Given the lamentable record of so many famed actors in living what most people would consider the “good life,” the idea of looking to the theories of those who make it their business to teach those actors their craft as a guide to creating that “good life” for non-actors seems counterintuitive at best, if not downright madness. Yet that is exactly what psychoanalyst Paul Marcus and his actress daughter Gabriela set out to do in Theater as Life: Practical Wisdom Drawn from Great Acting Teachers, Actors, and Actresses. From Stanislavski to David Mamet, although not in that order, they look to the work of most all of the major acting gurus for life lessons for the rest of us, and darned if they don’t find them.
They begin by arguing from the analogy between life and theater made most famously by Shakespeare in As You Like It, that since men like actors play many roles it stands to reason that they must necessarily profit from learning how great actors are taught to prepare for those many roles and use it in their own lives. Now leaving aside the questionable logic of argument by analogy, it is no doubt true that people behave in different ways at different times in different situations. Whether it is called a different role or something else, at age 60 we are not what we were at age 20. We act differently when with our boss, than when we are with our children. We behave in school one way, in a bar another. If we buy this, perhaps the Marcus’s have a point.
Theater as Life devotes individual chapters to the analysis of the ideas of those influential theorists who could reasonably be considered the major acting teachers—nine of them: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Viola Spolin, Bertolt Brecht, Tadashi Suzuki, Jerzy Grotowski and the aforementioned Stanislavski and Mamet. It also includes a chapter on the comic actor, but the focus here is not on one particular theorist or teacher, but a compendium of ideas from a bunch of sources, especially the comics themselves. The authors make no attempt at exhaustive explanations of entire acting programs, but focus on the ideas about creating a successful life on stage which would be applicable to creating a successful life off stage.
A few examples: One of the central ideas taught by Sanford Meisner, known for teaching the likes of Diane Keaton and Joanne Woodward, although not for being a particularly nice human being, is the necessity for the actor to focus on what he is doing for the other actor on the stage. Other directed action is central to a great performance and other directed action is central to the good life. Viola Spolin, famous for her work on improvisation, while also emphasizing the need for focusing on the other, also points out the importance of spontaneity in the context of theater games with agreed upon rules. This will release personal freedom and awaken “the total person physically, intellectually, and intuitively.” In the real world, the Marcus’s point out, such spontaneity “often leads the player to transcend many of his or her anxieties and inhibitions—call it a transforming liberatory moment.”
As the authors see it, much of what is fundamental in these important acting theories needs to be seen in the context of the great traditions of philosophical, religious, and psychological thought. It needs to be understood in more or less traditional ideas about the nature of the good life. Comparisons are constantly being made to Buddhism and Rabbinical teachings, to Freud and Emerson, even to Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. Ultimately it is the task of both the actor and the individual living in the real world to put aside their own egos in the interest of the larger good, whether it be the play itself as David Mamet would have it or the larger communal interest as the golden rule would suggest.