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Scott Blair as Oliver and Patrick Morgan as Orlando in As You Like It by William Shakespeare—Brass Tacks Ensemble, Performance Network, Ann Arbor, MI.

Action, Words and Speech

By R.W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES November 2005

If, as I keep repeating, the essence of theater is the living mutual presence of actor and audience, we could conclude that the physical reality of action is the essence of acting, and the emotion evoked by that physical reality, both in actor and audience, is the essential response.

What about the playwright? I would say this: that the playwright will be effective to the extent that the words the playwright gives to the character are in themselves visceral, physical actions. The playwright does not merely write language; the playwright writes utterance; the words put on paper are indications of utterance, not merely of verbal ideation.

I rather like an idea I heard a long time ago—I donít know where any more. Itís simply this: there are fundamentally two human responses: ďI like itĒ and ďI donít like it.Ē Now, in the theater, we are taught always to raise the stakes as high as possible; so we should do that with these: ďI love itĒ and ďI hate it.Ē

Now, if you love it, what do you want to do? You want to draw it toward you. And if you hate it? You want to make it go away. And itís amazing how far you can go as an actor with just those two fundamental ideas, provided you also follow a third basic principle: Engage. You do not turn away; you do not ignore; you do not deny what is there. You love it or hate it with all your senses, mind and soul, and you do and do fully whatever it is that will draw it to you or make it go away, and you remain fully engaged with it at all times, and you are there. You can refine, you can elaborate, you can explore to your heartís content, but be sure to do those three things.

Why? Because if you do those three things, you will be performing actions and producing utterances, not executing stage business and reciting lines. Now, if the playwright has been there before you—if the playwright has lived in these characters, lived through their love and hate and engagement, you will find true utterances in your text, and that will make your job far easier, and allow the audience far better scope for response.

So, there you are, playwright. Thatís your brief. What do your characters do—love or hate? What will they do to bring it closer or drive it away? What is the nature of their engagement? Live with them and their story until you find out.

Now itís your turn, director. What do you do? You arenít putting the words on the paper; you arenít performing the actions on the stage. You are the eye, the ear, the watching and listening heart; guide your actors to what you find in your playwrightís work. If your playwright is there, so much the better; you can be the eye and ear and heart for the playwright as well as the actors. But whatever you do, see to it that the action hits home, that it makes a difference out in the seats where you are. If you canít resist ideas, fine, put your ideas up there, but remember that an idea is good for maybe thirty seconds if itís utterly superb, and youíve asked the audience into your space for at least ninety minutes if not a couple hours or more. Give them the steak, not just the sizzle.

In the end, the great, inimitable, irreplaceable strength of the theater is the power of the live action, engagement in the direct presence, the living, breathing flow of love and hate here in the same room. We donít want that in the real world; we shy away from it, or if necessary get up and run like blazes; in the theater we can stand it, we want it; itís what we go there for. Thatís what the theater does: love, hate and engage.

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