At its core there is something mysterious about great acting. Somehow the actor shows the audience something about humanity through the prism of a character in a way that can even dazzle the playwright who created the character at the writing table. The late Marlon Brando struck many observers this way.  Where did Stanley come from? Brando's creation encompassed more than simply the sum of Williams' words, Kazan's direction, and whatever training he'd had.  There was something in him, through him, about him that grabbed the audience and showed them something remarkable.  What is that thing that element which made Brando's work so memorable?

This air of mystery smacks the observer more of alchemy than chemistry more of the work of the shaman than the able worker of craft.  Perhaps this essential element of mystery leads some observers to try to find links between theatre and religious activity.  The great actor's work is so immediate and so powerful; it can enthrall and mesmerize the viewer.  And since great acting apparently defies explanation, therefore an element of it hearkens back to some religious connection.  (Let me be clear.  It seems to me the histrionic trait seems to be part of human nature without call of religious connection, but this author can see where some might be lulled into thinking such a connection exists.)

Curiously we live in an age where it appears many people devote their time, energy and effort toward the raising the artistic level of acting and actors.  Even a casual skimming of publications from our own to American Theatre, et al show a variety of honest, worthy people engaging in the search for the means to raise up the level of acting.  Our major cities in the United States host a wealth of studios geared to providing the novice and the experienced actor alike, places to experiment and play and test themselves.  Our colleges and universities provide further places for instruction, training and growth.  In private studios and colleges teachers provide a plethora of techniques and tools, using and developing ideas from Stanislavsky to Meisner to Grotowski to. . . ., from Laban to yoga to Alexander to ancient Asian techniques to . . . , from Linklater to Lessac to Berry to. . .

These good people and all their good work produce pockets of interesting acting, moving acting, and (sometimes) great acting.  This author does not mean to demean the work of any of these good and earnest people.

But with all this good and honest work, why isn't there more great acting than there is?

Again, let me be clear.  I do not suggest there is no great acting.  This author has been privileged to see what he would consider truly great acting.  That being said, why isn't there more?

Acting is a crafty, maddening business.  Over the past several months I was lucky to play Dogberry in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in an outdoor venue in Maryland.  The company was superb and the companionship unparalleled. As an actor one must combine seeming paradoxes like being relaxed and energetic simultaneously like being loud enough to be heard and yet remain conversational like giving attention to the author's verbal idiosyncrasies without being enslaved by them. . . .   On and on.   All actors know these and more.  In the midst of the work, though, nature and life compete for the actor's concentration away from the work at hand.  In dress rehearsal I got a little unexpected slap from another actor.  It had less to do with the scene than saving me from the mosquito who wanted to use my cheek as a lunch counter.

All actors could tell a similar story.  All venues have "mosquitoes" distractions and obstacles that strive to keep the actor from full concentration and from full expression. And during the run of a show, the actor's life off-stage doesn't stop.  The actor may have to contend with the death of a loved-one, marriage, brilliant good fortune, sad defeat and still find a way to maintain equilibrium each night on the stage.

How to keep the creative life vibrant and. . . well. . . alive?

Stanislavsky tended to refer to some of his techniques as "lures." This makes sound good sense.  I doubt the power of saying to myself, "Self, be creative.  Now." And creative I will be.  Right.  It's like telling the next person up at the craps table, "Now roll good."   

Some of our creative mental capacity resides outside our conscious minds. By definition, it's not conscious. But like the patient fisherman, we can lay our lures for our creative forces to come to the surface and do their stuff.

Lures.  Like a useful memory of an event or someone's behavior.  Like the character's shoes.  Like a telling given circumstance that we can see but the playwright didn't even know was in the text.  Like a gesture or breath that comes to us from outside our verbal consciousness.  Lures.

Well, a new school year approaches and this author trades in his actor's motley for the teacher's robe.  So I'm gonna do what I can to give some nice young people some more lures. We'll see what we can catch on this voyage.


©2004 Nathan Thomas

For more commentary and articles by Nathan Thomas, check the Archives.


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 of Alvernia College



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