The Capacity for Play and Imagination: Is This a Legitimate Focus for the “Serious” Actor?

capacity for play

Dramatic Impact: Acting and Theatre in Alberta is two and 1/3 years old now, and we have had 25 episodes in total. In all that time I have not been tempted to mouth off about anything in this podcast blog. But today I discovered something that I am passionate about, which I suspect that many engaged in the pursuit of acting are prone to take less than seriously.

I believe that the core of acting depends on developing our capacity for play and imagination. I take this belief for granted because it has been confirmed by so many directors, teachers, and actors that I respect. But I think there is a disdain for that approach out there, possibly because it is hard enough to gain respect for what we do as actors and to be regarded as professional. And even those of us who are not full-blown professional actors want to be regarded as professional in our approach. It makes it that much less appealing to openly legitimize the role of play and imagination in what we do.

In True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, a book that has generated much controversy, David Mamet acknowledges an actor’s fear of being perceived as childish:

It is not childish to live with uncertainty, to devote oneself to a craft rather than a career, to an idea rather than an institution. It’s courageous and requires a courage of the order that the institutionally co-opted are ill-equipped to perceive.

(If you are interested in hearing more about this book and others that have inspired me, listen to Episode 22: One Big Massive Retweet, The Books, Part 1)
Actors have traditionally been mistrusted, sometimes even feared and have been seen as little more than prostitutes and criminals. We don’t want to be perceived as children too.

So if you don’t believe in the role of play and imagination, check out the books of Michael Chekhov, Harold Guskin, and Keith Johnstone. Chekhov, who lived from 1891-1955, is still and Guskin and Johnstone are considered to be highly respected teachers and professionals in the international acting community.

It is an accepted standard that an actor is the most powerful when that actor is “in the moment”, not showing you what he or she rehearsed but truly creating a moment as if for the first time. That comes from the ability to be spontaneous, and what better way to develop spontaneity than through play? Hence, you have veteran teachers and directors that are never too jaded to get their actors to play and rediscover their spontaneity. Another way that this gets expressed by teachers and directors is the idea that the intellect inhibits spontaneity. And what better way to get around our habitual use of the intellect than to use games and physicalization and exercises to develop the imagination?

That doesn’t mean the intellect has no role. After an actor has discovered the core of the scene or the character, he or she can bring in the intellect to refine their choices. But if it is too prevalent in the beginning, an actor may stiffen up, and we end up giving dead performances, museum pieces.

Let me know what you think in the comments, but please be respectful. People think that if you actually express a point of view strongly that you must be an arrogant person. Actually, before I started this podcast, I was terrified of putting my voice out there. Now I am more used to having a public voice and have gotten to the point where I can put my views out there when I feel strongly about them. Let me know what your point of view is. I welcome discussion. In any community, there must be room for differing points of view.

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