in their son as a visible reminder of what she would abandon, where she faints and the curtains close.  Ibsen called this a "barbaric outrage" that the claimed intellectuals of the day refused to acknowledge the the play's 'universal superobjective', that everyone has a right to claim their own potential.  Ibsen had received honours from the Norwegian Womens' Rights League in 1898, but had claimed that he never intended to contribute "propaganda" or to have "consciously worked for the womens' rights movement," but claimed that it was a "description of humanity."  Michael Meyer, leading translator for Ibsen's works, attests that the theme of A Doll's House is the "need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to strive to become that person."  Ibsen's open mind (and 'unintentional contribution') to the equal potential of women in his 'modern society' would lead to one of the most powerful statements of the perseverance of the human spirit; a great example of how his observance, ethics and awareness of the world in which he lives in would live to be timeless art.

"To rebel or revolt against the status quo is in the very nature of the artist," Ms. Hagen writes, identifying a fundamental quality in artists that helps define why and how they perfect and practice their craft.  Through constant improvement of body and mind, being aware and respectful of world history and having an educated opinion on society's issues, an actor can achieve artistic success in understanding the work he is partaking.  Theatre is a tool to entertain and educate not only the audience, but the company for which it serves.

Research materials from Wikipedia.

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