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january 2008

by Nathan Thomas

Where are we going?  The problem with the future is distinguishing between hope (on the one hand) and prediction based on a sensible consideration of current conditions (on the other). For example, each year I pray for world peace in the year ahead.  Nevertheless some idiot or idiots decide that the only way to get through the year is with senseless murder.  Consequently I'm left with the same hope year after year.  (If anyone wants to give up on slaughter and give peace a chance, I'll very willingly find a new prayer.  I'll cope.)

Whither theatre?  Whither the art and craft of acting?  Will the actor be replaced by some nebulous thing called "technology?"

Some people worry about advances made in computer technology that allow for growing control over the precise image seen on the screen and heard by the ear.  Some go so far to worry that directors will give up on live actors and use only figures that exist solely for the screen.   

And this is supposed to happen in the future?   

A mouse and a rabbit swiftly come to mind as "performers" who exist solely on the screen, have never drawn a paycheck, and represent two major world-wide entertainment conglomerates.  Has SAG ever gotten a penny of dues from Mickey or Bugs?  It's doubtful.  (I hear, though, that Daffy has a great pension plan set up through AFTRA.) As we've seen, some directors have enjoyed working solely with these "non-human" characters and other directors have enjoyed working with all-too-human actors.   

Recently I had the dubious pleasure of seeing the recent blockbuster adaptation of Beowulf.  While enjoying Angelina Jolie's naked butt more and Anthony Hopkins' naked butt somewhat less (sorry, Tony), the thing that struck me was the complete lack of 'naturalness' about the whole enterprise.  While generations of animators have worked to depict motion ever more 'realistically,' Zemeckis has gone out of his way to make real actors look and move completely 'fake.'  I felt as if I was watching a very long video game in which I couldn't make the characters do anything.  Consequently, the characters in Beowulf were neither real nor animated.  Ultimately the film failed to satisfy.  The technology made for an unbreachable barrier between the actors and me – even though parts of the actors flailed into the auditorium in utter 3-D glory.  

So what of the art and craft of acting?  This question is more puzzling.

The 20th Century saw the introduction of a major influx of ideas about what an actor ought to be able to do.  According to Stanislavsky, the actor ought to be an artist who shows the truth of the human spirit.  According to pedagogues such as Meyerhold and Copeau, the actor ought to be almost an acrobat of the soul.  According to Brecht, the actor ought to help make the audience think as well as feel.  And there are the ideas of Artaud, Tadashi Suzuki, Grotowski, and every other director and teacher of the century.  Even as the new century starts growing we're still working out the ideas of the last century.  Raise your hand if you've ever been confused by the ideas of even one of the folks mentioned in the previous paragraph.  So, yes, we still have our past to figure out.

As we wrestle with tradition and our past, we have to fight against mindless cliché.  We need to find those elements and facets that will help us grow as artists, ruthlessly rejecting everything that obstructs that growth.   We will only move into the future when out of those challenges we find the voice that binds the actor with the audience.  Regardless of method, regardless of technique, regardless of opinion – the art comes from actor binding with actor and actors binding with the audience.

Obviously, the future of acting is not only tied to actors and directors but to playwrights as well.  We will move into the future as actors when a new Shakespeare, a new Chekhov, a new O'Neill takes the existing conventions of theatre and plays and re-molds those conventions in totally new ways that grab audiences and still transform old conventions into something completely new and fresh.  And it is impossible to see that future.   

If you were an Athenian fighting at Marathon, would you have any notion that your fellow soldier Aeschylus was thinking of writing plays or that that little boy Sophocles was going to turn out to be anything other than a good dancer?  If you were a sophisticated Londoner in 1590, would you think that Shakespeare boy was going to write great tragedies?  If you were a part of Moscow's theatre intelligentsia in 1895, would you suspect that a wealthy amateur and a college teacher would team up and put on plays of a doctor who wrote comic short stories for pulp magazines?

If you were any of those people, you couldn't have known the future. But if you were one of those people, you could have seen the first productions of the Orestia or Oedipus, Hamlet or King Lear, or The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard.

The future of acting also involves a new search into the world of our minds and bodies and the interaction of mind and body.  (Indeed even this mentioning of these elements as separate may seem extraordinarily odd in the future.)  Scientists are just now starting to begin to understand how the brain functions.  Heretofore, much of human exploration has involved the search of physical geography. Now exploration also moves in the inner-world of humans.  Scientists are now just starting to begin the search for how the brain works as a physical system within the human body.  Over the course of this new century we're likely to learn much about how unified our mind and body are as physical systems.  Although I'd like to believe that part of our essential selves or "souls" are in some way intangible, it seems likely that the unity of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and bodies will become clearer over the coming decades.  This will allow actors the opportunity to understand their craft better and continue to develop their art.

And what's the hope for the future of actors?  The hope is that actors find a voice that connects with such vitality with audiences that people flock in huge numbers to experience this art live and in person. Well, it's a dream.

In the meantime, maybe I can find a job working as Daffy's valet?

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About This Article

©2008 Nathan Thomas
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas is an actor, director, composer
and a columnist and writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives



january 2008

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