Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |
Nathan Thomas

Ripeness Is All           


June 2014

Paperboy.  Mower of lawns.  Archivist. Janitor (elementary school, newspaper office). Broadcast journalist (radio).  Disc jockey (pop and country).  Food service (ice cream shop, hamburger grill cook, diner waiter).  Salesman (vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, computers, telephone sales).  Part-time preacher.  Painter. Shop worker.  Theatre technical director.  Teacher.  Pianist. Actor.  Director.  Librarian. Inventory specialist. Environmental activist. Secretary.  Data-base developer.  Stage manager.  Academic advisor.  Academic dean.  Factory work (night of cardboard hell, bindery, etc).  Bar tender (natch).  Artistic Director.  Director of Theatre.

This is a list of most of the jobs I've had over the years.  I've had far better bosses than I've deserved. Mostly the folks I've worked with have been kind.  Some nice holiday parties.  Good folks to go have a drink with after work, generally.  I say this because I've had a chance to watch people work.

It comes in handy when a young person wants to develop as an actor.

An old internet acquaintance of mine, Scott Walters, has written very movingly about, "[High school actors who] are trained to become so-called "triple threats;" taught the ins and outs of auditions, headshots and resumes; and been polished until they "sparkle.""

Some folks might read this and wonder what's wrong with that? 

I don't know the right or wrong of that.  But I do think it provides a starting place in thinking about the development of performers into artists of maturity.

Now, already I've written something there that probably needs "unpacking."  I appear to be setting up a dichotomy between performers and artists.  Can't performers be artists?  Probably.  But the way we use language can get in the way of working to think clearly about what we do.

Some young folks don't really catch the theatre "bug" until college – or sometimes even later than that.  Good for them.

My purpose here, though, is to look at the folks who start young.

First, the small child can be great on stage.  The moppet who plays Tiny Tim in the regional production of A Christmas Carol needs neither performing nor acting skills.  He merely needs to be able to say his few words in a timely way with some vigor. And the small child may not really grasp the real import of the task other than it's a kind of game.

Therefore, my discussion here is not about the small child actor.

We have to realize that the tween or teen who actually doesn't mind being seen in public is already part of a rare minority.

The audience for the vast number of teen actors are parents, siblings, and classmates.  To rise to the top of the teen performance ladder certain skills are prized.  These skills include being bright.  The ability to understand and say words so that it appears that the actor in fact does understand the words -- is important.  These skills include speaking well. These skills include moving well.

And the teen body is a chemical factory working over-time.  Even the teen who can sleep 18 hours at a stretch has unlimited stores of energy when called upon.  So, it's not surprising that the teen has great performance energy.

The ability to channel the energy appropriately helps.

Good young performers learn and acquire great polish in these skills.

While it is true some young performers can act, by and large those skills aren't particularly prized.

This may astonish some readers.  Let me note that one of the best performances I've ever seen was They Dance Real Slow in Jackson by Jim Leonard, Jr. as performed by a high school ensemble.  They were great.

But the teen-age boy who plays Tevye in his high school is a good guy. He sings wonderfully.  He can do the little dance at the end of "If I Were a Rich Man."  Every member of the audience thinks, "What a great job he's doing."  But I'm betting that if that same young man gave the same performance in any other setting, the audience would be less impressed. 


Per Sir Derek Jacobi, acting is a kind of trick.  The actor needs to provide a kind of believability of behavior for the audience to be moved.  This trick includes a conundrum that has puzzled acting initiates for centuries. On the one hand, to perform with coldness inside is no fun.  So, what you feel inside whilst doing the scene needs to be convincing to the audience. 

So, our young man in the paste-on beard (he doesn't shave yet) as Tevye, doesn't have the tool-set yet to understand that trick or how to make it happen fully.

Say our young Tevye goes to acting school – either at a college or a private studio in a city.  In my experience, he starts off a little disappointed.  Why isn't his brilliance appreciated by his teachers?  Don't they know he played Tevye?  In his high school, he was the real deal.  And now, in his class, he's just an average schmo.

He works on scenes.  He's bright. He says his lines with intelligence and energy.  This used to work really well for him.  But the teachers don't seem particularly "wowed" by this strategy.

Our guy has a crisis of confidence.  In some instances, folks drift away.  Some folks become English majors or Psych majors.  Or they get that great entry-level position at the car rental place that can lead to big-time management.

But our Tevye truly loves what he does and, out of the crisis, he decides to stick with acting.

Well, what is he going to do?

Back to the centuries old conundrum mentioned above.  Friends, if someone is alive, they're feeling something. But those feelings may or may not be convincing to an audience.  Years ago I worked with an actress whom I'm sure felt very much, but you wouldn't know it in the audience – or standing across stage from her.  As an actor she didn't give an unfeeling performance.  Rather she gave an unconvincing performance.

Let's check in on our young Tevye.

One day in acting class the teacher goes on about how our guy isn't believable.  Our guy isn't "connecting," the teacher says.  "I don't believe you," the teacher says.  The teacher requests our guy to repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat a small section of a little something.  Our guy doesn't quite understand what the teacher is looking for. Isn't the actor's job to please the teacher/director/audience? – so thinks our guy.

Ultimately our guy gets frustrated.  He gets very frustrated and a little angry.  At the teacher.  At himself. At the universe.  It's equal opportunity frustration.  Realizing that it may not be etiquette to let all of that "hang out," our guy has the internal struggle between feeling frustrated and angry and not letting it show.  What shows is a convincing demonstration of turmoil.  The teacher says, "That last time, you found something."

A couple of things.  One, the teacher didn't explain that the actor's overwhelming frustration provided some inner material that appeared roughly congruent with the character in the scene.  Because of the actor's frustration, the teacher thought, maybe we can pick it up from here another time.

As a result, the student concludes unfortunate ideas.  One, acting necessarily requires great struggle.  If I feel frustrated and wrought, I must be doing it right.  That's what worked and got me approval from teacher.  Two, I need to work myself into a frenzy for it to "feel right."

So, our guy worries through performance after performance.  Equal to doing five-finger exercises at the piano, sheer repetition of performance starts to teach our guy.  He starts to learn how to listen.  He learns to be less concerned with what he feels or what his face looks like or what intonation he gives that line.  He learns how to focus on his partner(s).

He starts to learn the trick of using the tools of an actor to make an audience have a greater belief in what he does on stage.  Regardless if it's comedy or drama or in any style, our guy learns how to be convincing.  He's a developed actor.

But there's one last conundrum.  Our guy learns he doesn't have to act always out of frustration. So, he learns that he wants to feel comfortable on stage.  Our guy tells the director (he's more confident now), "I don't feel comfortable doing that."

Now we've entered the final stage.  The actor needs to feel comfortable on stage.  And if it doesn't feel comfortable, then it can't be right – according to this system of thought.

There is a dichotomy between being appropriately "at home" on stage and being comfortable, I think.  Anyone who has been part of a family knows that you can feel the you are part and parcel of the family, you are where you belong – but you are not necessarily comfortable.  Anyone who has been deeply in love knows that you can have your socks knocked off, but you aren't necessarily comfortable.

If you are doing stage violence or stage affection – then by all means – you need to feel comfortable with what you're doing.  But outside of that, stage comfort is over-rated for actors.

So, is this story autobiographical?  A little.  It's mostly observational.  While here he's a young Tevye, it could as easily been the young Sally Bowles or the young Mrs. Lovett or the high school Mama Rose.  In my observation, the story is even tougher for women, since so many of the acting teachers and directors still tend to be men – and often middle-aged men.

Is it exactly this way for everyone?  No, I don't think so.  Some people have the luck to jump past some stages quickly.  Some folks are born knowing the "trick" almost at birth. Some folks are born with the ability to communicate what's going on inside very easily.

But I've seen this path taken by more than one colleague, friend, and/or student.  And like any other path of development, you do what you can to help people through to the next stop on the journey safe, healthy, and prepared.

I learned that from being a janitor.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column in Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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©2014 Nathan Thomas
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Scene4 - International Magazine of Arts and Culture

June 2014

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