Dallas — I've personally known a lot of really good actors and more than a few truly brilliant ones. I've known them as fellow actors (from acting in a project together), and from a director's perspective (negotiating the selection of behaviors and intentions—building emotional environments). Acting with someone is an intense way to know someone from the inside out. (And more is learned in the sanctity of the dressing and green room—what confessionals they become as the run goes on!)
So seeing actors in this up-close-and-personal way, what's the PRIME attribute I see in the best of the best? Here it is: all of them are most alive—using all the intellect, physical energy and emotional acumen they can muster—when on the stage and sharing their art with an audience. All great actors are, on stage, intensely alive. In this intensely alive state, they accomplish the goal of ADDING LIFE TO LIVES—an early expression of the founding ideals of Theatre Three. We thought then, and I think now, that's our raison d'etre: to add life to lives—both for the artists and the audience.
Playwrights help in this: distilling language, sharpening ideas, shaping words to fit in the character's mouth and brain, and making those discoveries (often with great wit) that elude the mentally slothful. The prime sin a performer can commit is to waste an audience's time or to perform so poorly that their attention wanders.
More happens in five minutes of a good play (with good actors) than happens in most people's entire work day. The demands of keeping the ideas on-track-in-focus-continuously-resonating can't permit any sort of idling: the acting engine has to be roaring powerfully, even in that millisecond of a glance, or the delicate tensions implied by a sudden catch of breath. Everything counts. Everything. Meaning and message and speculation get packed powerfully together in each sight and sound. When we witness acting genius, that astonishing intense aliveness to the human condition, it is a glorious privilege. We are brought more ALIVE.
I've had a long life. Among other occupations besides actor I've been paid to be a military officer, a musician and an architect. (And baton-twirling teacher, but I'll skip that discussion for now.) I mostly enjoyed my architectural career, but there was never the liveliness—either with colleagues or clients—I've felt as an actor on stage. My time in the military was (gratefully) uneventful: I was never in combat in the army (where no doubt I'd have felt that total absorption of aliveness). But as a musician I have felt that "rapture" of being über alive when a performance went well. Playing music, like acting, is a combined physical, intellectual and emotional experience.
Performing artists are, it seems to me, warriors on the side of LIFE and all its rich complexities. The language abounds in metaphors about it: "so and so really brought that character to life"…"the performance was so lively"…"It was bursting with life." And we call the disappointing performances "deadly.”
There's a kind of circus daring about live performing—think of the thrills of watching a tight rope act. One time I saw Cirque de Soleil in Dallas. During the finale a brilliant acrobatic performer missed the bar and crashed into the floor. Swarms of ninja-dressed technicians and medical staff displaced all the glittered and feathered performers. The music stopped. The audience was silent. Life was suspended. There were gestures to the audience from the attendants (as they took the stretcher-bound performer from the stage) that seemed to say "he'll be all right" and in the paper the next day I learned that was true. But life had fled the stage. The music and the finale resumed, the spangles and feathers returned, but all that only put the structural end of the show in place. Resuming the magic was impossible. We want to thrill because someone MIGHT fall. Actually seeing it was awful.
The same way we thrill at the high wire act in the circus works for all live performances. We get nervous for the opera singer going for the high note; the actor negotiating a tricky monologue; the spinning dancer dangerously stretched out.
All of this is to say, on the stage in a live performance, there's no faking it. No editing suite to take out the flubs. No re-tuning of the note through the soundboard before we release the recording. It's live, baby! You and me and it's happening. Don't look down! We who perform are engaged in SPENDING our lives. The reward is rarely monetary, but there's a much better payoff. When we get it right, we add LIFE TO LIVES.
There's been a painful, painful parade of loss after loss in my own community of artist friends this year. Harland Wright. Larry O'Dwyer. Peggy Townsley. Vince Davis. The amazing choreographer Bruce Wood. I see death stalking others close to me. Well, I get it that we all die. I do get it. But I like the defiance all those compadres showed when still among us—warriors for life, every one of them. What a pushback. What a great way to SPEND the life we get.
◊ Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns:
- September 2013: Theater's unsung philantrophists
- October 2013: Theater artists and their critics
- November 2013: Ch-Ch-Changes
- December 2013: What the Audience Knows
- January 2014: What's New?
- February 2014: Upgrading to the Modern World
- March 2014: Not to Worry
- April 2014: If Not for Shaw
- May 2014: Back to the Future
- June 2014: 500 Ways to Remember