Acting Is and Ever Has Been a Form of Revolution
You’re gonna laugh! Well, maybe not, because you’re probably watching every bit of TV you can get your hands on for episodic casting these days. But I get some of my best inspirations from watching TV.
So, the other night, I was watching Criminal Minds. At the beginning and the end, they always do a voiceover quote that sums up the episode’s theme. I can’t remember what I had just seen. But, after I heard the quote, I just had to write it down. After repeating it aloud a couple of dozen times and knocking over a flower vase while rummaging for a pencil, I finally scribbled on a sticky note, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act—George Orwell”.
I began to think . . . acting has always been a revolutionary and radical act. I was also surprised that Dictionary.com defines the word “radical” as not only “favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms”, which I already knew, but also meant “fundamental; going to the root or origin”. So a radical state is not only about upheaval but about returning to our origins.
Actors tell the truth about the human condition. As a result, actors have been radicalized, revered and reviled as deities and as oddities as long as there have been actors. Which has been, many say, as long as there have been people. Even though the origins of acting are as hazy as the past, I do believe that that they grew out of the of the shaman or medicine wo/man tradition. These individuals evoked the spirits to promote harmony between humans and nature, thus joining the truths of the natural world and the spiritual world for the benefit of the community.
Rituals that were once practiced as a duty to the gods also brought amusement and pleasure. So it’s no surprise that theatre as entertainment grew out of this deep connection with the divine. Many early Greek plays even had a Deus ex machina, literally a “god from the machine” who actually came down out the sky on some primitive theatrical device and unraveled particularly complex play plot twists.
Thespis, supposedly the first actor, astounded audiences by reciting poetry as if the gods had inspired him to truly mirror the characters he was reading. So it’s also no surprise that actors, because of this pipeline they seemed to have with the divine, and also because of seemingly superhuman skills, were set apart and suspect. I know it sounds silly, but one of the things I regret most in life is not buying a sign in an antique shop many years ago that blinked, “Actors Pay in Advance”. It was from the time when actors were reviled. And I realize now that buying it would have been a radical act.
Expressing feelings so others can experience them is also a radical act. Actors have to use themselves as the conduit for their art. To do this, they have to train their emotions and their bodies to obey on cue. And the training changes them. There’s also that driven obsession to create. That changes them too. Hamlet, marveling over an actor creating an imaginary emotional situation, exclaimed, “what’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?”.
Then there’s the celebrity. I’ve had many friends who ended up as big stars and series regulars. There seems to be an awe surrounding actors and what they do. Perhaps it harkens back to this intimate link with the divine. Or perhaps it’s this respect for the artistry which mirrors the audience’s awe of Thespis. Or perhaps it’s the consciousness that actors, whose emoting helps us feel more deeply, are kindred “spirits” of a connected kind.
Shelley Winters explained in her book that people always called her by her first name when they saw her on the street and carried on conversations as if they knew her. She also said that, when they walked away, she tried to remember where she had met them. And realized that they were fans that she had touched in some way. Even in my small celebrity, I’ve had people roll down windows in cabs in Greenwich Village to gush over how what I did onstage affected them. And do the same when they spotted me on the street here.
Whatever it is, we’re drawn to actors on and off screen and stage. We whisper in hushed tones when we spot one. Perhaps we see them as those supernaturally-connected beings that they once were. Things haven’t changed very much. And, with the lessening of influence of organized religion, actors are almost regarded as godlike.
Radical acts also demand radical lifestyles. Actors are pictured either living in mansions in Beverly Hills. Or starving in lofts in the Village. We never see them with 1.8 children in the ‘burbs. They’re also pictured in colorful garb. I once had a boyfriend remark not too favorably, “you don’t wear clothes, you wear costumes”. I replied, “Oh, Thank You!” in the most joyful way. And I have to admit that, even though I’ve stopped acting, I still do!
Actors are the radical bohemians of their particular age. This is an age of universal deceit, breaking instant truth spread everywhere from CNN to YouTube and Twitter, and our once-adored leaders now criticized for every twitch of their face and lip. But we still look to actors to tell us a deeper, more universal truth. The down-and-dirty about the current state of our humanity.
To go into acting is like asking for admission to an insane asylum. Anyone may apply, but only the certifiably insane are admitted— Dr. Alex Marshall
Leave Your Comments About Is Acting a Radical Act? Below
Do you often feel like you’re telling the truth through your acting? Do you feel just a little bit insane? Do you feel that acting a part well reveals the human condition to your audience?