[Originally published in the Star & Wave newspaper on July 27, 2022]
By Roy Steinberg, Producing Artistic Director
Acting has been called the art of behaving privately in public.
Theater and film and television production is about making the audience believe in the story. Actors go to great lengths to make their performances convincing. There is an exercise called a “private moment” that was devised by Lee Strasberg as part of his “Method” that many actors find helpful.
Since we are social mammals, it is a scientific fact that we behave differently in the presence of other people. Scientists have measured that our blood pressure rises slightly, our saliva thickens, our breathing changes, the hairs on the back of our neck stiffen slightly when another person enters a room, even someone we know well.
The exercise is simply to do something in private, like reading a book , then do it in front of a studio of other actors. The idea is to measure how closely we can return to the heartbeat and blood pressure that we had before we were in front of others. An actor may be “alone” in a movie with a camera person, an audio engineer, script supervisor, director and grips, but it is that actor’s job is to make us believe that he or she is alone in front of all of those people.
We have purposely cast a real-life married couple in “America’s Sexiest Couple,” Karen Ziemba and Bill Tatum. Karen Ziemba talks about her first stage kiss, which occurred in the Broadway production of “42nd Street” with Jerry Orbach. Some of you may know Orbach from his years on “Law and Order” but he was a treasure to musical theater long before his television career. When Karen Ziemba kisses Bill Tatum in our current play, the actors have to make it seem like it’s the first time every night.
That’s what actors do. We can kiss a relative stranger because our characters have a deep connection or we can kiss our long-married spouse with the excitement of a stolen kiss because that’s what the script tells us to do. Real-life sexual orientation is subjugated in service to art.
Have you ever wondered how actors memorize all those lines? There are many different techniques but even if an actor is supposedly alone, the lines must appear to be private and not a memorized speech. Everything we say has a purpose. Are we trying to threaten the other character or seduce another character or decide whether to commit suicide as in perhaps the most well-known monologue in “Hamlet” when he asks himself, “To be, or not to be.” Once the actor has identified what he or she is trying to do, the lines often flow naturally. Actors look for verbs when they are learning a part. That technique is called a “psychological action” so that “to flatter” or “to nail him to the wall” or “blind her with the truth” make learning lines easier to memorize when you know what you’re trying to do.
Artaud wrote in “Theatre and its Double” that the actor is “an athlete of the heart.” Actors are the bravest artists I know. The best ones reveal intimacy in the most profound way possible – not only physically but with their very souls.