A Dream not Deferred
I used to be captivated by theatre. Once upon a time, I had the ability to completely immerse myself in the worlds and lives of people standing on a stage, distanced only physically by the restraints of my seat. That was before I became an actor. Being an actor changed my perception of the performance of other actors in a way which I regret.
While the motives for my decision to become an actor were largely superficial (with dreams of giving an acceptance speech on a widely broadcast awards show, dreams that, to this day, fail to abate), the decision would ultimately manifest into the greatest passion and pursuit of my career. The costs of pursuing a professional career in acting are well established and widely known. These costs include, but are certainly not limited to, the monetary, the blight of self-doubt in the face of relentless rejection and, of course, the pride, held captive by the need for a tedious restaurant job that you must explain to caring parents. However, one of the hidden costs of becoming an actor is the inability to separate critique of an art we so desperately want to participate in from the ability to consume it. How often do I needlessly suffer the perils of one misguided performer on a stage, despite the majesty of the others?
My conversations with many fellow actors highlight a pattern of relentless judgment. “She was okay, but what was up with her voice?” “I didn’t believe their chemistry.” “A bit shouty for me.”
Denzel Washington, no stranger to the stage, suggested that what you receive from a show depends on what you bring to it. I admit to being hamstrung with endless critiques of actors regarding their lines, chemistry, positioning, their intent or believability. How ironic that what actors are so desperate for on stage is what they are so reluctant to give as an audience—acceptance. How many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Ten: One to do it and nine others to suggest how they could have done it better!
Were we not once children swept away by our imaginations via the conduit of performers on a stage? Are actors too jaded to become audience members? Are there performances that remove us from this judgment and allow us to indulge someone else’s spotlight?
I believe that the answers are all a resounding ‘yes’, a yes that requires us to appreciate the beauty of what we saw when we were inspired. While not every actor will sustain a career as consistently as Simon Russell Beale or as incandescent as Benedict Cumberbatch, I believe that every committed actor has the ability to transcend and move an audience, be it for an instance or for a lifetime. I believe that every committed actor has the ability and should strive for a moment, however rare, however fleeting, to expose themselves to an audience. It is an actor’s ability to suffer the perils of humanity and the frailties of being human in front of an audience that gives us a glimpse of the divine. We should seek it in ourselves on stage and respect that noble quest in others.
There are numerous times I’ve been inspired by the efforts of an actor on stage, but one is notable, a performance indelible from my emotional memory bank. During my tenure in drama school in England, I dragged a few of my classmates to a production on the West End of one of my favourite dramatic pieces, Fences, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson. The play tells the story of the Maxsons, a black family in Pittsburgh led by their patriarch, Troy. I confess that many of the actors on that London stage, despite vigour and passion, were slightly off with their accents and I was distracted. The actress playing Troy’s wife, Rose, swayed her hips in a misguided fashion, seemingly trying to emulate a certain swagger, and many of the colloquialisms of American speech didn’t translate well across the pond. However, near the end of the play there was a moment that, years afterwards, I still reflect upon. On remembrance, as if in a surreal dream, I am sitting, watching, absorbing: a tableau of emotions that continues to move me.
In the play, Troy’s death brings the family together and Troy’s brother, Gabriel, stands centre stage, flanked at a distance by the other members of their family. Gabriel is mentally ill, the unfortunate result of a war wound, and unable to express himself coherently. On the stage, Gabriel begins to stomp his feet, to wildly sway his hands, to extend and shake his head. He is unable to contain his body, which is overwhelmed with despair and what appears to be shame at his inability to release it. He drops to his knees and releases a guttural wail in the absolute grief that is the loss of the only friend he had, a sound that pierced and shattered the glass of my inner reserve. He stomped and swayed and wailed on that stage for five whole minutes without a single word spoken. He was utterly devastated…and so was I. My eyes suffered a deluge of tears that cascaded down my face without relent for minutes and minutes. I didn’t hide it or look away. At curtain call, I stood and clapped my hands aggressively as if to impress upon the actor what his performance did…does to me.
I don’t remember what the actor’s name was and I don’t care to look it up. We left that theatre and looked for a café before we needed to catch our bus home. The tedious conventions of life always seem to prevail. The beauty of the stage is transcendence, for a moment and no longer, from these tedious daily conventions. A performance and a play is a dream not deferred. So what is it that we look for when we go to the theatre? Some may call the endgame in all art to seek truth, to seek understanding, to reflect the mirror of man back on himself. I believe that it is always the catharsis of inspiration through tears, either from grief or tireless struggle or from laughter. I believe the true nobility of the actor exists in their belief and pursuit of inspiration.
Therefore, as an actor, I can only resolve that my passion to perform should not preclude me from objectivity, from the suspension of disbelief, from the magic of being moved. More than any other, an actor must offer the most generosity as an audience member. The actor must strive to be magnanimous and congratulatory and, most of all, accepting; because we know what is possible from any actor if we do that.