Monday, March 02, 2009

Acting: Mastering the Self

“Is it possible for the actor to practice this art without sacrificing his own personality, provided he has one, or must he be without one at all so that he can always be ready to assume… ‘a borrowed soul?’”

Etienne Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts

Twelve years of theater has exposed me to two schools of thought in acting, which were also identified by Gilson in his treatise on theater. These two schools of acting can be classified under the two theories of the major theater artists-philosophers Stanislavsky and Brecht.

The first school of acting is more familiar to us as “Method Acting,” a style and approach made popular by Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. In more contemporary times, this approach was practiced by the late Heath Ledger in his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight” and Christian Bale as Batman or Bruce Wayne in the same movie. The Method was systematized by Lee Strasberg in the 1940’s derived from Constantin Stanislavsky’s system. The system utilizes training of the actor’s emotional memory and psychology. This method aims at the achievement of theatrical truth by immersing oneself in the character he is portraying. The actor draws from his own experiences and reactions to portray the role with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. The actors who employ this system are the ones Gilson mentions: “those who, acting by some kind of instinct, are dominated by their sensibility. Such actors are wholly in the grip of their roles and become as one with the character being portrayed.” (259).

The second school refers to the group of actors who “have no sensibility whatsoever.” Gilson describes their method: “By calculating in advance the manner in which they are to act down to its last detail until they achieve perfection, they succeed admirably in imitating all the gestures and all the expressions of a person like the one whose role they are to portray.” (259) This system requires more physical training than psychological and emotional. This school of acting disregards the need for the actor’s emotional attachment to the role in order to convey emotional truth. Bertolt Brecht was known for giving this system a name, the Verfremdungseffekt. This style was developed by Brecht not just for acting but for the development of theater in general for the purposes of education. Brecht claims that theater should make clear to the audience that what they are witnessing is merely a representation of reality and not reality itself. To achieve his aims of theater for education, Brecht devised this technique in his plays so that the audience will not have an emotional attachment to the characters and situations presented but instead, encourage and provoke them to reflect on what is represented on stage. One of the techniques to achieve this is to break that fourth wall separating the audience from the play and address the audience.

Theater directors and acting coaches developed this into a system of acting wherein the same level of “alienation” is applied to the characters being portrayed. Since they are staging merely a “show,” more importance is giv
en to what is seen by the audience rather than what is felt by the actor. It does not matter whether the actor is true to the role as long as it is believable to the audience.

We have simplified these two schools of acting into what we now call “internalization” and “externalization.” Internalization requires the actor to assume a “borrowed soul” by understanding the psychological and emotional motivations of the character and making it his own. The role is internalized with the belief that what is assumed in the soul will be reflected in the body and will be witnessed by the audience. Externalization requires the actor to study physical nuances and characteristics that will give the role a personality implied by the dramatist. The motives and intentions of the actor are irrelevant to the audience since it will not be seen. What is crucial are the actions and delivery of dialogue that will make the motivations, intentions, and emotions of the characters apparent to the viewers.

In these two approaches, as Gilson concedes, the actor is “never himself.” “Whether he renounces his real being to become the personage of his part or whether, having no definite self-identity, he fashions the soul of his character…” (259) However, I would like to scrutinize closer what Gilson means by the actor being “himself” an
d his idea of “self-identity” whenever an actor assumes a character using my twelve years of experience in theater as a playwright, director, and actor.

In my years as an actor and director, I have discovered that acting is highly psychosomatic. My first exposure to theater belongs to the first school of thought. Under the Rock Opera Company (ROC), our seniors, the directors Jourdan Sebastian, Iris Yu, and Third Domingo have demonstrated how it was to become methodical in the Stanislavsky sense of the word. In 1997, ROC staged “Lumipad at Dumapo sa Dahon ng Kalachuchi,” a highly-charged melodrama exploring the themes of suppression, lost love and insanity. I was an assistant director then, an apprentice without any background in theater production. The acting workshops were very intense. The actors were subjected to some sort of interrogation wherein they were forced to answer questions thrown by the director and they have to answer as the characters. This was a difficult exercise because in this workshop, the actors will have to respond without the security of the dialogue in the script, depending merely on the emotional and psychological reality of the characters as implied by the script. The process was very tasking and tiring and I conceded that it would take a great amount of creativity and imagination just to complete that workshop. The result was a showcase of the most gripping melodrama I have seen in that time. I would sometimes cringe at the emotional tempest and the “reality” of it as the actors purged their emotions on stage.

Robster Evangelista and Joel Parcon were not to be addressed by their real names a few hours before the show of the 2000 Kultura staging of “Murder in the Cathedral.” As they were dressing up and putting on make-up, they were already Thomas Becket and every action they portrayed was that of their versions of Thomas Becket. In my early years of theater, I have learned the psychosomatic characteristic of acting. This method hinges on the premise that what is in the soul reflects in the body. And actors of this system assumes a borrowed soul at the onset so that their physical realities are altered according to the dictates of the soul they assumed.

It was also around the same time, from 1997-2000 when I got exposed to the second school of acting without me being conscious about it. I would have to admit that I did not have the skill and talents of Joel Parcon, Robster Evangelista, and Third Domingo. Maybe because I did not have the personal experiences to draw upon to transform myself into another being. My first acting gig was in 1997 in my own play “Ang Trono” for ROC. My director and the lead actor had an argument so I had to replace the lead actor since I have memorized the script because I wrote it. However, I did not have the same facility as the lead actor who then was Jourdan Sebastian, known for his practice of the Stanislavsky System. I did not know how to “be” the character I wrote but I did know how to “act.” And so, I acted. I tried to simulate the actions of the characters, his voice, posture, and nuances through externalization. The performance yielded the same results based on audience feedback. In “Murder the Cathedral,” I was one of the priests who wept for Becket when he was brutally murdered. Maybe it was my difficulty with the language at that time which made it hard for me to mourn and empathize with the other characters. And so I faked my weeping by staring long enough into space without batting an eyelash. The tears began to fall and people believed I was weeping for Becket. But inside my head, all I was thinking was “Don’t blink! Don’t blink!”

What is this “himself” that Gilson was referring to? In both plays, and in succeeding plays I have acted in, I was always myself, insofar that I have never let the character take over my emotional and psychological being. But were Jourdan, Joel, Third, etc not themselves when they let the characters take over?

Gilson was correct when he said that the observations on the craft of acting were made “by writers who adopted the public’s point of view.” (262) This “being” is seen only in the perspective of the audience. How about in Method Acting? Isn’t that being assumed within the actor regardless of the audience?

Diderot raises a problem as mentioned by Gilson: “Here is his awesome judgement: ‘It has been said that actors have no character whatsoever, because by acting all of them they lose the one which nature gave them, that they become false just as the doctor, the surgeon and the butcher become callous. I believe that one has taken the cause for the effect and they are fitted to play all the character because they have none.’” (260)

This is where I disagree with Diderot. We go back to the two schools of acting, internalization and externalization. Method acting, or internalization, as described earlier, requires an intense forging of the inner self into another character. Contrary to what observers of theater believe (who have no theater experience whatsoever except for watching plays), it is never easy for an actor to lose one’s self in the exercise. For a real, well-trained actor to alter his emotional and psychological realities completely (or for any person at that), it requires a total brainwashing or hypnosis. The real artist, the actor, must have a complete mastery of his inner life, a full sense of control of his inner faculties, for him to transform it into another’s—to assume a borrowed soul. The actor must be able to access his emotional memory at will, drawing reactions and motivations from them to give life to an imagined person crafted by the dramatist. The actor must be a master of his emotions, calling upon them on cue as the script and the director dictates. An untrained actor, who does not have a personality or does not have a mastery of his inner self, cannot possibly achieve this kind of feat. He cannot call emotions at will or shape his actions easily without a sense of ownership of the self.

Externalization, on the same note, should not be dismissed as something less than method acting. This system also requires another mastery of the self—a mastery of the instrument, the main instrument, of the actor, which is his body. The same is true for actors of this system. Mastery of the body entails mastery of the soul. For the body to be commandeered into performing “alien” nuances and gestures to portray a character, one must have the same level of mastery of the soul. The soul must have an intimate relationship with the body. The body must be disciplined by a soul that has a full sense of himself, an ownership of being, contrary to what Diderot claims and what Gilson was worried about. This is why actors, before entering the stage, undergo physical exercises in the same manner that an athlete stretches his muscles and loosens up his joints before going into court. Every inch of his body must be under his command. As one of my favorite actors, Roni Balbieran would say, “You have not acted well if after the show, you are not physically tired.”

Diderot’s scruple, “one never becomes an actor for the love of virtue” (260) should be dismissed given the kind of self-mastery required to become an actor. In fact, an actor necessarily becomes a lover of virtue to dedicate his life in the perfection of this craft. What is virtue but a mastery of the self? One cannot attain virtue without mastery of the self. In the actor’s craft, both body and soul are mastered by the person so that he can portray a beautiful character with all his faults and virtues, to complete the dramatist’s act of forging an artwork of the beautiful on stage. This is the real actor.

However, we are faced by unfortunate realities where the craft of acting is not given due respect by “artistas” or showbiz actors. We are now under the impression that to be an actor, one must have a loose sense of self so that he can easily take on any other character. We are faced with actors who have no personality whatsoever, taking for their own whatever roles are given them in a mainstream film they have to appear in.

But it does not take a Philosopher of Art to realize that this is merely a misconception. We have been disappointed by mediocrity on screen (and onstage) by mainstream actors who portray this lack of virtue. In this situation, Diderot was not merely becoming scrupulous. He might even have been prophetic. However, in this case, there is no craft being talked about. Randomly interview any of these actors about the two schools of acting and 99 of 100 times, they wouldn’t know what to say. Therefore these are not the real actors. These people, I daresay, would be the “marionettes” Gilson was referring to. But it can easily be spotted in their fruits that there was no artistry involved whatsoever in their portrayal.

The real actor should be given more credit. Real actors can actually become an actor for the love of virtue. The fact that acting entails a tremendous amount of discipline and training to achieve self-mastery should be enough proof that the actor, the real one, is a man of virtue.

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