Jan 21, 2010
Body Language: Inside the Mind of a Playwright
Julie Ann Seals is my guest blogger today and she is one of the enchanting people that I befriended at Oral Roberts University. I think we became friends because my roommate was a friend of hers and we had an apartment off campus with a washer and dryer. I would come home from work on Saturdays to this blue-eyed nymph doing her weekly laundry in my home. We soon bonded over our adoration of Kurt Vonnegut and a shared weakness for worn-out jeans.
Julie is a playwright and actress (although she won’t call herself an actress) at the Nightingale Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s one of the best local theaters that I’ve ever been to. When a place is hidden in the shadows of extreme religiosity, sometimes it breaks forth and shines like a diamond. I watched my first lesbian love story, complete with partial nudity, at this theater.
I asked Julie to write something the body and the art of acting.
Body language is the often subconscious enhancement or explanation of our verbal communication. Beyond facial expression and vocal intonation, the body gives social cues regarding the underlying intent and emotion of individuals. Often, along with the subconscious expression of the communicator, there is a subconscious interpretation by the receiver. So what exactly is going on when an actor--whose words and sometimes actions are dictated by another entity--is onstage attempting to convey an imaginary character to a theater full of strangers? How much of the subconscious is moved into the conscious? How self-aware can a gesture be before the audience recognizes the forgery?
If the answer to those questions, particularly the second one, were cut and dry, I imagine we could elevate the likes of William Shatner and David Caruso above pop culture self-parodies: every smoldering removal of sunglasses beckoning an Oscar nod. Alas, there are as many schools of thought on this as there are actors (and directors...and writers...and so on). Furthermore, not all characters require the same physicality, nor do all plays call for the same level of naturalism or theatricality. So, there is some disparity even within the individuals who address this issue.
Personally, when I am onstage (at an all-volunteer community theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so you know you can trust my expertise), about the only thing I'm thinking is, "Don't look like a jackass. Please, don't look like a jackass." My greatest acting weakness is my physicality. I know how to sound good. I'm excellent at memorizing lines. If a role requires me to be lying in bed paralyzed, I'm golden. I'm just too self-conscious to express myself very well with my body.
Anyone who has seen me in a show may hesitate to call me self-conscious, considering that many of my roles have required minimal clothing. (Remember: it's community theater. In Oklahoma. We gotta do something to keep its doors open.) I'm not embarrassed by what my body looks like; I'm just limited in what I can do with it. It does not matter if the director leaves me to my own devices or if the piece is highly choreographed: I struggle if it requires gross motor skills. The audience can tell I'm acting (which is great when we do Vaudeville), whether I'm operating consciously or subconsciously.
However, I am not really an actor. I'm actually a playwright who performs sometimes because I've got the sweet ass and the moxy to give it a shot. Of the real actors I work with (I do not consider a humble venue to be a limiting factor for talent), I have noticed that they do not all approach material in the same way, nor do they all share the same strengths. One thing that always impresses me with them is that they are capable of fully committing to whatever action they take, whether they have consciously chosen it or the theater gods have bestowed it upon their worthy forms.
I mostly make my way in the theater as a disembodied voice in my actors' heads, and I leave it to them to make everything look right (with, perhaps, some gentle nudges). I provide them with the sounds, and they in turn grace me with the action. Of the talented, working actors I know, many operate within a fairly narrow physical vocabulary. Rarely are they asked to stretch beyond their comforts zones, and I'm not suggesting they should be if the result is not stage-worthy. At my home theater, the Nightingale, we've learned and are still learning how best to suit our material to the strengths and limitations of our ragtag players. Often the limitations of a specific actor become the very quality we exploit in writing and onstage, as if we're collectively struggling with and celebrating the eccentricities of our individual natures. Because we do not have the luxury to rely solely on our strengths, we find a use for the whole turkey. The bar is low, the house is half empty, and we have each other to lean on and learn from. As we continue this process, self-correcting as best we can, we find that we are able to dive ever deeper into the language of our craft and of our own bodies, eventually awaking and then shaping the voice within, the one residing in our muscles and our minds, immeasurable and unknowable even to ourselves, no more real than the stories we serve, but true and undeniable in the mind of the audience. Bravo, Caruso...Bravo.