In our postmodern society, it has become common knowledge that we are all constantly performing our identities, and that in certain contexts we exhibit certain personality traits that we do not showcase at other times. Thus, in some sense, we are all constantly acting out the characters of ourselves.
Nonetheless, we still go and pay money, or our time, to see other people acting out specific characters on screens or stages. These people, whom we call “actors,” also usually go and study this practice called “acting,” and when we see them after a good performance we cheer and profess our admiration that they acted well, that they brought a character to life, that it felt real. And still, they are doing exactly what we are doing every day. Only instead of bringing what we ascribe as one identity which we perform in our lives, they embody many different personas or go in and out of character at will when the camera focuses on them.
We believe that what separates us from the actor is that the actor knows how to get in and out of character; they learn how to be more fluid, more versatile with how they perform a character, while we adhere to our genuine self. But we both do the same: our lives are a performance. Actors only dedicate themselves to investigating this lived performance we are all leading, while we, the “non-actors,” tend to ignore our performance and reject the idea of worshipping this multifaceted self we have. Instead we seek to become some ultimate, definite version of ourselves.
Since there is so little difference between what actors do and what everyone does, we have started to perceive good acting as persuasively appearing as a round, “real” person. When we doubt that the actor is “being” a real person, we say that they are a bad actor. Thus we see the role of acting as a realistic imitation of personhood. But is that what we should think of the actor?
In the beginning of western drama, or at least what is referred to as the beginning of western theater, namely Greek tragedy, the actor was more than just an entertainer. Rather, the actor had social responsibility; the actor was the facilitator of a ritual aiming to make the audience better citizens and better humans. The actor was meant to elicit catharsis from the audience — to change them. Although in a previous entry for this column, I have written that I do not take catharsis to be the sole state that the audience should experience, the cathartic discharge cannot be ignored as one of the actor’s aims. Thus, as figures with a social responsibility, actors serve the public in their performance.
In our times, this responsibility of the actor is somewhat forgotten. As said, we don’t judge the actor by the way that the actor effected a change within us, but by the way that the actor authentically presented a different character. Actors today seek to merge with the characters they play so much that the actor as a person is forgotten, becoming always the character they act out.
A good example of this is Jack Gleeson receiving hate mail as a result of his convincing portrayal of Jeoffrey from “Game of Thrones.” Now this merging of an actor and the character not only eliminates the social responsibility of the actor to change their audience, but also makes the audience perceive the characters as being acted out in the way we were taught to regard a real person; as an agent limited in their ability to undergo radical transformations. If a character changes too much without impetus, or reacts in a way that is uncalled for, the development is criticized as unbelievable. As a society, we have anchored our fictional universe in the ideology of capitalist society: things do not change, and if they do, it is very unlikely.
Capitalism hinges upon the stability of the future. If we were to regard the future as an unlimited reservoir of unexpected outcomes, then we would never feel secure enough to invest our capital in anything. The unpredictability of the future would seem too volatile to promise a return on our investment. Maybe a meteor would annihilate Earth, or worse, some unavoidable change to our habitats would cause any investment in future returns to seem unworthy, since by the time of profit there would be little use left for the money earned.
Burdened by such worries, capitalism loses its control. So, it must sweep these concerns under the carpet by taming the future and selling us the illusion that tomorrow will be the same as today. And it works: we get addicted to our routines, we develop anxieties of change, we only want everything to repeat itself so we feel secure, stable, in control. The philosopher and literary critic Frederic Jameson puts it in the best terms when he says that it would be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Thus, when actors depict an eternally fixed character, they undermine the understanding that everything is constructed and can be changed: our personas, our social institutions, our reality. Of course, this way of seeing acting as eternally fixing the exact same performance has to do with the development of film and television whereby the performance is transfixed. In theater, the same actor never constructs the same character identically. Every performance is different, even if the actor tries to subdue that difference. Yet the prevalence of film and television has affected acting in theaters, and now the understanding that characters, like people, are socially constructed and can change and be acted differently is threatened. Luckily we still showcase many productions of Shakespeare, in which it is easy to see how Shakespeare’s characters transform over time and are acted out differently.
So how can we then reestablish the social responsibilities of the actor as both effecting a cathartic discharge in the audience and reminding the audience that the character, similarly to themselves and other social institutions, is constructed and subject to change?
First, let us briefly sketch what this entity called the “actor” is so that we can understand how this entity can realize these two aims mentioned above. As I discussed in the introduction, because we commonly don’t see ourselves in our everyday lives as actors, although we do exhibit the same features of the actor’s performance, I argue that it is the scope of the actor’s performance which necessitates our usage of a new category to describe what the actor is. We perform only ourselves, whereas the actor performs many. Therefore, the actor is a stock of characters, an arsenal of associations and actions constituting many different types of people.
The actor, then, is interested in collecting as many experiences as possible to be able to perform many situations and personalities. In a sense, the actor amasses a catalog of life, which the actor utilizes in performance. Thus, what I see as the training that actors receive in acting school is the knowledge of how to empty themselves to become hosts for associations which are not theirs; of how to become malleable vessels through which others are channeled, vessels uninhibited by personal patterns anchoring expression as a somewhat unified persona, as one self. Actors learn to be faceless, no ones, only to be able to become everyone.
Now the way that an actor can utilize their repertoire of experience to effect the audience to identify with the personas the actor exhibits while at the same time reminding the audience this character is fictional is suggested by the etymology of persona. Persona, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is related to the Latin verb personare, which means “to sound through.” This action of sounding through refers to the action of sounding through a mask, like those which were common in ancient Greek theater, which typically amplified the voices of the actor.
Appealing to the etymology of persona, we can think about the actor’s performance as one that merely involves coming, being and speaking as one is. Thus the common notion of actively acting out a character is somewhat too extreme and tends to result in overacting, since the channeled persona is already amplified by the actions of the un-acting actor. All that is needed for the character to come across is the natural voice of the actor, as it will already be amplified by the mask the actor wears; that is, the costumes, the stage, the occasion. When the actor stops acting and is simply being, the actor becomes the character; the actor relinquishes the barrier of being themselves so as to become someone else. Similarly to how we don’t need to do anything to be ourselves, the actor should not be needing to do anything to be another, if the actor wants to realistically represent the character.
Oftentimes acting out a character caricatures it and kills it. That is the plague of overacting, which inhibits the identification with the character, which the actor must succeed in. To be the character, to give it flesh and conjure it up, to give it life; that is to be the character, only effortlessly. Now it is important to note that overacting, and similarly underacting, can be successfully implemented to cause the alienation of the audience from the performance as a way of reminding the audience that the character is not real and that the play is constructed reality. But it is as important to allow identification by creating persuasive characters as it is to establish the distinction between actor and character through jarring and unrealistic performance.
Another way to create the alienation effect in acting is to combine discordant associations and actions which usually do not appear in succession. As we have said, characters are stocks of associations; when associations of different types of personalities coincide the result is confusion and shock, as if a glitch occurred. A military general at a press conference should not act like a fool. But by acting such a general as a fool, the actor exhibits that they are not attempting to imitate reality in their performance. The actor reminds the audience that the character in the show is not real, thus creating that necessary distance between the audience and performance so as to allow the audience critical engagement with the spectacle.