Acting (to act): in the theatre is understood as the portrayal of the physical, emotional and mental complexities of a given character. While this seems a straight forward description, it is not at all clear that all theatre practitioners understand the exclusive nature of the term. Recognizing that an actor is a ‘performer’ it is not unusual to discover the two terms being used synonymously. But while an actor is necessarily a performer it is not the case that all performers are “ipso facto” actors.
“Characterization, when accompanied by a real transposition, a sort of re-incarnation, is a great thing. Since an actor is called upon to create an image while he is on stage… [characterization] becomes a necessity for all [actors]. In other words all actors who are artists should make use of characterization. A capacity to transform himself, body and soul is the prime requirement for an actor.” (K. Stanislavski)
"In its largest sense, the creation of evolution of a character by the actor is “living in terms of the theatre”. (Aristide D’Angelo)
"The actor on the stage does not present any real person but rather, a fiction – a character in a play. The actor is the primary means by which we experience the theatrical metaphor." (Robert Corrigan)
It is clear from the above quotes that the task of the actor is to portray character but not all theatre pieces provide the opportunity to portray character; not all theatre pieces provide the opportunity to act. Some pieces merely provide for the performing of role types. Melodrama, farces and the comedies of Aristophanes fall into this category. Admittedly, these pieces often require a skillful depiction of the role types they present and more often it is the actor, who is the finer craftsman, who is most able to satisfy the demands of the script. It is, perhaps, for this reason that ‘performing’ and ‘acting’ are held to be equivalent terms.
“Actors and actresses must study human behavior carefully so that they can present the outward appearance of the character accurately. They must also understand and transmit the inner feelings of the character they portray. (Edward Wilson).
For Aristotle, “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids.” Aristotle is at pains to point out that “any speech or action (praxis) that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character.” Of course, a speech demonstrating a deliberate lack of moral purpose will also be expressive of character. Aristotle was adamant that characters should be consistent; “As an example of motiveless degradation of character, we have Menelaus in the Orestes: of character indecorous and inappropriate, the lament of Odysseus in the Scylla, and the speech of Melanippe: of inconsistency, the Iphigenia at Aulis, - for Iphigenia the suppliant in no way resembles her later self.”
"Indeed, as we have said over and over again, the core of theatre is the actor/audience relationship. With it there is theatre; without it there is none. This is the only absolute and always present factor."
—Vera Mowry Roberts
While Aristotle’s criticisms are critiques of particular scripts rather than of the actor’s skill, they reinforce the argument that some pieces merely provide for the performing of role types. Unlike the portrayal of character, the performing of roles is a rule governed activity; role play is rule play whereas characterization evolves as a result of the motivations chosen by the actor. To be sure, plays that involve the actor in characterization also involve the character playing a role but in order to value the work of the actor we must distinguish between the two. For example, the character of Hamlet is not the role. Rather Hamlet must play the roles of the Prince of Denmark, a loyal son, a friend to Horatio and in some interpretations, Ophelia’s lover. Tacit rules exist (as they do in every day situations) by which audiences may measure the success of Hamlet playing the role of a loyal son, a friend and the Prince of Denmark. Characters in plays, like people in life, must play a number of roles but how the roles are played is dependent on the personality of the character undertaking them.
It is important that we are able to recognize what constitutes a ‘character’ in a script. Fundamentally, theatre pieces present us with two types of characters; pivotal and supporting. A pivotal character is the one with which the play is concerned. This concern is determined by how the plot is structured to show us a number of different qualities of character; what is characteristic and what is uncharacteristic. It is this latter quality that is most important for supporting characters are rarely developed enough for us to see or determine their uncharacteristic qualities, for obvious reasons (the play is not about them). All of us share common characteristics but it is not these that demonstrate our individuality. We do not ‘know’ persons by the characteristics they share in common with others. We ‘know’ them by what they do not share with others; by what makes them individual and/or unique and we can only discern this by seeing them in a number of situations, both usual and unusual. It is the playwright’s task to provide the actor with the opportunity the show the character to be unique by creating the situations and the dialogue (words are deeds) that allow for a portrayal of character. Most playwrights understand that it is their task to create opportunities for the portrayal of character for this is also the way a plot develops. Actors relish the opportunity to ‘play the action’ to develop the mental, emotional and physical complexities of the character.
"...the single irreducible element of all theatre is the living presence of the actor acting before an audience. It is possible to have theatre without a written script, produced without costumes or stage properties, in natural light, without the guiding service of a director. But there can be no theatre without actor and audience."
There seems to be universal agreement among writers on theatre that the actor or acting is the single definitive event that establishes and determines the nature of theatre. While it is not at all clear that all have the same understanding as to what constitutes acting, it is clear that all would accept the ‘portrayal of character’ as the task the actor is expected to accomplish. It will serve us to take a moment and question the notion of ‘portrayal’. It is important to a clear understanding of the nature of acting to understand the nature of this activity. Portrayal is a term that refers to an activity that we undertake with skill; it involves a conscious pursuit to present those qualities of character that allow for understanding and empathy. Portrayal is designed to inform the audience about the character the actor is developing. As a result, it would be incorrect to suggest that an actor could portray his or her own character. Rather, they merely expose it. It is not unusual to discover an actor who is described as ‘playing himself’ in a play. In such instances the actor treats the character he or she is to play as if it were a role allowing personal prejudice to govern the development of the character.
"...by thinking you turn into the person, if you think strongly enough. I think my character's thoughts when I'm playing a play that matters, because I am that woman all the time through."
—Dame Edith Evans
Edith Evans provides a clue to how the actor portrays the mental complexities of a character. Also, she recognizes that ‘a play that matters’ provides the opportunity to portray character. Obviously a character in a play is not going to have a personality that duplicates the personality of the actor chosen to portray the character; the author did not write the actor into the play. In order for the actor to think the character’s thoughts (particularly those thoughts that are not expressed) he or she will have to have an understanding of the biography (history) of the character. If the author does not provide this, the actor will have to invent a biography based on research of such things as the character’s profession or job, the character’s health, childhood environment and activities, prejudices, desires and accomplishments and failures, etc. The actor will have to come to know the character so that they can take possession of the dialogue and make it their own controlling speech patterns, lilt, inflection and enunciation. Gesture and movement and the nuances of the individual personality are also determined by the character’s biography
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