This essay was first written many years ago when I was teaching acting, but its premise, I believe continues to ring true for all artists who call the stage home. And its message of the sanctity and seriousness of the play and players has an added resonance in a time of pandemic when playhouses are shuttered, artists are silenced, and their customarily hard-won existence is now threatened even more terrifyingly to the very core. The arts are essential; theatre is essential, and its business is part of human civilization's lifeblood. As a society we need to remember this or we risk losing our humanity!
The English word for a piece of dramatic literature is a "play." Its etymological roots give testimony to its early connections with fantasy and games. The connotation of pretend – as in child's play – is there, as well as the notion that a play represents an escape from reality. While these associations are true, they are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted to imply that playacting requires little or no seriousness at all – that is, as a vocation, or even an avocation, it is merely fun, a delightful "extra" which graces human existence.
The origins of theatre were religious ones. The Greeks and later the medieval clerics took their theatre with fierce seriousness. The concept of fantasy or pretend was accepted, but the fact of donning a mask was viewed as a noble, god-like task. One entered the body and soul of another human being and gave life to his passions. The catharsis of the experience for actor and audience provided a release, but of the most spiritual kind.
Plays, playwriting are noble enterprises of commitment, not escapist ventures. The escape or release provided is one that is essential to the human soul. The seriousness of play, the work of the actor who pretends to become and be another human being onstage is awe-inspiring business. Acting and theatrical production require a special commitment and discipline. The nature of the work – too easy to construe as amusement only – is, in fact, very far from that.
The study of acting requires a wide range of skills from physical stamina to dancer-like movement to vocal agility to intellectual acuity. Memorization of lines is only one of the actor's tasks which uses the brain. Critical analysis of the play and character is a painstaking process that involves numerous re-readings for action, for dynamics and beats, for color, for meaning. It is a three-fold exercise that occurs on the intellectual, technical, and emotional levels.
The physical demands on an actor range from the technique of natural stage movement and blocking to understanding of character physicality to the enormous energy required to sustain adequate vocal production and the fierce stamina needed to dance, sing, or bare one's inner self in two plus hours under the lights.
The rehearsal process, if it is to be successfully accomplished, requires a great deal of time and concentration. The dynamics of play production call for the play and players to pass through stages of analysis, blocking, characterization, pacing, technical additions, and finally synthesis. Stanislavski would have been horrified by the American professional system that allows at best six weeks, often as little as two-three weeks, for rehearsal and relies on the actors to do their individual preparatory work on their own. As it is, the rehearsal process is always a dizzying rush to the finish, filled with fun, but also with the angst, the ups and downs of searching, and the ecstasy when a discovery is made. Play, in the child's sense, has no place here at all; indeed, concentrated serious work is the order of the day.
The seriousness of study continues throughout an actor's life. There are those endless auditions beginning with those to get into competitive training programs. College training programs grow more and more sophisticated each year. If high school drama focuses on getting the actor to believe, to open up and enter a role from the inside, to activate the senses and sense memory and balance emotion and intellect, pre-professional training gives the actor the tools to complement his other gifts: dialect, voice training, movement, period styles, and for musical theatre voice and dance – even acrobatics. While dancers and singers often begin their schooling at an early age, actors sometimes come to the vocation later in life and must accomplish a great deal of technical training in a few short years.
Once the aspiring actor emerges into the world of professional theatre, a new level of seriousness begins. The actor's life is a proverbially difficult one: long days of job seeking, grueling auditions, the painful process of steeling oneself for repeated rejection, the difficult choice made between creative opportunities and commercial practicality. The actor's day requires a new and extraordinary stamina. In twenty-four hours he has to fit in coaching and classes, study for his roles, auditions for the next part – all a full day in themselves – and then, if he is fortunate, his real job begins with the evening's performance.
Even unemployment in this business is hard work. The actor often attends three or four auditions a day and then must use his remaining time to earn his bread and butter at one of the many odd jobs that can sustain him: waiting tables, bartending, retailing, clerking. And he cannot lose touch with his art, so he needs to read the latest plays and see new shows, constantly searching for inspiration and new material, keep up with the trades, and keep his body, his voice and his emotional reserves in excellent condition. Stanislavski said the true actor was working every waking minute, absorbed not only by the more mundane tasks just described, but also in the vital ones of observation: retaining all impressions, perceptions, impulses communicated in life around him.
A life n the theatre is an intense one; it is a profession that is rooted deeply in the individual's emotional, intellectual, and spiritual self. Work can never be separated from play for an actor. His on-stage work is of the most serious, intense, and ennobling kind. His off-stage movements are all preparation for that instant of glorious transformation. The moments of release are found in those precious on-stage hours. After the grueling struggle to find himself actually on the boards, the actor may smile and feel himself blessed. He is finally able to relax, to step into his mask, and to feel as the ancients did, the mystery of pretend-reality.
The Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello in Henry V talks about the masks all human beings wear in their daily lives. Speaking of Henry, who is likened to an actor, Pirandello asks if the mock king's pretense is not actually a heightened form of reality – an earnest game played with piercing seriousness. The powerful, intense experience of a play is serious business because it illuminates more completely and more wonderfully than any other so-called "serious" occupation the realities that make up the human experience.