Friday, February 12, 2010


Performance date: 02.04.10
Women's Project, The Julia Miles Theater

I’ve been thinking a lot about pictures.

I took an on-camera acting class this week that was organized around the following idea: what a film or video camera captures is a series of pictures juxtaposed to tell a story.  The pictures move fast – 24 or 30 frames per second – but that’s really what you’re dealing with in Film and TV land.  A series of pictures telling a story.  The question then occurred to me – is it really different in Theater land?  Or is it actually the same?

This promptly opened a Pandora’s box in my brain that I am still sorting through.  So forgive me as I take you on a road that will end at no clear destination.  You're thrilled, I'm sure.

One of the most popularly held beliefs in the acting community is that acting for film and television is different than acting for stage.  We’ve all heard tell of brilliant film and TV actors seeming to suck wind on stage, and many highly experienced theater actors (not excluding myself) tend to suck wind on camera.  So we assume the two must be different.  Okay, but how?  The clearest reasons I can see are:
  1. In theater, we are not perceiving the illusion of movement on a two-dimensional screen, but actual continuous movement in three-dimensional space;

  2. In addition to seeing and hearing, we also perceive theater energetically (for example, when we notice an actor who has “presence”) as well as via smell and taste (e.g. the yummy bacon from Barrow Street’s Our Town).
But here’s the thing.  Despite these differences, doesn’t storytelling on stage ultimately depend on pictures just as much as storytelling on screen?  What else is the director doing when she blocks a show?  Why else is it an asset when an actor has “stage sense,” or the ability to intuitively determine where he should place himself on stage?  What else are designers are for?  Furthermore, couldn’t it stand to reason that we process real, live action in the same way a camera does?  That is, that we capture a series of pictures in our memory and infer a story from them?  I’d need a cognitive scientist to answer that, but I can tell you this – when I think of a play I’ve seen, I usually remember it in pictures.

Take for instance the performance I saw last week of Smudge, a dark comedy about a young couple who give birth to a “smudge” – a female, possibly non-baby creature that the audience never sees.  When I think of this play, the following pictures come to mind:

  • The mother huddled near a filing cabinet, eating a forkful of cheesecake straight from the box, and remaining as far as she can from her daughter’s feeding- and breathing-tube infested carriage;

  • The baby itself, which is only described and never shown, but in my imagination is a peach-colored, comma-shaped, armless, claw-tailed creature, with a single giant aquamarine eye;

  • Stacks of generic white bankers boxes, demarcating areas of the stage, all labeled with binary numbers – 11000.11, 0101, 0.11110, etc;

  • The mother sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors, snipping the arms off a pile of baby onesies;

  • A giant koosh-ball-like “stuffed animal” the mother creates from all the snipped-off arms and dangles tauntingly in front of the carriage from several feet away.

These pictures tell me a lot about the play.  They tell me that the play contains grotesque absurdity (cheesecake, koosh-ball, armless onesies) and cruelty (distant mom).  It concerns itself with categorization (boxes, binary numbers, demarcation).  It centers around a monstrous image (the baby) that we are never shown but left to vividly imagine.   Taking a few more cognitive leaps, I can say the play is about grappling with incongruity, with experience that defies categorization, and about nightmarish, faceless fear.

Yet none of that occurred to me as I watched the play.  As I watched it, I was more engaged in the emotional journey of each character, and waiting to see how the story would turn out.  As I watched it, the play was just about this young couple coping with having a non-baby daughter.  It was about how I was horrified by the mother but then understood and felt for her.  It was about wondering what would happen to the baby.  Not about incongruity, but about emotion and plot.

So here I am at the end of the post – and as promised, at no clear destination.  I have no idea what any of this means.  I’m sorting through my Pandora’s box but it remains a jumbled mess.  In the jumble, I see potentially misguided beliefs about stage and screen acting, tantalizing questions about cognitive science, and really fantastic images from a very intriguing play.  An incongruous pile that defies categorization.  An unclear mess.  Yes, in fact, a smudge.

No comments:

Post a Comment