Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Theatrical Revelation of Truth

This afternoon I was in rehearsals for a show with a wonderful new company here in Philadelphia called No Face Performance Group. We're building and developing a show called Dime that will begin shows toward the end of April. (Have a look here.) One of the current company members named Justin was doing a little show-and-tell for us today; a solo project designed to explore the birth of a deity.

In our rehearsal space lives a cat named Victor and he, like most cats, does what he pleases. So as Justin was exploring his project for us, Victor the cat decided he wanted to walk on to the stage, approach Justin, smell his ankle a bit, and walk upstage into a room behind the back wall. All the while, Justin was experimenting with a very specific, symbolic, and stylized bit of theatrical creation.

Suddenly, I had a revelation.

There's a saying in the theatre, "Never share the stage with a kid or a dog." The argument is that because kids and animals are so good at observing and engaging their world with breath and simplicity, any attempt to be "real" with them on-stage will feel fake and soulless. Audiences in attendance usually give attention to the kid or the pet, completely ignoring the actors around them.

But today I didn't find that to be the case at all. Yes, Victor's presence in the scene made an impact on the aesthetic of the piece, but he didn't steal my focus from Justin.

That's because Justin wasn't trying to be "real", only "true." There's a distinct difference, I think.

The attempt to be "real" on-stage has always felt like a bit of a sham to me. I've never believed it possible build a performance that is both "real" and repeatable. If we're honest about it, what we consider "real" is never repeatable. That is one of the primary facets of reality; a moment approaches, happens, then instantly moves into our memory as part of the past. So the effort to construct a repeatable reality is, by definition, impossible.

Keep in mind, I'm talking about actors in the theatre, not film. For the most part, film actors are in the search for what's "real", which is why they get multiple takes to find it. The director is looking for the one shot out of 10 that's "real". Fortunately for the actor, that moment will never have to be repeated because someone was there to record it with their nifty camera.

What are we poor theatre actors to do!?

Instead of frivolously banging our fists against the wall of reality, I feel we should be on the journey towards what's "true" in a performance. There are many types of "truth" that have nothing to do with what's "real"; symbolic "truth", metaphoric "truth", poetic "truth." When these ideas of "truth" are examined and explored by a company of actors, they are wonderfully effective in giving the audience enlightenment or insight into the human condition, even when what the audience sees isn't outwardly perceived as "real."

Justin didn't have to be "real" in order to retain focus today. What he was working is nothing anyone would see during a pedestrian stroll through town. But he was engaged and committed to what was "true" about his work; the poetry, the symbols, the statement. That much was crystal clear to everyone witnessing.

I'm thankful for Victor the cat. I made a fantastic discovery today because of his need to go take a nap.

And now I'm not afraid to share the stage with him.


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