Actors are very worried about “the character”. This concern is understandable given the way many of us in theater have been taught to approach a play. Many acting teachers and directors fuel this concern by talking about “the character” during classes and rehearsals like she or he is the most important person in the room.
Well, there is a secret that you need to know. The most important people in the room are NOT the characters.
The most important people are you and your acting partner.
No character in dramatic literature has said or done anything that is outside of the realm of human understanding and, more specifically, outside of YOUR human understanding. You have all the tools you need in terms of experience. Every character you could possibly imagine exists within you already.
Think about it. You have suffered great loss. You have experienced profound joy. You have burned with a desire for revenge. You have had every emotion under the sun. We say to ourselves, “I can’t go there!” or “It’s unimaginable that this or that would happen” or “I could never do THAT”.
Yes, you can go there. That is your job.
Yes, you must imagine that this or that could happen. That is your job.
Yes, you can do that. That is your job.
You are an actor. Everything you have to do, everything you need to do is already inside of you.
This is what Larry Silverberg means when he says, “You are enough.”
Think about that for a moment. YOU. ARE. ENOUGH.
That is not some feel-good, New-Age pablum designed to make you sit back on your ass and think, “Oh. Awesome. I’m enough. Well I’ll just sit here and let the audience bask in the wonder of me. No sweat.”
NO!!! That statement is a challenge. It is nothing less than a call to arms. It is the audience saying: “Hey YOU, Actor!!!! You have everything that I want. YOU have EVERYTHING I have come here to see. YOU are why I paid for this ticket. YOU are why I dragged myself out of my warm apartment on this cold, rainy Chicago night. YOU are the things I’m looking for—RIGHT NOW—to show me why life is still worth living, why I should care, what the point of all this—this thing we call life–really is. I am here for something and I want it!”
And what is it that the audience has come for?
They have come for YOU. You and ONLY you! To be with you while you tell the truth. And what is the only truth that you can really tell?YOUR TRUTH. You must tell your truth. And in doing that the character—the words that you are saying courtesy of the playwright—will be suffused with the power of that truth and will live.
This is the most terrifying realization an actor can face. We have been taught that we, as actors, “hide” behind our character, as if this thing called character is a fortress into which we retreat from the prying eyes of the audience. No wonder that so often we go to theatre or the cinema and say, “I just couldn’t relate to anyone.”
How can you relate to someone who is hiding? How can I see someone, how can I see myself in someone who will not show themselves? What a cruel trick to play on the people who have given you their trust, their time, their money, their hopes and their dreams. How long can an audience be expected to chase (metaphorically speaking) an actor around the stage or the screen hoping for a moment of truth, a moment when they reveal themselves and in doing so allow the audience to understand, for one brief second, who they are and what they feel and experience.
No wonder audiences get bored, check their text messages, fiddle with their programs, catch up on their sleep! And then when the play is over they rise to their feet for a standing ovation because they think they should or because the person next to them is doing it and then everyone is trapped in a sticky web of dishonesty and isolation.
The experience did not transform anyone and theatre itself, truth itself, dies.
But that is not why you have come to this work. You have brought yourself—everything you are—to this work because you want to live. You want to live on stage. You want the audience to feel alive. You want to join together in a fleeting moment in space and time that will never exist again, you want to join with others in that ephemeral communion when you breathe as one, and hold that breath as one because you are so unsure of what might happen next. We crave that chance to cheer and weep and laugh as one in the witnessing of a truth that lives for all of us, regardless of our differences, regardless of the countless divides that we stare across every day.
Is it the character standing on the stage, night after night? No. It is YOU.
The character is a collection of choices, habits, a series of decisions made by the playwright and interpreted by the director. The character lives on the page. The character lives in the mind of the playwright and the script is the realization of the playwright’s living truth. The character and the story are the child borne of a playwright’s hard labor.
The playwright has done their job. Now we need you to do yours.
Meryl Streep famously said, “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”
You don’t need to tell the story. The playwright already did that. You don’t need to create the character. The playwright already did that.
When you fixate on these things you are missing the point, you are not embracing the power, the pure act of creation for which you, as an actor, are solely responsible.
We want to see YOU. We want that so badly that even after attending endless productions lacking in truth and life, after watching countless movies and TV shows where people pretend to be living, we continue to hope, we continue to need, to we are search, looking and hoping for that truth. We are looking for you.
WE NEED YOU. To be who are you, completely, fully, unashamedly, and bravely on that stage. We need you to tell the truth, no matter how terrifying it may be. We want to see that kind of courage on stage and when we do, we will be transformed. You as an actor must understand that this is your power and it is profound.
You have within you the power to transform the lives of the members of your audience through your willingness to BE—to be yourself, to be truthful, to live in a state of unknowing at every moment. For us, in the audience, to see that is akin to witnessing the miracle of birth over and over again. It is beyond thought and language. It is more than we will ever be able to comprehend. And like any incomprehensible beauty—of a colt struggling to its legs for the first time, of a newborn infant taking her first breath, of sun-drenched Pacific Ocean or the Northern lights in the Alaskan sky, of the poetry of Neruda, the paintings of Van Gogh, the movement of Nureyev—it will always keep us coming back for more.
That place where we meet things greater than ourselves, when we feel them both within us and outside of us, these moments define and frame our humanity.
Larry talks to us in his writing (and in person!) about the shedding of masks. The masks that we wear in everyday life—our “act” as he calls it—that results from us telling ourselves and the world who we are. “I’m a really nice guy!” we tell ourselves. “I’m a really good caretaker. I don’t care about myself, only others” say. “I don’t get angry” or, conversely, “I’m always angry, I don’t like people.”
Yes, these things may in fact be true.
But this is not ALL of who we are.
And this, paradoxically, is the terror that we face when we begin this work. The revelation that we are MORE, so much more than what we have allowed ourselves to be. Sanford Meisner and his compatriots in The Group Theatre are responsible for creating the style of American acting that we know today. Another great American, Walt Whitman, understood and voiced the spirit of us as a people when he wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
You have everything within you as an actor. Begin the hard work—and make no mistake, it IS hard work!!!—of finding all those things inside and showing them to your audience.
Marianne Williamson wrote a poem called Our Greatest Fear that turns the going logic of what we fear on its head with this simple and profound idea, “Our greatest fear,” she says, “is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”
That light is the light that will touch audiences, animate the character who lives now only on the page. But nothing live on the stage or screen until you–THE ACTOR– are present, available, truthful and alive in the moment.