Theater Filter 2: Respect for Acting: Concept.

Next we get into Uta’s first chapter: Concept. Sadly, it’s still following in the Stanislavski method of:

I saw this girl do this thing one time.

However, she improves upon it by suggesting more foundational concepts that should be taken from each example. Thus, she begins with the names of actresses I won’t even bother with and separates them into two different groups. One is the Representational, the other is the Presentational. Here is where I will bring Uta to task first. I ask you, regardless of if you’ve read the book, can you glean from these titles which one is better? This is simply another (seemingly unending) example of why the words in acting manuals typically do little more than obfuscate. The goal should be to bring clarity and simplicity to theatrical ideas, not muddle them further. Uta, in this instance, does not help. Here, are the arbitrary definitions she gives to each title. To “Representational” she gives:

“The Representational actor deliberately chooses to imitate or illustrate the characters behavior.”

To “Presentational” she says:

“The Presentational actor attempts to reveal human behavior through the use of himself, through an understanding of himself and consequently an understanding of the character he is portraying.”

CLEAR? Because it produces no worthwhile distinction. For example, cannot the actor accused of imitating human behavior (apparently bad) not also claim to know the character he is portraying, and be attempting to reveal it through his knowledge of himself and the character? This is what frivolous treatment of words gets you. An artistic word salad. Here’s another shot Uta takes at clarifying what these acting styles are:

Formalized, external acting (Representational) has a strong tendency to follow fashion. Internal acting (Presentational) rejects fashion and consequently can become as timeless as human experience.

Ironically, I find the statement, “Formalized, external acting (Representational) has a strong tendency to follow fashion”, as one that only makes sense if you’re aware of the fashions of the day. Because to this actors mind it looks like another way of  describing an “Outside-in” process. Where the actor finds the character first through their walk and posture, which then leads them into the emotional life of the character. This isn’t my style, but it also isn’t one that I’m interested in defaming. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate way to find emotional truth while paying attention the the specific physical differences every character we play may have from us. So, if Uta is not arguing against an “outside-in” process, it looks as if she may be referring to a time when actors were told to hit certain positions while portraying certain emotions, but that seems so far gone, it’s hardly relevant or worth rebutting. So, what are we to do now that in Chapter 1 Uta has presented either a useless distinction, or a weak rebuttal to a perfectly legitimate approach to acting? Well, we can ignore what she is speaking against and simply focus on what she’s for. Also, a happy side effect is that this will save us a hell of a lot of time! So here is something she’s for, that I’m for:

Talent alone is not enough. Character and ethics, a point of view about the world in which you live and an education must be acquired and developed. Ideally the Young Actor should posses or seek a thorough education in history, literature, English linguistics (foreign languages are so much gravy) as well as other forms-music, painting and dance-plus theater history and orientation.

Every actor should know about the world of art that surrounds them and preceded them, and about the words they are using. This would be obvious if not for the fact that so few do! So, I applaud Uta in requiring it of her would-be Young Actor. Now, allow me to highlight the crux of what I think she has wrong (and that I’ll be hammering away at) via another quote:

I think now you know where I stand. Certainly it is with the Duse who, once accused of being too much alike in each of her roles, answered that as an artist the only thing she had to offer was the revelation of her own soul.

I disagree with this for two reasons, one is that it’s so pretentious it makes me want to kill a kitten, and the other reason is that it isn’t acting qua acting. Getting up onstage and reacting how you yourself would react is by definition not acting. It’s called being yourself. It rejects the great struggle of all actors; to at once draw from your own experiences and at the same time create a character who is not you, and instead attempts to sidestep the matter entirely hoping no one will notice (and if they do, say something really pretentious). Ibsen did not write characters who he thought would be exactly like some person in the future. He wrote specific characters unto themselves. And my great challenge as an actor is to have a wide enough life experience that I can draw from those experiences and produce a character who is like the one written; not me.

As an end note, I’d like to give Uta a big middle finger for one last quote. She tells a story where French actor named Gérard Philipe responds to an unnamed American actor. The American actor lamenting his countries cultural lack of care for theater, says to the French actor, (who had generations upon generations of aristocracy to cement the cultural importance of theater in France); “We can’t have theater like that in America!” To which the frenchman replies:

That is your fault.

Only someone detached from the reality of theater in America, its history, and its not being a socialized economy could utter such a statement. Uta, however, goes on to support it. (It’s a good thing no kittens are near.) Now, lets get to the rest of her book on acting! Next up: Chapter 2, Identity.

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One Response to Theater Filter 2: Respect for Acting: Concept.

  1. Daniel Langhoff says:

    Well argued, Michael. My only reply is to further your own points by remembering verbally the many times in my experiences that the term “presentational” has been used, by intelligent theatre professionals, to indicate the exact opposite of her definition: “presentational acting” being all about the external to produce effect rather than work from the internal outwards. I think this reinforces your idea that Uta is coming from a standpoint (a very easy one to argue) that pits actual cerebral acting concepts against the Delsarte or other physically oriented styles of stage performance. She postures and pontificates rather than assisting her “Young Actor,” targeting novices with condescension before they’ve even begun. Rude.

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