Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Actor and The Geisha

Frequently I can't tolerate the company of actors. I love the idea of them, and in one-on-one circumstances, I can marvel at the Orsino-like opalescence of their emotional instruments: they're more changeable and reactive than other people, as they must be, and more than that, they turn expressive in circumstances that shut other people down. They reach outward rather than collapse inward. They rise to meet emotional crises rather than hide from them. Have you ever had a verbal fight with an actor? Good luck if you think you're going to bully them into submission. On stage they've won and lost more high stakes in a single show than many people do in a life time. Actors are "the opposite of people," as Jack Young frequently says, quoting Stoppard. Don't expect from them the usual social or emotional cowardices.

As my friend Neal observed many years ago, actors are not neurotic, if by neurotic we mean that external behavior is not matching up with internal experience. Writers are neurotic: impassioned brains walking around in neglected, prematurely aging flesh bags. Actors are crazy rather than neurotic. They flutter at the lightest breeze, like a race horse which suddenly prances sideways, when it catches a flag snapping or tree branches moving out of the corner of its eye. Some of the most talented actors I've met have had real anger issues: their instruments are so fine that they're constantly on edge. This can make them difficult to live with, "beautiful monsters," as Jack also frequently reminds his students, quoting Williams.

The economic and professional insecurity of actors' lives doesn't help their social deportment. In social circumstances actors exhaust me. We're always looking around the room, never quite paying full attention to the person with whom we're talking because there's always someone else more famous or useful somewhere in the room. I loathe myself when I do this or even when I've given the impression of doing it. We can be unwittingly fawning and obsequious to those who might employ us for an eight week run that will barely pay the rent long enough to allow for time off from the day job in order to go to rehearsals. We crave the attention of casting directors who often take up many hours (sometimes days) of our time in auditions--appointments for which we've had to dress, pay for dry cleaning and transportation, take time off paying work, etc.--who then keep us waiting for weeks before either making an offer or sending us a polite turn-down. Although this experience is not different, in kind, for people looking for work in other fields, it's different in quantity.  Find a job in another field and you may have it for a few years, or at least a few months, rather than for six-to-eight weeks.  Trust me, this sh*t is crazy making, and infantilizing, and can make us too much at parties.

Actors are not superficial or fake in the way non-actors often think. Actors connect and bond quickly with others. The work requires it for one thing. We may work from the outside in, in social circumstances--as frequently as we work from the inside out, on stage--but that does not make our social selves less real. It makes our social selves more genuine barometers of our inner, secretly insecure selves, which in social circumstances are merely more exposed, more vulnerable, less crusted by conventions designed to hide emotional truth, than are non-actors' 'secret' selves. I'd love to see an American actor navigating a dinner party in Tokyo.

Actors are like geishas with bound feet. We've been created--created by our training, our experience, our ambition, and others' expectations--to be beautiful in rare and artificial circumstances: on stage and in film. Taken out of those circumstances we can appear grotesque. The geisha's tiny feet are probably lovely in the tea house but disturbing to see in the grocery store.


Harold Phillips said...

Well said, David... really a wonderful little essay!

Elle Poindexter said...

Amen! This explains many reasons why I don't act as often as I used to. I couldn't handle my actor self.