For any actor, imagination is the key
When I was a child I imagined I was Robin Hood. I would pretend to fight the Sheriff of Sherwood Forest. I would use a makeshift stick as a bow and another stick as an arrow. With other children from the neighborhood we would fight our foes to the death. It was great fun to be shot by a fake arrow on the top of a hill so I could fall and roll inevitably down the hill, which always led to my great dying scene. Today’s children might imagine themselves as Harry Potter or a Jedi. They will find whatever is handy and imagine they are magic wands or a laser sword. They will take blankets or towels and make Batman or Superman capes. Unfortunately, the moment they are called by a parent to return home, all weapons return to their original identity and they once more become simply their parent’s child.
“It’s wonderful working with young (child) actors. They come with a lack of cynicism.” ~ Actress Michelle Forbes
When I was a young actor, I asked the brilliant actress Rosemary Harris the following question, “What is acting?” (If you are unfamiliar with Rosemary Harris, google her name. I promise you will be impressed by her astounding career.)
I am forever grateful Rosemary didn’t dismiss my inquiry. Instead, she sat quietly for a while before replying, “Acting is dress-up time in grandma’s attic.” At first I didn’t know what to make of her response. I suppose what I wanted was for her words to excite me, to light a fire in me. This didn’t immediately happen. However, this was Rosemary Harris and anyone with half a brain wouldn’t dismiss anything she said. So I pondered her words. Eventually the meaning of her simple words hit me. They indeed were as profound as I wished and I as hoped, they did light a fire in me. As an actor I needed to return to the joy I had when I played make-believe as a child. I needed to trust my imagination and my ability to believe with the same freedom I had when I played Robin Hood.
There was a great acting teacher in Los Angeles, Tracey Roberts, who would refer to the stage as a giant sandbox. Whether the stage was in a legitimate theatre or on a sound stage, it was a sandbox. She would encourage her actors to play in their sandbox.
“The imagination is closer to the actor than life itself – more agreeable, more comfortable.” ~ Stella Adler
While an acting student at Stella Adler’s School of Acting, I was encouraged to buy my first acting book, Acting is Believing. This book is still available and very much worth the investment. Within its first paragraph is this wisdom: “There is no single satisfactory comprehensive definition of acting. At one level we can say that acting is behaving as if things that are not real are real, and we can readily see that the make-believe worlds of children are covered by this definition. Depending on the level of a child’s imagination, every child is a good actor.”
A dictionary definition of make-believe is: Representing something that you agree to pretend is real, is real for the purpose of playing.
The gift we had as children is the ability to not only use our imaginations in creating our make-believe worlds, but our ability to believe them to be real. This book in addition wisely points out that once an audience is introduced into the imaginative world of the child, problems occur. The child is accused of showing off, the child then becomes self-conscious. As that child matures into adulthood, he limits his imagination. Too frequently this is encouraged by family members and educators.
“I think the secret to great acting is that you have to bring your imagination to the party. You have to have a great imagination and you have to bring it every day when you’re working. Your imagination and your skills as an actor are what see you through.” ~ Steven Spielberg
Dress-up time! Sandbox! Party! Make-believe! Such wonderful words to describe the joy of acting. There is another word Mr. Spielberg’s used that needs consideration, and that word is “skills.”
In order to play at the level demanded in today’s world, the actor needs to support his/her imagination with the knowledge needed for each new creative adventure. For those of you who follow my articles, you know how much I emphasize homework.
“The imagination is part of the arsenal that actors work from.” ~ Bryan Cranston
Yes, it would be wonderful if we all could act with the confidence of a child at playtime. However, more is demanded of us. We must inhabit the world of our characters beyond what our imaginations have to offer. Constantine Stanislavski, the father of the craft of acting as it is taught today said, “The life of a character should be an unbroken line of events and emotions, but a play gives us only a few hints on how to accomplish this. Actors must create, through imagination, the rest to portray a convincing life.”
True, our imagination does fill in the blanks not given to us by the writer and yet, we need to research so our imaginations have some fuel. For example, you need to research the world in which your characters live. If you do your homework thoroughly, your imagination will soar when you put it to work.
In the play, Romeo and Juliet, an actor is hired to play either of these roles. Most actors have seen pictures depicting that era to at least have an understanding of the fashion of the day. How many young actors understand the history of that time period? How many actors can comprehend families at war in the 1300s? You’ve seen West Side Story and have an understanding that the battling families in Romeo and Juliet are similar to the street gangs of NYC, circa 1960. That knowledge is helpful, but just the beginning of the investigative work which needs to be done.
Most actors can certainly imagine falling in love, even at first sight. However, what is it about the other person which makes this happen? You may imagine it is the way they flirtatiously and sexually tilt their head when they look at you. The way the person’s lip curls in a secretive smile. The slight touch of their hand which sends a shock wave through your whole body. Using your imagination you can understand young love, even if you’ve never experienced it.
What of ethics? The actors may question why a clergy of the Catholic Church was willing to marry two children? Through research you discover that at that time in history, life expectancy for most people was late twenties, early thirties. Subsequently, it was natural for young people, little more than children to marry.
Once the actor does his research, his imagination can fly.
As I write this article I received news of the passing of the great Broadway Producer/Director, Hal Price. Joel Grey was one of the actors who shared memories of him. Joel Grey was offered the role of the German emcee in Cabaret. He tells the following story: “As an actor I didn’t feel anything deep about this character. Then the last night of rehearsal I had this dream about this terrible nightclub performer who did every low trick to get the audience to like him – cheap, begging, outrageous and disgusting. And I thought maybe this is the character. I said to Hal Prince at rehearsal I’d like to try something and he said, “Go for it!” Joel Grey rehearsed the new outrageous character and the rest of the cast was “aghast,” to use his word. The director, Hal Price, put his arm around Mr. Grey’s shoulder and said, “Joely, that’s it!” Even in our dreams our imagination is alive and working.
If you have seen Joel Grey’s Tony and Academy Award winning performance, I’m sure you’d agree with Hal Prince. If you’ve never seen it, find a copy. You have a major treat in your future.
Treasure your imagination and do all you can to free it and allow it to blossom. As the great Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is everything!”
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