Acting Stands on Three Legs
By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
“What walks on four legs at the beginning, two legs in the middle, and three legs at the end?” asked the Sphinx. Oedipus answered correctly, but Oedipus wasn’t an actor, nor was the Sphinx a director. The correct answer for general purposes is, a human being, who crawls as a baby, walks erect as an adult, and uses a staff or cane when age takes its toll. The correct answer for theatrical purposes is, an actor.
In the beginning, when an actor is artistically young—at whatever chronological age—one walks on all fours, like a baby throwing a tantrum. Emotion is king; one hopes to be struck by lightning, to be sparked into life by a shock of feeling at the magic moment. Like a child, one believes in magic, but like a child on all fours, one doesn’t actually get around very well, except for brief moments of especially high energy.
In the middle, when an actor becomes artistically adult—again, at whatever age—the actor rises to two feet. Thought is king. The actor carefully and methodically thinks his way into the part, systematically developing the purposes, goals, objectives and intentions of the character, thoroughly exploring the character’s biography, relationships, activities and ideas, projecting the consciously known life of the part in full, rounded, authentic detail. The adult actor develops cognitive approaches and skills beyond the ken of the infant performer.
But let us not think of old age as the end. Let us rather think of it as maturity. The mature actor—who may be quite young; some gifted people become mature quickly—acquires the gift of aesthesis, of sensory awareness and responsiveness. The mature actor is a bundle of antennae, sparked into life by the quick, sensitive response of the whole organism to everything around it, especially people, and most particularly one’s partner in the scene. There is no flicker of expression in the face, no subtle change in the voice, no tiny movement or gesture but triggers an authentic, deeply felt response, a response that may be—one hopes, is—a new response, fresh from the spirit, leaping out through the body, face and voice into expressive life.
And the fully developed actor—one who has mastered the art—does all three. Emotion, cognition and aesthesis function in mutual responsiveness in one organism. The actor is alive—fully alive, in all one’s faculties.
Life is a circle, and the fully developed actor has come all the way around. What once was passion in fits and starts has become fully shaped and developed emotional truth. What once was scholarly detail has become flesh and blood reality. What once was nervous sensitivity has become seamless flow with the whole environment, particularly ones fellow actors.
And what once was artificial, in any of three manifestations, is now authentic and organic. The actor is a living person, not an emotional outcry, not a developed idea, not bundle of sensitivities, but a complete organic person, authentic and responsive before us.
We cannot help but respond to such a presence.