There's a secret script behind every show.

 


Some thirty years ago, playwright Robert Patrick, best known
for his Pulitzer Prize-winner, Kennedy's
Children,
wrote a very different drama, Play
By Play,
which depicted a seemingly ordinary performance of Hamlet – except the text wasn't by
Shakespeare. Knowing that audiences knew the plot enough to dispense with the
dialogue, Patrick cleverly substituted what he imagined were the real thoughts
of the actual actors as they made their entrances, speeches and exits. The
players' true-life emotions created a perfect

case of life imitating art. Often they took a dramatic
departure from the situation at hand, deflating the soliloquies into rote
recitation and one actor's survival strategies.

We want – no, we need – to believe, or at least suspend
disbelief. We need to feel that this is honestly Hamlet, not a simulation who
owns his own story called a bio. Robert Patrick exposes the grand illusion,
showing how the man behind Shakespeare's haunted prince is in fact more upset
over being upstaged, underlit, poorly propped, or unflatteringly attired than
he is over the death of his father by his uncle. Ophelia is not so demented she
can't notice that the audience is restless during her scenes: Is it something
she's doing or not doing? Laertes is angrier at his sword for not smoothly
springing from his scabbard (as it did during rehearsals) than at Hamlet for
driving his sister to suicide. In the worst possible scenario, the windbag
Polonius worries more about getting his next line right than giving it meaning.

 

Actors, of course, are a lot like politicians, saying one
thing but believing another. But even in Congress you sometimes get the real
thing: a speaker who so means what he says, even a mindreader can't find a
shred of difference between word and thought. His/her speech is soaked in
sincerity. This rare bird is a candidate who means to keep his word. Or the
thespian who really thinks he's Hamlet, at least until the lights come up. You
hope they don't pay too great a price for their unnatural fidelity.

But, even if the actor is completely immersed in his role,
the audience may not be. Patrick's depiction of the inner voice versus the
outer actor applies equally to the folks in the dark. A player can emote from
the depth of this heart and the bottom of his soul, but if audience members
would rather brood over whatever the babysitter's doing with their child, the
laundry not picked up, the menus for upcoming meals, the risk of triggering
inflation by lowering interest rates, or the distracting smirk on the actor's
face – well, the play is now a one-way street when it should be a thoroughfare.

 

The trick – no, it's more art than technique – is to synchronize
two illusions, the actors' attempt to simulate a stranger and the audience's willingness
to buy the lie. So many things can spoil this synchronicity. The audience can fall
prey to its own distractions – latecomers, coughing fits, candy wrappers opened
during hushed confessions, inappropriate laughter. Equally perversely, actors
can supply their own damnable distractions – upstaging their colleagues, stepping
on lines, fussy stage business, sight gags that tell an audience to look rather
than to hear. These in effect punish the audience for paying attention, in turn
triggering the very signs of boredom that then distract the actor from his own
often fragile make-believe. It's a vicious circle, the actors' sloppiness
fueling the audience's indifference that undermines the performance. This
cannot end well.



A horrible thing happens when these distractions intersect:
The audience begins to contemplate the two most terrible words you can apply to
a production: "So what?" It's the ultimate formula for failure, the law of diminishing
returns. Like a train derailing, every moment takes it further off the tracks. The
actor has lost his audience, and they're glad to be gone. The better players
must work overtime to re-suspend the disbelief created when one player loses
his grip on his role.

Happily, the opposite holds just as powerfully, when the
actors' technique and authenticity ignite the audience's curiosity and empathy.
Slowly, then surely, there are no more audience-generated "laundry lists" filling
up the vacuum created by phony line readings or wooden postures. A complete
silence suggests the proverbial test of the inaudible pin drop. To mix
metaphors even more, the studio and the radio share exactly the same frequency.
The audience isn't punished for paying attention by being jerked out of its
trance by excessive affect. The actor can almost pretend it's happening for the
first time.

Of course, no play will ever reach the point where an
audience is certain they're seeing a real murder enacted before their eyes,
where the "killer," convinced there are too many witnesses to his "crime,"
gives himself up to the authorities immediately after the performance.
Dangerous collective insanity like this is better left to be the kind of mass
delusion of a Jonestown suicide pact or Nuremberg
propaganda rally. (That's partly why Bertolt Brecht wanted his "alienation"
techniques to destroy the audience's capacity to

identify with any particular character and thus miss the
play's larger message.)

But there's a happy medium – just pretending. We're
eavesdropping on a story that must be told, with or without us. The best shows
make you feel they're inevitable – they'd be done whether there was an audience
or not. There was, well, "something in the air." Our applause breaks the spell,
instantly separating stage from auditorium as we thank the actors for their
splendid fiction. How often in life do we get to feel so good about being so fooled?

Key Subjects: 
Acting, Hamlet
Writer: 
Lawrence Bommer
Writer Bio: 
Lawrence Bommer is a Chicago arts writer who has suspended so much disbelief that, if it ever drops, well, it won't be pretty.
Date: 
February 2008
Subtitle: 
What Are Actors <I>Really</I> Thinking?