Some of my best friends are actors. I hold a tertiary degree in the craft, and I follow its evolution with great interest, so it gives me no pleasure to report that a midweek meeting with a major Broadway producer has led me to reflect that if acting were an animal, it would be a polar bear, stranded on an iceberg due to an unfortunate quirk of climate change.
Broadway is always looking for the next big thing, by which it means the next big money-spinner, and the model on every producer’s mind right now is Sleep No More. It’s a show unlike anything that has been seen on Broadway. In fact, it’s not even on Broadway. But excitingly for everyone, in an era of sharply declining theatre attendance and ageing audiences, Sleep No More is attracting full houses of hip punters who are happy to commute to an out-of-the-way part of Manhattan and pay at least $85 a head for the privilege of chasing a stray story through the nooks and crannies of a specially refurbished hotel.
From a producer’s point of view it’s a dream come true. The audience does most of the work to create its own fun, and it needs little bidding to flock to an event with almost none of the traditional overheads associated with mounting a show on Broadway, including, and this is the kicker: it doesn’t have to employ actors. Due to the nature of the work, Sleep No More can hire non-union performers, generally dancers, who to be fair, spend most of their time generally dancing. Still. It's the latest manifestation of a familiar process. Actors are an expense, and people have been trying to get rid of them for more than a century.
Edward Gordon Craig was the first to formulate an actor-free theatre. He was a designer who worked at the time of the industrial revolution. Filled with the spirit of the age, he became frustrated by the organic inconsistency of anything not machine-tooled. Actors can fluff their lines, quibble directions, deliver inconsistent performances and find endless nefarious ways of diluting the intentions of the show's all-knowing creator. EGC's idea of the theatre of the future was to use fancy lighting and pulley systems to animate large pieces of set in a mechanical ballet analogous to watching giant driverless dodgem cars bumping into each other at the fair. The turgid awfulness of his vision is best illustrated by noting that his work was warmly received in Germany and the USSR.
Actors are not blameless for the current state of affairs. The biggest misstep has been to cultivate the audience expectation that great acting is the ability to behave naturally in artificial circumstances.
Constantin Stanislavski pioneered the modern technique of helping actors to do this. His practice can be summarised as 'a method of distraction.' The actor learns to so whole-heartedly to invest in the reality of the artificial circumstances that she is able to forget about the fact she is being observed and behave ‘naturally’. This is a simplification, but a relatively accurate one. The technique came to America and evolved into the ‘method’ acting stereotyped by actors walking the streets as vagrants in order to get into character.
This is all fine and dandy and the results are fairly spectacular, but it is a technique that is more valuable the more artificial the circumstances. Stage is the most obvious example - intimate drawing rooms are transplanted into large theatres and performers operate within a few feet of hundreds of watching eyes and straining ears. On the movie sets of the past, large cameras, and the expensive nature of film stock and crew time meant that an actor who could do what had been planned convincingly, accurately and on the first take could save producers a lot of money as well as pleasing audiences. Some of those conditions are still present for blockbusters, but thanks to the reduced size and cost and greater mobility of cameras, anywhere can be a set. This means that the artificial circumstances can become less and less artificial and the level of distraction required to overcome the performer’s self-consciousness becomes commensurately reduced. In addition, digital film stock affords the ability to shoot piles of footage at no extra cost, allowing editors to sift through many hours of cheaply acquired content for a few seconds of gold. Over the last few decades, directors have also learned to apply methods of distraction to non-actors with a remarkable result: reality TV.
I don’t need to tell you that reality TV is in fact incredibly well-crafted by extremely competent people, but it takes a lot less of them and the talent doesn’t need to be trained or paid much. The distraction technique used on non-actors is a version of the one used by Stanislavski, and its origins lie in Aristotle’s unassailable contention that personality emerges from activity: character is plot. So, to get interesting performances from regular people all you need to do is to make them perform a distracting activity. Make Jenny cook a flan in slightly less time than is comfortable, or ask a known bigot and a progressive to work together to retrieve food from the top of a coconut tree for breakfast. The activity allows these people to display character less self-consciously, and lots of footage and clever editing allows the audience to witness the bits that were most interesting.
None of this would pose a problem for actors if it wasn’t for the fact that audiences draw little distinction between activities performed by actors and non-actors, and often display a preference for the latter, cheaper version. Look at primetime viewing figures and you’ll see that programming involving unpaid customs officers rifling through the suitcases of unpaid passengers draws at least equivalent eyeballs to shows that require vast staffs of highly-skilled story makers. In August NZ On Air agreed to subsidise two shows for screening on TVNZ. Each production company has been charged with making six television-hour-long episodes. The one that will use actors costs six million dollars. The one that won’t costs six hundred thousand. Without making any qualitative predictions about either series, it’s hard to think that the more expensive one will attract ten times the viewers or advertising revenue.
Skillful screen-makers have taken the time to adjust to the competition, and have been developing sharp and brilliant distinctions - look at the calibre of cable comedy and drama that’s characterised the last ten years. What has not happened in a particularly successful way until now has been for this competition between the ordained and the lay to creep into stage, which had been the unassailable fortress of the trained actor and the bull-pen for the great screen performers to warm into their task. On stage, it’s the actor who is responsible for live editing, lighting and framing of their role in the story in which they’re participating. Where they stand, how they speak and what they do when they’re not ‘in focus’ are all crucial to the audience’s reading of the tale. In Sleep No More all these responsibilities have been divested to individual members of the audience, and they pull it off just fine.
Like the polar bear, actors are the cute face of a greater extinction that threatens writers, directors, technical and production staff. By alerting the public to their plight I have every hope they will be plucked off the iceberg in the nick of time, and create the methodology to save some other creatures in the process.
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