I recently directed two actors in a rehearsal focusing on connection. I instructed the actors, still working from scripts, to only speak when they found the other actor’s eyes. If they needed to read, they should stop speaking, then read, then look up when ready to speak. If the other actor was reading, they should wait to speak until the other looked up. If eye contact became upsetting, they should look away, and stop speaking. If the other actor looked away, wait for them to look back, or chase their eyes: move into their field of vision.
There was more to this rehearsal but the above exercise was the most of it. The reading, of an 8-page play, which had typically taken 20 minutes, took at least double that time, 40-50 minutes. The actors stopped, started, overlapped one another, repeated themselves, occasionally contorted themselves to remain in view and keep speaking. I was riveted by the action, and by the end I was exhausted on their behalf by the act of watching.
Afterward I asked them about their experiences. What struck me most in their responses was something expressed in similar terms by both: while there was a palpable sense of increased ‘connection’ and ‘understanding’, neither felt able to access the emotions they expected, even insisted, they ought to feel.
What to take from this? One lesson might be that emotion is unimportant for the actor. A more useful lesson might be that emotion is misunderstood. When we are observing ourselves, on stage or off, in the moment of emotion, we necessarily have removed ourselves from the experience in order to analyze and affect it. This is a vital skill in daily life: “I am enraged, I will walk away.” But it is something actors tend to be told to unlearn: self-observation distracts from the intensity of a realistic decisive moment on stage. Perhaps inasmuch as this dictate is true, we can glean a lesson in how to effect it – telling someone to “turn off” their external eye or self awareness is absurd, but crowding out, distracting from that superawareness with other tasks might be a fair end-run.
Another lesson might be that intention, effort, is a more useful catalyst for emotion than text. The text drives action, and the action, and its consequences and impediments in execution, drive emotion. What else is emotion than thought expressed through physical tension and release? Conversely I’ve read, I don’t presently recall where, that when an actor-as-character speaks on stage, that text-as-speech must be the ultimate, frustrated expression of impeded action. To want a book in reach results in reaching for that book. To want a book out of reach, held out of reach, results in a cry: “I need that!”
By this last understanding, this rehearsal might be viewed as theatrically incomplete – speech drove action but the need for speech was driven by a force external to the reality of the scene – instructions from the director, and an expectation laid on by the process of rehearsal, and presence of a script. But these external forces are always present. They fade from the audience’s view, and commonly in realistic modern theatre the actors desire to limit their own experience of these external forces, to replace the external artifice with internal artifice, desiring not to complete the scene but to complete the scene’s actions. But this (and here I risk falling too far into a spiralling rabit hole of analysis) artifice is artificial, and perhaps it isn’t so much the erasure of artifice which engages an audience, but the decision to do so. If an actor on stage before an audience has resolved to experience only the world of his character, and the actor glances by accident for a moment at the audience, or the lights above, that actor has broken from his intention. It is the break of intention and not the break of artifice which damns him. After all in mask, in Brechtian, in mimed performances artifice becomes itself an engaging element. In this rehearsal the artifice of the exercise, understood by actor and audience, became an element of theatrical art.