Stella Adler once quoted her father Jacob, patriarch of the Yiddish theatre, on the reasons why someone wants to become an actor: “You don’t want to get up early, you don’t want to work and you’re afraid to steal.”
But seriously, why does someone want to become an actor? To enter that arena with the lions and subject oneself to rejection on a regular basis? To chance the masochism of love for a profession that makes no promise to love you back? To risk a life of temping and maybe even poverty? To postpone having a committed relationship or raising a family? Why in the world would you even dream of becoming an actor, let alone audition for a graduate acting program—running up a debt that not only means you’ll go without steak dinners and dental work, but that could define your choices until you’re almost middle-aged?
If you’re in such a program, I’m sure your mother asked you these very same questions. I hope you didn’t get angry when she did. And I hope you didn’t respond, “I wouldn’t even consider, simply can’t imagine, would rather die than be a lawyer or a doctor or anything but an actor! Why, ever since I was in the third grade, remember when we went to see Sound of Music, how excited I was….”
That’s not enough; that won’t see you through. You have to really understand the nature of your commitment, the depth of it and its sustainability under pressure.
Let’s say you’ve chosen—you insist on it—to defy the odds and become an artist at all costs, financial as well as psychic. In an act of strong will, and after a period of ambivalence, I’m sure, you’ve decided to make your way in a crowded, competitive, inhospitable profession. I congratulate you for that leap and offer some words of advice.
At Tisch School of the Arts, where I teach, we ask our students to hang on stubbornly to the “why” of their presence there. There are periods of not knowing how one thing relates to another. An actor in training must live in that state. In moments of doubt or fatigue or tedium, when you are doing repetitions for a voice class or memorizing lines or rehearsing a scene at a God-awful time of night, when you think that you’ll never live up to expectations, repeat the mantra of your commitment and stay the course. Since you know why you are on this path and how urgent it is for you, please give your teachers your trust; the longer you withhold it, the longer will the changes within you be delayed. Do your best to be open and vulnerable. Surrender cynicism. If you experience fear or shame, thrust through it. If you enjoy the work, that’s a real bonus. You should expect to feel joy.
Adapt an attitude of curiosity that will lead you into the work rather than away from it. In your training, you will be bombarded with many new things to do and new ways to do the things you’ve always done. There’s juggling and the trapeze, simulating punches and slaps and fighting with daggers and swords. There’s researching the world that gave birth to a particular play. There’s breathing in a new way and learning muscular relaxation. (A word of caution: Never confuse relaxation with nap time—in class, rehearsal or, Thespis forbid, on the stage!—or with being anything other than alert, even if you’re sitting quietly in a chair. The basic law of our technique is that something inside of us is always in motion.)
The hardest thing may turn out to be not what we traditionally think of as “working”—not physical or even intellectual effort—but rather, the act of surrendering; allowing things to happen to you rather than lunging after them. This may be the most revolutionary notion to master after a lifetime of slogans like “Good, better, best / Never let it rest / Till the good is better / And the better best.” Numberless demands are made on us even before we’re old enough to internalize them. Clean your plate or you can’t go out to play. You have seven minutes to finish the test. Big boys don’t cry…. It takes time to dissolve the restrictions of an educational system where answers are either right or wrong and where uniqueness can be perceived as disruptive. Be patient as you discover the ways in which you are not replaceable by anyone else.
In thinking about my own life, I’ve decided my greatest talent has been in receiving criticism, incorporating it into my “attend-to” list and moving on. I learned somehow that criticism is a gift, or at least a commodity that can be very useful (and, after all, comes free). If you are defensive or too frightened to listen, or if you mistakenly think it is easy for others to find the precise way to move your work forward without demolishing your sense of self, you are holding back your own progress. If you see how everything contributes to your becoming an artist—from fixing your slouch, to ridding yourself of speech regionalisms, to gaining flexibility and daring within your very psyche—perhaps you will come to welcome critical evaluations as a demonstration of interest in you and of a desire to help you to claim and evolve your talent.
I return to my first question: Why would someone want to be an actor? The response to this is crucial and is the reason I’ve been besotted with the theatre for most of my life.
If I had the gift of being an actor, I would have bent my will, energy, time and money to become the very best one I could be. I chose instead to produce, direct, teach, and especially to create structures that would make it possible for others to live their lives as actors. Actors are the very center of the theatrical experience, for only a human being can embody another human being. It’s to see what can happen to a human in this time between two darknesses—and imaginatively what, then, could happen to one’s own self—that audiences need the living experience of theatre.
Each of us is given but one life: the life of a fly measured against eternity. That life might seem to us to be a free one in terms of choice and possibility. In limited ways it is, but in major ways it is quite determined. Chromosomes decide our sex, the color of our skin and eyes, our bone structure, our predisposition to certain talents and tastes and even to the illnesses that ultimately will whisk us away. The one life we have is determined, too, by how the knobs of inherited characteristics are turned by the culture into which we happen to be born.
Do we want to be hemmed in by one fate? Especially for a creature with high imagination, who is naturally empathetic, curious, and daring, is one life enough? I think the sense of the possibilities of other lives within us propels some of us to want be part of the maddening, glorious world of theatre.
The ultimate companion of mankind should be com–passion, “feeling with.” That message threads through the entire body of Shakespeare’s work. Perhaps even if you were a Jew, you could find a way to play a Palestinian suicide bomber, depending on how far you could stretch that ability to feel with. Would you choose to play him—or her—as a crazy? A uncultured bandit? You could, surely. Or you could play him as someone who had not received from life what he had expected, has seen atrocity, who looks at this singular act of terror as an “instant of courage,” as it is propagandized by his society. If you choose to play him this way, you would find support in Mahmoud Darwish’s Psalm 11: “Nothing remains for me / but to inhabit your voice that is my voice.”
I don’t know if you would want to undertake this role. But if you did, and chose to play the character from his own point of view, you would have the opportunity to open the mind of the audience to a different, and perhaps to them dangerous, way of looking at a reality they thought they already knew. You would give them sight into an alien soul. Tikkun Olam: in Hebrew, “to repair the world.” We are the only animal who strives to do that. In my view, that is the specific creative mission of the actor.
Another “why”: The actor is allowed the ultimate reward—the enduring thrill of human encounter. There is ebullient joy in performing as an acting company, as an individual part of an organic whole that would not be the same without you, nor you the same without it. The company is the natural habitat of the actor; alternate systems fall short. It’s possible that an acting company can be assembled for a single production and work out quite well, or a company could be brought together for administrative and economic reasons. But neither of these systems provides the creative advantages of a company that has evolved from the same aesthetic root, in which you’re all playing the game by the same rules. Without its members having a basis in common training, the words “acting company” are misapplied.
If professional actors are members of a company, they’ve learned to live within the same world in any given production. They’ve mastered the technique of give-and-take. They are comfortable with the notion of spontaneity within form (or form to support spontaneity; it can be stated either way). It feels natural to vary their performances slightly now and again, as they suddenly understand a line in a new way, while still maintaining the overall pattern laid down in rehearsals—with confidence that no one will report them to the stage manager. The sense of competition—“this is my performance, don’t get in the way of it”—gives way to the collective will.
Let’s say you’re on stage in the Ides of March scene from Julius Caesar. Here comes Caesar himself, Cassius and Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Cinna the Poet. You know what your relationship to them will be for the next 12 minutes, what will transpire. But what is most important, you know who’s inside the togas and under the helmets: It’s Sanjit and Bill and Harry and Peter and Mano and so on. They’re the ones you’ve eaten lunch with, criticized in class, took to the emergency room, begged to clear their rotting fruit from the dressing table. Now you’re playing a game together—the great, profound, physical, fun game of acting. Afterwards maybe you’ll go out for a beer. You’re from the same tribe; you have elders to learn from and youngsters to initiate. An acting company both avoids and civilizes what is truly barbaric about the one-shot production method of the Broadway theatre, which sees the actor as another commodity from which to grow rich and is oblivious to him as an ever-evolving artist equally as important to society as a teacher, doctor or spiritual leader.
I think the following is my “why” for sustaining a life in the theatre for over half a century. It’s about the audience: my friends and neighbors; the visitors of different colors; the despairing who lead tight, circumscribed lives; the rich and comfortable who in the dark may experience guilt and the rich and comfortable whose hunger can never be assuaged; the wide-eyed children in their one good dress; the lonely one in a single seat; the Masons in their funny hats; the cognizant and the non-knowing; the old who can forget about dying for a few hours; the egoists; the damned; the teenagers who under their bravado and with rings in every part of their anatomy yearn to be useful. The Audience, the terminus of all our work. God bless them all.
They enter into a conspiracy of belief with us, and it would not be moral to betray them. I called what we do a game, and I don’t take it back. But it’s a game with stakes higher than any other game I know. It’s not about getting the shuttlecock over the net or about having your foot on the plate, more important even than flirting to snag that handsome guy at the buffet table. This quirky game is also an elaborate deception, prepared over months and years. We must admit theatre is a lying game, and actors lie to play it. But they are lies designed to trap the truth, and the more convincing they are, the deeper the truth that is exposed.
The audience eggs us on: “Just lie like mad, and give us your golden truth. The Prologue asks us, ‘Think when we talk of horses that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth / For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.’ Yes, of course we’ll imagine right along with you. Give it to us, we’ll give it back; play with us, we’ll play along.”
A conspiracy of belief, I said, and we mustn’t disappoint. We have to believe in the imaginative world with everything we’ve got. But, I remind you, that belief has to stop just short of falling into the orchestra pit, or, as Medea, howling in anguish on the street outside the theatre after you’ve killed your children, drawing the police with your cries and jeopardizing tomorrow’s sold-out matinee. Just short of this formless excess must we play out our “as ifs.” If the actor can contain herself just below the level of the truth, she has an opportunity to reach a supra-truth and move us to understand the un-understandable—that a woman’s feelings of rage and abandonment could be so ravenous as to lead her to destroy what she loves. Theatre does indeed fabricate everything from the storm’s roar to the lark’s song, from the actor’s laughter to her nightly flood of tears. That actor may nevertheless construct a vision of the human condition that opens us to a new understanding of ourselves. What could be more important than that?
How precisely one does this is, of course, the subject matter of actors’ training. All technique is in the service of spontaneous life. A famous Hungarian bassist said the same thing: “One must work one’s fingers again and again so that one is able to say the things of one’s heart.”
Or, to take the stunning statement that concludes Arthur Miller’s essay “On Politics and the Art of Acting”: “However dull or morally delinquent an artist may be, in his moment of creation, when his work pierces to the truth, he cannot dissimulate, he cannot fake it. Tolstoy once remarked that what we work for in a work of art is the revelation of the artist’s soul, a glimpse of God. You can’t fake that.”
Zelda Fichandler is the chair of graduate acting and a master teacher at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is a co-founder of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where she was producing artistic director from 1950 to 1990. Her essay is drawn from remarks she delivered to 2003–04 students and faculty of the Tisch graduate acting program.