When is an actor not an actor?
By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
In an article in Scientific American last August, Judy S. DeLoache made an interesting remark about symbolic representation: that there is a “duality inherent in all symbolic objects: they are real in and of themselves and, at the same time, representations of something else. To understand them, the viewer must achieve dual representation: he or she must mentally represent the object as well as the relation between it and what it stands for.”
Symbolic objects need not be inanimate. Actors are symbolic objects: real people, fully present in and of themselves, who represent something else, namely, the fictional character they portray. Actors, are, of course, alive; not only are they alive, but they possess the full panoply of perceptive, responsive and communicative behavior characteristic of all human beings. As such, they can do something inanimate symbolic objects cannot do: they can stop being a symbolic object at will.
This can be directly experienced quite easily. In many theaters, the layout of the building requires actors to use the same spaces in the building as the audience uses. A hallway that leads from the lobby to the dressing rooms and backstage may also be the way audience members reach the restrooms, for example. Thus, it is possible to encounter actors in full costume and makeup, in the identical visual condition in which they appear onstage, while they are offstage. In such circumstances, it is my experience that one does not in any way regard the actor as a symbolic object. There is no sense that the actors represent characters. They’re just people going about their business, somewhat oddly dressed.
The same thing can be seen when an actor breaks character. There are quite a few stories about well-known actors responding to cell phones that go off in the audience at inopportune moments. The common factor about the various responses—glaring, satirical witticisms at the expense of the hapless cell phone owner, and so forth—is that the actor deliberately breaks character in order to do whatever is done to make the point. At that moment, the actor is never experienced as representing a character; the actor is always experienced as acting and responding in their own person. The actor then resumes the performance, goes back into character, and is at once again a symbolic object.
What that means, of course, is that actors have ways and means of letting us know when they mean us to see them as symbolic objects and when they don’t, and that we agree with them about what those ways and means are. In some performances, that code of conduct is actually manipulated in the course of the performance for artistic purposes. In plays that use asides, it is very interesting when the director asks the actors to emphasize the personal nature of the direct address, to respond to other actor’s asides by acknowledging, physically, through facial expression, or even through vocalization and ad-lib language, that there is an aside going on. For example, if one actor pokes fun at another in an aside, rather than have the other actor perform as the aside passes unheard, it’s very entertaining to have the actor respond appropriately, with, say, a “Get a load of HIM!” gesture or the like. The interest derives directly from the aspect of the role of the actor as symbolic object; the partial violation or ambiguous partial cessation of that role creates a very interesting tension in the performance and in the audience.
Theater is a shared live experience in which real people share the same space, breathe the same air, hear the same sounds, see the same actions, and even smell the same odors on both sides of the curtain line. The complicity, or tacit agreement, that exists between actors and audience as to how this experience shall work is one of the most important elements of the art. Seeing how it works in situations that push toward the boundaries of that complicity shows off ways in which the essential live-and-in-person relationship can be enhanced, manipulated, or controlled for effect. The increasing sophistication such exploration makes possible enriches the art.