Once, long ago, there was a young man who worked in theatre. He started at the age of twenty and kept at it until he was thirty-two, still no further ahead than when he started. Fortunately for him he was able to stop before he got bitter and lost his love and appreciation for the art form.
One of the more beautiful things about theatre is it’s potential to create magic out of nothing. I don’t mean the elaborate sets of a Broadway style mega production when I say magic. I’m talking about an empty space, which can be filled with whatever the human spirit can imagine and recreate through the power of performance.
It’s the magic given to an actor at any level of development, amateur to professional, to become someone else. With or without costume and makeup the gift of being allowed to create a character is a magical experience for both the actor and the people watching.
As an actor there is nothing more liberating than experiencing, for the first time, the sense of being someone other than one’s self. The freedom that this allows is immense. One is able to give vent to emotions and ideas that might normally have been locked up inside, but thanks to words and ideas penned by someone else they are allowed to take flight.
As an audience member witnessing this transformation there’s the magic of make believe made real before your eyes. Going to theatre is like one giant game of “Let’s Pretend”. They’ll pretend to be lovers; he’ll be a king; he is the villain we get to boo; and she is the ingénue we all get to fall in love with. It’s a fantasy world brought to life for your own personal enjoyment.
Of course there is also that realization that this is “Live”. It’s the world of no second takes; only one view of the scene, no multiple cameras; nothing can be tweaked and saved in the editing room. Theatre is the original, What You See Is What You Get.
As a former theatre actor I have obviously a certain amount of prejudice against film acting. It is a different craft from what is done on stage in a number of ways, but what has always bothered me is how little a performance is controlled by the actor.
A director has you shoot a scene from various angles and in a variety of ways. Then in the editing room he literally pieces it together frame by frame. Your final performance in one scene could actually be taken from six separate shots. In my mind that’s cheating the process.
It also leads to what I would refer to as a Stars Not Actors school of performance. So many movie stars do not create a character. They act out versions of themselves; they get angry, they get sad etc. Those actors who actually create characters are categorized into something a step down from Stars as character actors. There are exceptions to the rule of course; Kevin Spacey and Viggo Mortensen spring to mind, but so many of them coast on their star power.
Part of this can be laid at the feet of the American school of Method acting. It encouraged actors to use the techniques developed by the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski to create a performance but omitted the key step of creating a character to portray the emotions. But it also revolves around the Star system that’s always been a key to the film business.
In their bid to attract the attention and money of the movie going public, the studios created the idea of larger than life figures that were more important than the role they were playing or the film they were starring in. People go to see a Tom Cruise movie today like they went to see a Cary Grant movie or Humphrey Bogart movie in previous generations.
While the world of theatre may have its stars as well, they are less well known then their brethren and sisters in the world of film. They are renowned for their technique amongst the people they work with and the people who watch them on stage.
Long before Maggie Smith made a career out of playing elderly, stern British matriarchs, she was one of the most highly regarded female Shakespearian actors of her time. Aside from The Prime of Miss. Jean Brody, shot in the mid sixties the majority of her film experience has come latter in life.
What brought all this to mind was viewing a very remarkable small film last night on DVD called Bigger than the Sky. On the surface, a basic story of a nothing personality finding himself through being involved in a stage production of Cyrano de Bergerac; but along the way it evoked for me memories of the passion and invigoration which are part and parcel of the theatrical experience.
As seen through the eyes of the novice Peter Rooker (Marcus Thomas) one is guided past the surface stereotypes so often associated with theatre, to find the kernels of truth that reside at the heart of the art. Aided and abetted by Michael Degan (John Corbett of Northern Exposure fame) and the beauteous Grace Hargrove (Amy Smart), two vastly more experienced actors, he has his eyes opened to the magic inherit in the world of theatre.
John Corbett’s Michael is a jaded actor who’s reduced to playing out being an actor and forgotten why he started in the first place. Although the idea of the novice reinvigorating the bitter experienced actor is slightly clichéd, the chemistry between the shy and introverted Peter and the flamboyant Michael breaths life into something old.
For although Peter may envy Michael his talent and his exuberance he knows that he will never be him. He needs to be able to find his own way through his insecurities and doubts. The movie places a strain on our credibility by having Peter, a rank amateur, cast as the title character in Cyrano de Bergerac, but in the context of the film it’s a perfect analogy.
Cyrano hides behind the deformity of his nose, making jokes, playing the fool, and being the good soldier. But all the time he holds his real emotions in check, feeling that because of the nose he is not worthy or deserving of love, and is too embarrassed to act otherwise. Peter at the start of the movie is a non-entity whose existence is barely noticed by those in his life.
He hides within that shell, because almost any time he steps out from within it he is shot down. Like Cyrano Peter finds reason to push out from under the shell. For him it’s the realization there is something that makes him feel alive, and gives him a feeling of accomplishment like nothing else has ever done.
It’s not just the work; it’s also the feeling of being accepted as a part of a group for the first time in his life. He’s taking part in an endeavour that is bigger than him which not only allows for personal satisfaction, but the realization he can make a difference and be appreciated by others.
It’s a simple tale devoted to simple truths, which after all are the realest ones. The manner in which this movie depicts the simple truths about acting and theatre wonderfully evoked all my fondest memories and made me miss what once was. Perhaps those who watch Bigger Than The Sky who lack a background in theatre will not appreciate it as much, or might look on it all with a sceptical eye.
While it’s true that some of the types may be exaggerated for effect, in essence it is accurate. Having worked with people as diverse as inmates in a Young Offender unit, young children, professionals in all aspects of the field, and lifers (people serving a life sentence for murder) and seen them all go through a similar process in their own way; I can only praise the people involved with this film for the accuracy of their depiction of theatre’s magic.
I have vivid memories of staying up into the wee hours of the morning painting a backdrop for the last play I worked on. I still remember my feelings of pride and accomplishment when seeing it hung on stage and illuminated by the lights. It was only a small detail, probably barely noticed by the audience, but it was part of the magic of the performance. It was my imprint on the show and it made it special to me for that reason.
That’s the true magic of what theatre can do for all of us if we are willing to take the chance.