Been trying to write about a central schism in our work— the bastard marriage between commerce and art—that make up the theatre, the movies, and television in our culture. More resonance to the idea that “the drama is conflict.” The more I try to write down what I have to say about it, the bigger the topic becomes, the more threads and implications I see.
Say I’m giving notes after a scene in which someone has been playing the negative action, by which I mean the actor’s intention is to leave, go, get away from the partner. A very limiting choice. Either (a) go already, or (b) get into a physical altercation in which the stronger, bigger, heavier of the partners will keep the other in the scene. Rather than playing that you want to escape, get hold of why you want to be there, what keeps you in the scene, why you are on the stage (in the shot) with this person. And it has to be a for real, for real reason. In other words, go toward the conflict.
Most of us with training or experience know this is what you’re supposed to do, but so often we don’t. It’s an insidious problem. You may not even realize that’s what’s wrong in the work.
So why do we do that? Often it’s an unconscious decision. Why? There are many reasons. Maybe you don’t want to be perceived as harsh, abrasive, or the dreaded UNLIKABLE. Of course, we all want to be liked, it’s only human. Maybe you fear you won’t be considered sufficiently castable in a commercial way. Maybe you want to appear smooth, professional, in control. Perhaps performing (or going to an audition) is pressure enough—you unconsciously reduce the pressure by eliminating or minimizing the conflict in the scene. Women are still socialized to be “nice,” men still to be “manly.” Maybe you get hooked into playing a general emotion after being told to “raise the stakes,” lifting your blood pressure, but not the audience’s. Or you confuse being available as an actor with being nice. Going into the conflict might not be part of your “brand.”
If you think about the actors whose work you really admire, I’d bet they too want to be liked but are not so afraid of themselves… and that they have worked long and hard to achieve that.
Two things to end this blog posting – first, a story that I was told many years ago by a wonderful agent. He represented a famous glamour girl movie star who was doing her first play, a musical, AUNTIE MAME, on a national tour. He saw the production in previews and the movie star was wonderful, he said, every moment alive with Mame’s zest to live her life and raise her nephew. The star was grateful that he liked her performance, she said, but she was just scrambling to make all the costume changes, hit her notes, keep up with the more musical-savvy members of the cast.
You get the picture.
When he saw the show some weeks later, he said it was terrible. What had happened? The star was now in complete command of the show, she’d overcome all her personal obstacles about diving into a new situation in a new medium, and in so doing, overcame all of Mame’s as well. The agent said the show played like a pageant, ambling from one scene to the next. Mame had nothing to overcome, her problems were now minimal and could be easily solved, everything would go her way; she was a movie star. What conflict?
Love that story. By the way, the actor involved went on to do many more plays and musicals, giving excellent performances, finding the balance between satisfying the needs of an audience out to see a movie star, while staying in the conflicted situation of the drama.
And my last and much harsher point, a quote from Goethe: “I wish the stage was as narrow as a tight rope so that no incompetent would dare walk on it.”