It is easy to criticize professions with which we have no experience. We judge and critique the work of others whether it’s a waiter or an IT person over the phone. We go around with expectations of how workers are supposed to perform their jobs instead of how a person, on any given day, may be performing. Maybe that waiter’s arthritis is flaring up that day, or the IT person has worked a double shift. When it comes to the arts, no other profession is as vulnerable to criticism and judgment as the actor’s. People seem to think acting comes “naturally” without practice or ongoing work. No one holds such judgment over musicians, writers, or artists. Why would they have that assumption with acting?
Susan Sontag, who I consider one of the great minds of the 20th century, once asked something to the effect of why do actors study? Aren’t they just memorizing lines and acting them out? Her questions reflect the common misunderstanding of the actor’s job, or at least what the actor’s job should be. I suppose it’s to the actors credit that they make it look easy, not unlike an ice skater gliding through and alighting from a triple axel jump.
Some years ago I was a high school teacher. I quit after a year. It wasn’t that my heart wasn’t in it. I loved having a captive audience and creating ways to get my students to buy into the literature we were reading. I actually quit because the job was too difficult. If I wanted to do it right, which I thought I owed these budding minds, I had to devote a lot more time (much of it after the work day) to create new ways to engage kids who went home to an empty house and refrigerator.
Otherwise these students, with their headphones under their hoodies and their single-mom homes and their drug-ridden neighborhoods and their hungry tummies weren’t going to give a rat’s ass about Shakespeare or Toni Morrison. In addition to teaching, I had to be a mother, therapist, and performer. Teaching, I thought, was the most physically, mentally, and spiritually demanding job in the world.
Then I covered the Hollywood Fringe Festival last year.
The Group Theatre circa 1931
Acting, like no other profession—not doctors, athletes, and certainly not writers—have to use all three components in their work: the physical, mental, and spiritual. It’s very much like teaching. At the fringe I saw actors unload and mount their sets, center themselves, inhabit the character that they had studied, created and rehearsed. I watched them put out their best act only to do it again the following night.
I’m not saying all actors invest as much mental or spiritual practice in their work as they should (which will be the topic of my next post). But those who do, those who practice their craft through life-long study and find venues to stay working (whether it’s performing for the sick at hospital, booking a television series, or taking scene study classes in between gigs) are the hardest working people I know. Perhaps an athlete performs at a higher physical level, but after his or her prime, athletes retire at an early age. Not actors. A scientist may expend more mental faculties, but she or he does not have to do so while also expending physical energy. A yogi reaches a higher spiritual plane, but not while also using his or her creative imagination.
Stella Adler would say, “The play is not in the words, it’s in you.” The modern actor must plow deep into his or her own humanity to understand the character, must exhaustively research that character’s circumstances, including his environment, must act (Greek for “to do”) with his body and voice repeatedly in rehearsal, on stage or on set.
Maybe I’m wrong. Illuminate me: Is there any other profession (besides teaching) that requires so much?