First, let's just cop to irrationality.
Summer has visited the Pennsylvania river valley in which I happily reside. And, as these things happen, Summer has brought along her friends — unwanted house guests. Weeds. I spend hours each week choosing which pounds of bio-mass get to stay – and which have to go. In doing so I upset huge bio-colonies of ants and worms and other insects of all kinds, all of whom chose to live in the same neighborhood as I do. I can't fault them for the choice they made.
The life of the gardener promotes contemplation. And so I start to think about the irrationality of what I'm doing. Is it rational to like the flowers more than the dandelions? The dandelions can be pretty. And you'd have to be a heartless person to have never blown dandelion seeds into the wind at some point in your life. So why do I spend time and effort in working to organically execute ethnic cleansing by plucking them from the earth and throwing them in the dustbin? This is not rational.
When I was a boy, I read a child's biography of Benjamin Franklin. One of the quotes attributed to Franklin stuck in my mind: "Read few books, but read much." The point, I guess, is that a person reads and re-reads something to help the reader deeply understand the book, rather than flit from book to book. I have no idea if Franklin said that, or as a printer himself, even believed in such a thing. But – irrationally – it is something I've practiced in my life. I read and re-read and re-read.
Weeding and reading have come together as I've gone through a kind of re-thinking of what I do. A number of factors have led me recently to re-think why I wanted to go into theatre in the first place. I'm a reasonably bright and clever person. I could have been in business, or science, or technology. I would have gone bats, but business, science, and tech have other people who are bats. I would have made money and not been bothered by irrational irritations caused by management that doesn't understand how to manage the arts. Not a quiet life, but a different life. Several times I've been given the offer to go down another path. And as often as I could, I chose the path I'm on.
Why? It's irrational, I guess.
So I think about acting while I'm pulling the weeds. And I've been re-reading Stanislavsky. Like the works of most geniuses, Stanislavsky rewards the return visitor with new insights. And so it all tumbles around my jumbled insides while I pull weeds.
Now, I've been writing columns since the Clinton presidency. When I first started, I tried to convince our publisher that I could come up with the goods twice a month. What an idiot I was! I've since learned that writing one column per month can be (almost) more than I can manage in a given year. And so a reflective person knows that what he considers sage wisdom one month can actually be a howler of no small proportion.
So what is acting really?
And I start that question by thinking about porn and food shows. (By porn, I refer here only to movies that show sex and not to the greater word pornography which really shows content of no redeeming quality.)
I'm not the first to observe that the oddest thing about the bank of televisions in every gym I've ever been in in the U.S.A. has at least one monitor tuned into food shows. While you're sweating off the pounds on a conveyer belt or a bike mounted on a stand, you "enjoy" yourself whiling away the time by watching other people – many of whom are fairly large folks – eat what appears to be delicious food. Why would I want to watch someone else eat food? I've eaten how many thousands of meals with other folks – honestly, I don't much like watching other people masticate. And yet large numbers of folks do precisely this.
Which takes me to porn. I quite understand appreciating pictures of healthy bodies in various forms of dress and undress. The history of art is chock-a-block with these images of male and female bodies. Remove all of the unclothed Greek and Roman statues from the world's museums, and you'll have plenty of empty space to fill.
No, the odd bit is watching other people having sex. I doubt that the world has that many voyeurs. Certainly not enough to maintain the multi-million (billion?) dollar industry that is the porn industry.
I think the fact of the porn industry illustrates and interesting irrational and highly abstract process in which we can watch someone else do something and feel – in some way – that it's happening to us. But while this may seem like empathy, it's not entirely. As I understand empathy and sympathy, these are descriptors of the fellow feeling that most humans have in regarding other humans. I empathize with Oog's family's sadness after Oog was gored to death by that mastodon on the hunt last week. Oog was a friend. But I don't feel their sadness, I empathize with it. I recognize it. But it's not mine.
I think the only way that porn works to the tune of several million dollars is that there's not simply a vicarious thrill to the watcher, but some level of actual interior participation in the proceedings. Not "I wish this could happen to me," nor "This could happen to me." But instead – "(In a weird way) this is happening to me."
Now this is irrational. And it goes toward describing something other than Coleridge's notion of "suspension of disbelief."
And, even though we continually create better technology to make presentations more "life-like" (whatever that means), this human function has nothing to do with "reality" (whatever that is).
Take the historic evidence of people at the dawn of the moving picture who jumped out of their seats upon seeing a film of a train coming toward the camera. The jump indicates a response beyond mere suspension of disbelief.
In the instance of the silent black and white film of a train, not everyone jumped. Only a few did. But I believe it exemplifies something that can occur for a viewer of any presentation.
When Travis is forced to shoot Yeller in Old Yeller, the force on the viewer can be visceral and very strong. (And, if you didn't tear up in Old Yeller, I'm not sure I want to know you.)
The mystery is our cultural reaction to things. I know if I see a man trying to murder a woman, I should call the police or try to stop the murder in some way. When I see the climax of a good production of Othello, not only do I not call the police – I feel as if this is happening to me in some inexplicable way. And, if it's a production of Otello (the Verdi opera), I don't even wonder at the ability to sing beautifully by culprit and victim.
This is some art that we practice.
So what does an actor do? A good actor transforms the universe into sensible irrationality.
Playwrights and scriptwriters show us worlds in which people irrationally decide to stay in the room and talk rather than leave, people speak in verse, people sing and dance. And the actor-artist embraces that irrational world and enjoins the viewer into the experience of that world.
We hear often about how acting is just playing "Let's pretend" in the same way we did when we were little kids. I have a 2-year old daughter. She knows how to play "Let's pretend." Her pet dragon (a stuffed toy) poops all over the house, for which she needs to dress him in a diaper, change the diaper, wipe the floor, etc. She plays this and other pretend games to meet her own developmental needs. None of these games are about getting me or any other observer to feel anything about the game. That's not what an actor does, precisely.
An actor treats the plastic sword like a real sword, sure. And in that way the actor's work intersects slightly with the child's "Let's pretend" game. But then the actor veers wildly into another sphere by using that plastic sword to kill his enemy.
So, the good actor is someone who has the ability to say to an audience, "Come to Irrational-land with me" and the vast majority of viewers regularly accept the invitation.
Whether the person is eating a delicious dish on a food show, having sex in porn, or playing Juliet; the great ones take the viewer into the experience itself. The bad ones, the viewer is left to think too much about what they're watching. Y'know, I really don't like watching people chewing. Y'know, I don't really like watching people do that, that's why we generally dim the lights a little. Y'know, why is that woman sure is talking funny.
So there are things an actor can do to help the viewer into Irrational-land. The actor needs to speak in a way that the audience can comprehend the words. The actor needs to move in a way that is seinsible.
But the tough part is the soul. What is a soul, anyway? Do we even have souls?
I don't think the vast majority of people reflect much on the depth of their experiences. There is no end or bottom to the limitless nature of human experience. From the horror of Hitler to the exaltation of the stigmata of Francis of Assisi, no story could possibly encompass all that is possible by and through human experience.
The artist, then, is someone who can take the audience into the odd places of human experience, whatever they may be.
Years ago, I played in Plaza Suite for a year on the road. For those folks who haven't read or seen Doc Simon's play recently, the story is fairly quickly told. It's a three act play in which each act is a different story in a different room of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The first story is an executive who has an affair with his secretary. The second act is about a big-shot Hollywood producer who uses his fame to seduce a girl he knew in high school who is now a suburban housewife. The final act is about a couple working to get their scared daughter out of the bathroom to go downstairs and get married in one of the Plaza ballrooms.
The oddest thing was the reaction of some audiences to the first act. While a comedy, the first act is terrible in terms of situation. A marriage breaks up during an anniversary stay at a hotel. And yet it was amazing the number of folks who would come up after the show and talk about how the couple of the first act was like their marriage. Invariably I thought that was terrible.
I like to think I'm a decent actor. And I worked with two good actresses over the course of the tour. Our audiences regularly found themselves inside a crumbling marriage. Now that's not an experience most people look for. So that work of the actor was to bring people into an irrational world where they could participate in that world in some inexplicable way.
Maybe I'm saying something that is crystal clear to you. Or maybe this month's column is too abstract and opaque.
Well, that's what happens when you find yourself in the tall weeds.