Power of the Art of Acting

I have observed along my life journey that acting is largely misunderstood and under appreciated as an art. To many who have asked me about my experiences on stage, acting is perceived to be nothing more than adults engaged in a child’s game of make believe. That notion certainly contains a nugget of truth, as good actors tap into a child-like sense of play and imagination. It does, however, fall short of the whole truth. One might equally say that a painter is simply “coloring” or a composer is simply “making up songs.” In every one of these examples the notion falls far short of understanding both the art form and the work of the artist.

Acting, to steal a term used by Tolkien and Lewis with regard to their writing, is a form of sub-creation. It is the art of creating an individual being, from the inside out, in all of his or her (or its) infinite complexities. Think how intricately layered each one of us are in our unique experiences, gifts, talents, intentions, thoughts, feelings, desires, quirks, flaws, handicaps,  strengths, and idiosyncrasies. What a Herculean task to start with nothing more than words in a script and attempt the creation of a living, breathing, believably real human being on stage. Even more challenging is the fact that the actor must fulfill this task utilizing his or her own existing body and voice. Imagine a composer being asked to take exactly the same notes, key, and time signature that exist in one piece of music and rearrange them to make a uniquely different work.

An actor’s task is made even more difficult when his or her creation must interact with others on stage whom they do not control.  Your creation, in all his or her uniqueness, must react and respond to others in the moment without the assurance of knowing exactly what will happen or be said (or not said) in that moment. Like all other artists actors put their creation out there for all the world to see. It is a courageous act fraught with the risk. Unlike artists in other mediums, actors are, themselves, the canvas, the composition, the sculpture, the sonnet. When actors step on stage they present their own flesh and blood as part and parcel of the art itself. The risk is more personal and more public than almost any other art form.

In the process of creating this living, breathing creation on stage, the actor becomes psychologist, historian, private investigator, sociologist, theologian, and priest. Actors become among the world’s most accepting and empathetic inhabitants because they are required to find understanding and empathy for some of literature and history’s most heinous villains. In this pursuit of the embodiment of a real person on stage, an actor comes to embody love and grace that believes, hopes, and endures even for the most tragic of characters.

As with all art mediums, there exists in this wide world of actors a diverse panacea of education, talent, experience and ability. You may not find Olivier, Hoffman, Streep, or Theron at your local high school, college, or community center. You may, however, be pleasantly surprised if you take the risk of venturing out and buying a ticket. You will find courageous actor-artists stepping into a real world created on the other side of the fourth wall. They will transport you to another time in another place. You may just find yourself swept up in a story that not only entertains, but also causes you to think, laugh, weep, and feel. Your disbelief may be suspended just long enough for you to care, truly care, about these characters, these persons, these living, breathing, real creations and their stories. That is the power of the art of acting.

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Photo: Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Karl Deakyne rehearse a scene from Ham Buns and Potato Salad. Pella, Iowa.

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