February 2005 |  This Issue

Nathan Thomas
Views/reViews
Scene4 Theatre and Politics

Well, it's been an interesting couple of weeks, one supposes.  The world may be surprised to learn that the President of the United States opposes tyranny, and the new Secretary of State believes in diplomacy.  The people of Ukraine elected someone who has been poisoned.  Perhaps they figure if he's tough enough to survive poison, he can survive political disagreements with their big neighbor to the north.  Meanwhile the mailbox has been full with emails of people arguing about the interior and exterior technique of acting coupled with the continual evocation of the name Stanislavsky.

Stanislavsky remains a heavy-weight, although in some ways he's like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtains while other bogey-like figures put fear into the hearts of the wishful travelers.  ("I want the knowledge of the secret of acting."  "I want to be a great artist."  "I want the courage to do amazing things.")  Petitions brought before the "Meisner" teacher or the "Adler" teacher or the "Method" teacher illicit the various responses, but somehow Stanislavsky always hides behind the curtain as if Stanislavsky, this great actor/teacher/director, has become a self-effacing actor-savior speaking through the mouths of the disciples of his now-dead prophets.

How far can these metaphors be stretched?

History gives us a problem.  History provides the wisdom of truly greatly creative minds.  If you're a playwright, how can you match Shakespeare?  If you're a painter, how can you match a Leonardo or a van Gogh?  If you're a teacher, how can you match . . . well, fill in the blank of your favorite teacher and method.  Thus the problem if we honor history (which is wise), how do we move forward?  If we ignore history, do we not cut ourselves off from the wisdom created in the past?  At what point do we become the modern version of Sisyphus, pushing the same rock up the same hill?

History also presents a bizarre paradox.  In many ways human beings don't change at all, and in other ways we're so different as to be unrecognizable.  If human beings didn't have some universal qualities we wouldn't be able to be moved by such works as Oedipus or Antigone by Sophocles.  On the other hand, some aspects of Sophocles' world we'd find very strange.  If nothing else, this author believes many (if not most) modern American audiences would be a little taken aback when, if going to see a nice comedy, the men had huge dildos attached to the crotches of their costumes.  Just a guess.

The actor's art is the most ephemeral of creations.  It's a "will-o'-the-wisp" that disappears like a puff of smoke in the wind.  Particularly on stage, a brief moment of life experienced and then gone.  On camera, it may be caught by the lens and may not wind up in the editor's waste basket but, still, a brief moment when the stars align, the planet tilts correctly, the spirits of the dead actors of old hold their breath and the moment is perfect.  Then nothing.

So it makes sense that actors and their teachers almost latch on to an idea about technique like a fetish.  The actor's work is immensely hard.  And every actor from the time of the chorus stepping into the Athenian orchestra barely after dawn to the newest novice getting ready for an 8 o' clock curtain tonight has faced the same questions:  How can I perform this part to the best of my ability?  How can I do my best job for the audience?  How can I do my best with and for my colleagues?

The great teachers of whom we all know the names  -- Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, Hagen, and on and on are all dead.  I wouldn't suggest we not honor their work, nor would I suggest we don't honor their memory.

The question to ask is where we go from here?  Stanislavsky was born in 1863.  Is someone alive or young or yet to be born who will think of acting in a new way that will illuminate the universal questions in a new way?  For example, we continue to deal with interior/exterior dualities.  Will someone re-think how to create mind/heart/body/voice into one thing?  Or some new re-conception of the actor's art in a way that I can't describe because we simply don't have the language for it yet?

Standing on the shoulders of giants is good.  Honoring tradition is good.  But the wild creative act that no one ever predicted is good as well.  That's the future this author wants to see. 

If a President of the United States can come out publicly in favor of liberty, then I'll go out on a limb and say I'm in favor of the future.  Thank you and good night.

©2005 Nathan Thomas

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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