Monday, June 13, 2011

Respect for Acting: Representational vs. Presentational, Outer vs. Inner Techniques

I am a student of Stanislavski when it comes to building acting technique, learning about how his method is much like a fine-tailored suit specifically for the actor wearing it.  However, my suit won't fit you perfectly, it will need to be altered for your form in certain ways for your own preferences.  Stanislavski himself interviewed the finest actors of his day to determine the formula for a successful actor in his craft, finding that although certain techniques were common, they were given different approaches depending on the actor's conditioning.  It can all relate to our own personalities and how we retain those experiences, how we recall them when retelling anecdotes from days or years ago.  Whether they're childhood memories, personal morals or even table manners, they have all created a system of responses that are at your fingertips when it comes to a reference library to use in your acting technique.  The question is now how to apply them.

Similar to Stanislavski's "outer versus inner" character building technique, Ms. Hagen talks about the Representational versus Presentational acting technique, "two approaches to acting that have been debated in the theater through the centuries." [sic]  With Stanislavski's method, the 'outer' character building focuses on the external attributes of the character - as derived from the text - and allowing them to dictate how the character would react in certain situations given in the script.  Such things as age, physical defects, posture, choice of dress and many other 'external' possibilities outlined in the script are used to shape the character's emotional state of mind.  The 'inner' technique starts with the stuff 'between the lines' in the script; the character's personal history before the events of the play, relationships with other characters on stage, determining personality attributes by examining the character's reactions within the situations of the script.  An inner monologue develops, creating a fluid 'train of thought' for the actor to use for a more natural and authentic emotional portrayal.  The actor remains in control of the emotional input, while creating a "human experience" for the audience to witness.  Many times have both these techniques been used in conjunction for the development of the character; for example, if your character is an old man who has a limp and whose lines portray him as cynical, this will certainly affect reaction times to onstage action and potentially his apathy towards other characters.  The limp may be built into the 'inner monologue' as being an Achilles' heel to his potential in life, then affecting his choice in personal appearance and dress, either portraying the image of a man defeated or a man on a constant search for victory, regardless of personal hinderance.  This is just one example of many that could be construed, depending on the actor and the script.  The development of these techniques by Stanislavski could well have been a simpler breakdown of the two classic forms of acting, simply to help end the debate of what's considered 'proper technique'. 

Representational acting, as Ms. Hagen explains it, is "flamboyant, external, formalistic" in illustrating the character's behaviour.  A classic form is found for the character objective, which is then carefully monitored during the rehearsal process.  The execution of this technique usually carries with it a great exaggeration in speech and gesture - think Shakespeare's characters and how they are portrayed by trained classical actors as a basic example of this.  Although representational acting follows current fashion and trend when building archetypes for characters, an untrained actor risks portraying the character in a two-dimensional or stereotypical light, or even accused of 'overacting'.  (Think of the many classics in theatre that have been butchered because the actor didn't understand the content!)  Those actors that follow this technique may feel that a genuine emotional experience on stage is rejected on the belief that the actor has lost control of the form, thus the character.  Ms. Hagen uses the example of the nineteenth-century French actor Coquelin, who after numerous accolades for his performance one evening, called his fellow actors together and claimed that he had cried "real tears" on stage, and that "it would never happen again."  (Clearly his suit was fitted with a 'representational' lining!)  No matter the execution, the audiences lept to their feet and cheered the performance.  We ask the audience what they cheer for - the lines and diction delivered perfectly, the limbs and form graceful and full of purpose - at the feat performed?  They would cheer the same way for a tightrope walker or magician, the "visible skill" they had just witnessed.  What they are missing here - and what I feel is the most important part of theatre - is the human connection between actor and audience through understanding of actor and character.

That's where we get to the Presentational approach to acting.  "I believe the illustration of a character's behaviour at the cost of removing one's own psyche ... creates an alienation between audience and actor," writes Ms. Hagen.  I have this passage highlighted with huge asterisks around it.  This statement could sum up many reasons about why I do theatre and acting.  While the "formulas" used in Representational process have a strong tendency to follow familiar and current fashion, the Presentational actor trusts the rehearsal process in building a form that will come to fruition through a deeper understanding of himself and the character's motivations.  The actor uses his own personal experiences to present a more authentic reaction from the character, remembering that the actor is always in control of emotional input.  Introduction of 'personal tragedy' in identifying with a character could be damaging to the actor's mental health, having difficulty being able to emotionally separate oneself from the character's troubles in the play.  Theatre shouldn't be used as a tool of therapy for those actors dealing with unresolved issues; an actress who is in the process of a painful divorce should not bring those personal feelings into her character's situation of a cheating spouse, for example, as it may be difficult to focus on the rehearsal process as well as potentially suffer from emotional repercussions with her fellow actors.  In situations where the actor has difficulty relating to the character's 'emotional baggage', try putting yourself - your own psyche and personality - into the character, analyzing how you physically react to emotional responses and applying them directly to the rehearsal process, allowing them to build as you become more comfortable and genuine with the reaction.  Observation and awareness are two of the most important tools of the Presentational actor, cataloging every sensation for 'recreation' on stage, "becoming as timeless as a human experience itself."

Ms. Hagen established the examples of stage and screen actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse at the beginning of the chapter to show the difference in execution and audience effect between Representational and Presentational.  This paragraph is a great example of the techniques in motion:
"For an example of the above, let me again refer to [Sarah] Bernhardt and [Eleonora] Duse.  Each, in her native tongue, had played the same popular melodrama of the time, the high point of which was the moment when the wife, accused of infidelity by her husband, swore her virtue.  "Je jure, je jure, JE JUUUUURE!" Berhardt proclaimed in a rising vibrato of passion.  Her audience stood to scream and shout its admiration.  Duse swore her virtue softly and only twice.  She never spoke the third oath, but placed her hand on her young son's head as she looked directly as her husband.  Duse's audience wept."  (Uta Hagen, 'Respect for Acting', Wiley Publishing, Inc.; page 12)

Duse was once accused of being too much alike in each of her roles; she had responded that the only thing she had to offer as an actor was the revelation of her soul.  With a 'humanizing' effect on a role, the connection with the audience to feel the emotional power of your play becomes easier.  Connecting with the psyche and the motivations, understanding the choices the character made behind the outcome of these scenes allows you to recognize and utilize your 'catalogue of reactions' you've built through your lifetime of human interaction.  I personally agree with Ms. Hagen in her preference with the Presentational approach and with the necessity of the Representational, much like I prefer to use Stanislavski's inner character building technique as supposed to the outer.  I have always followed my gut when it comes to 'fleshing out' the character from page, letting emotional instincts guide me, harnessed with the motivation of character's outcome.  Sometimes it's a physical action or a certain strut in my walk that I somehow associate with my character, thus using the 'outer' or Representational approach.  A strong bodily reaction would result in an elevated, dramatic proclamation, whereas a tragic situation may result in a 'melodramatic' reaction - where the danger of 'overacting' can set in.  However, with the appropriate emotional response, you'll find yourself with cheering audiences or weeping ones, just like the audiences of Bernhardt and Duse.  These two techniques can be used interchangeably - the genius and beauty of Stanislavski's 'actor's suit' - to suit the actor's needs in developing a character to its full potential.

Despite what I believe and what may work for me, my job as an educator is to assist the actor in developing the method that works for them in that given role, in that particular situation.  Just always remember to be true to what works best for you, and develop your skill like you would fit the finest clothing you own - just for your skin.

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