I wasn’t sure what to write about this week. After a week where it feels like the whole globe has politically jerked to the right and started circling the drain, when the last superpower has elected a man to the most powerful office in the world, who is so grotesque as to almost defy satire.
Anyway, I dare say I’ll have more to say on that topic once the dust has settled and I have some fresh observations to make.
The answer of what to write about today came to me, as so often is the case, from the roiling chaos of my subconscious. I had another ‘acting dream’. It was a strange affair which initially had me hanging around Wellingborough town centre with a couple of the other cast for a play. In conversation I discovered that popstar Sting was a resident of the town and was often seen walking around with his Dad. Impressed, we took to a giant mobile home to drive to the theatre. So giant it was unable to navigate a speed bump and got marooned on top of one. I abandoned the vehicle and proceeded on foot to a grand country house. Imagine my surprise as I discovered I was following Sting himself, walking his dog, up the driveway. (Freudians may like to play with that image.) I found myself on stage, in a complicated scene (It felt like PG Wodehouse, brisk dialogue, clipped accents.) sat around a table, a restless audience behind, we were still using scripts as the dialogue clunked along. The wheels really fell off when we discovered we hadn’t cast someone for a part I had a long conversation with. The director had to apologise to the audience. It was mortifying. Another unusual twist was that Mrs Bloke was acting in the play, and I got to kiss her.
Now, call me shallow but, whenever our little theatre group decides upon a new play I always pore through the script, looking for the best part. It’s not necessarily the part with the most lines, it’s usually the part with the most action. Which generally sums up as; do I get to fight anyone, do I get to kiss anyone, do I get to die on stage?
In recent years I’ve done the first. Closest I’ve got in the second is a kiss on the back of a hand for ‘la tres belle femme’ and I’ve been annoyingly alive on stage. (Though one of my characters did have a great farewell scene in the trenches before going over the top to his off-stage death. Not quite the same but I’m told I raised a tear or two.)
Such a shallow approach to parts got me thinking about the nature of acting and how we see it in terms a talent and difficulty.
There are two main types of acting. Stage and Screen. And there always seems to be some competition between the two as to which is most challenging, the purest form of the craft. It is always a badge of honour for an actor, when they announce they are taking a break from their film career to return to the stage for a while.
This may to get a little pretentious, but bear with me.
At first glance you would argue that, technically and physically, screen acting is by far the easiest. You are mostly dealing with short takes, needing only to learn a few lines of dialogue at a time. If you get it wrong, you can take another take, and another, and another until you get it right.
On the stage you have no such luxury, you have to fully memorise pages and pages of dialogue. Not just your own words but those acting with you so that a missed cue elsewhere doesn’t throw you into confusion. I performed in one play with an actor who was struggling with his lines at various points, so I developed a sub-script to fall back on when I knew it was happening to get us back on track. Performing a stage show is like a tightrope walk, a two hour long balancing act where, to mix metaphors, you have to keep all the balls in the air and the plates spinning.
So, in that respect acting on the stage is much more challenging, stressful and needing confidence, not only in yourself but in those working around you.There is no reset.
On second glance however, when you look at the actual performances you give I think screen has much more of a technical difficulty. On stage, unless you are working on a very avant garde project, there is a physical distance from the audience. You have to perform to the back row of the theatre. It is why, when you see stage acting on the television, it often looks hammy and overblown. Every movement you make, every word you say, must be observable to the whole audience. Tiny gestures and faint whispers are lost.
In comparison, standing in front of a camera, even the tiniest gesture, the breathiest of whisper can be picked up. You have to have complete control of yourself and your performance. More physically and emotionally intense, a good actor can communicate a pages worth of dialogue with just their eyes. There is a scene towards the end of Empire of the Sun where the young Christian Bale (who turns in an astonishing performance as the young hero) and the sleazy Bassie (played by John Malkovich) have a confrontation that is utterly silent. The camera flicks from one to the other and, purely with expression, you can almost hear the dialogue in your mind. It blows me away every time I see it. The talent of the actors, the director, cinematography are all extraordinary.
One other element you don’t get, acting on camera, is audience feedback. And this is where the pretentiousness really kicks in I’m afraid. When you are on stage, you can feel the audience, you can tell if they are enjoying it, if they are getting bored. With a comedy it is obviously easy, you get laughs. In a drama it is much more difficult, but that sense is still there. When you deliver a strong line and pause, for dramatic effect, to let it land, and the entire audience is silent and still, you know you’ve landed a punch. That moment; that moment where you have control over the audience, that moment where you dare to be silent a second longer than you have before, that moment is why I love acting. That’s when you know you’re doing a good job. Acting into a camera, you don’t get that moment, you have to trust the director, the editor, the cameraman, the composer to all play their part and pull it together for something great.
So, on the balance of it, which is the purest form of the art? I can’t say. Stage acting is mentally and physically demanding, standing on a stage for hours at a time. But you also get that feedback; you can hear the laughs, the sighs, the rapt silences, and yes, the applause at the end. Each performance is unique, never to be repeated, a moment of private performance that exists only between the actors and that audience. To act on screen, your audience is potentially far greater, but you are also more vulnerable, reliant on the many other people to take you acting and translate that to the screen.
How is this for an answer? Think of a music artist. They may be fantastic in the studio but the real judgement of their ability is how good they are performing live. And the chagrin we pour on musicians who perform ‘live’ to a backing track.
In just over a week I’ll be on stage again for five performances. The play is getting there. We have a strong cast and a good director. Next weekend we’ll be building the set, getting the last of the props together, trying to sell tickets, gearing up for opening night and waiting, as it’s a comedy, for that first huge guffaw from the audience, that involuntary gust of laughter when you’ve landed a great joke.
There is nothing like it.
Now, if anyone wants me I’ll be analysing what a beached Motorhome, Sting walking his dog and Wellingborough are revealing about my inner actor.
Bye for now, luvvies! Mwah, mwah!