Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Actor as Child

I had promised a post on the Actor as Priest, but before we get to that, let's talk for a minute about the vulnerability of acting - or the Actor as Child.

Actors wear masks and costumes, but in some ways they're quite naked on stage. Especially in an emotionally demanding role, an actor puts a very intimate part of himself out there for all to see, under the glare of spotlights, the gaze of the audience, the judgment of critics, the potential ridicule of the director. And actors do this because they are very trusting people, in a way.

And playing upon this, many directors or acting coaches will have actors do "trust falls" at rehearsal, in which an actor stands on stage, closes his eyes and simply plummets off, to be caught (he trusts) in the arms of his fellow cast members standing below (I would not advise doing this in a one-man show). This is meant to emphasize our dependence on one another and our need to abandon ourselves to the "experience", for being distrustful or closing one's heart can really block the creative process and hamper the kind of give-and-take actors need to develop with their peers in performance.

And actors tend to be vulnerable people to begin with, and both child-like in the good sense and childish in the bad sense. They are generally quite willing to trust and put their faith in something or someone (though most actors today are pagans and the last thing they'll do is trust in God).

This often opens actors up to the potential for serious abuse, some of it sexual, but most of it psychological. There are a ton of charlatans posing as acting coaches and directors at workshops and grad schools around the country, cult leader types who use mind games to mess with the actors under their care in order to bed their bodies and break their spirits. From what I hear, most grad school acting programs are simply Mind Games that you pay for.

And yet cynicism is the worst response to this. For cynicism in an actor or in anybody is a hardening of the heart. And as I said this hardening of heart chokes off the creative process.

For all artists need to keep this vulnerability, and all Christians need to have a vulnerability as well. We know Our Lord tells us that we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we become like little children, but He also tells us something similar that's profoundly mysterious, something connected to being vulnerable - to being receptive.

In the Old Testament, David says to God, "With the pure thou dost shew thyself pure; And with the perverse thou dost shew thyself contrary." (2 Sam. 22:27) In the New Testament, God says to us, "Take heed what you hear. In what measure you shall mete, it shall be measured to you again, and more shall be given to you." (Mark 4:24)

These passages may not seem at first to be related to vulnerability, to circumcision of heart, or to becoming like children, but really they are. In some mysterious way, God - and all of life - responds to the approach we take, to the measure with which we measure, to the openness with which we hear the Word. We receive more than we expect when we don't shut ourselves off to the awful pain and splendor of life - and our cup overflows, with living water from flinty rock - if our cup is empty and ready to receive. It is the "cup of suffering", and if it is clean inside it will shine on the outside as well (see Mat. 23:26 & 26:39).

I have written elsewhere of the mystery of the soil, the strange way in which reception of the Word allows the potential life in the Word to come forth. Mark follows up the "measure for measure" speech in his gospel by going straight to this (Mark 4:26 & 27) - "And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow - how, he does not know."

Indeed, how we do not know. Our "know how" is less impressive than we think, and actors learn this all the time. "Know how" on stage only gets you so far. It's the presence of the Spirit that really matters, not your sophistication or technical prowess.

We do not "know how" the Word takes root and grows within us, but we do know that it can not do so without our willing reception of the Word, our cultivation of it - which requires at the very least a heart circumcised, broken like good soil by the plow of suffering, a heart open to the mystery that the seed contains. Only through our child-like vulnerability, trust, and openness (un-worldly-wise as these qualities are) can we become channels of grace - both on stage and off.

Thus actors must always be broken, broken like the alabaster box that contained the ointment that was poured upon Jesus' head, broken like the heart of Our Lord when it was pierced with a lance, broken like soil that the plow turns up to receive the seed, broken like the apostles who had nothing else to live for without Christ, broken like the pride of St. Paul knocked off his high horse, broken like an actor who's so broke can't pay his rent and whose heart is so sensitive that it shatters at the smallest of things.

For if we hear with good measure we will be hurt, we will be broken, and it is then that we will be able to Act.

1 comment:

Nickel Halfwise said...

I have been enjoying reading your posts on acting, appreciating them as I always do those things that I find resonate with my own thinking. This one in particular I find relates to my thoughts of late: thoughts centered around humility. Although you did not once use the word humility, I could not help but see that this was exactly what you were describing. It is interesting.

So I wanted you to know that I appreciated it. Even if that is not the reason for sharing one's thoughts, I know it is always good to hear that one's writings are appreciated.

In Christ,