There’s a story I tell about my wife when we were in college. We had been dating for awhile and were madly in love. We still are of course, but this was that new relationship kind of love that’s frightening to remember. We were both theatre majors and both actors. I was at my apartment one night while she was at a rehearsal for a play. She was playing a character who, through the course of the play, had gotten her former attacker tied up in a chair while holding a gun on him. She showed up at my apartment after this rehearsal in tears. Apparently something had happened. She explained that one of our acting teachers had been there and had “worked her up” into this emotional state while working on a scene in the play. I, as her super-cool protective boyfriend, was outraged. I went and talked with the teacher about it, concerned that we were being pushed too hard to “go to dark places” or to “really go there” or to use “emotional recall.” It’s just a play, after all. We shouldn’t imagine ourselves into such dark emotional territory.
Turns out? Yeah we should.
Cut to many years later and I accepted a job teaching college acting. I quickly found myself giving the same old boring note over and over and over: raise the stakes. So many of the students were afraid of over-acting, they would say. I don’t think they were afraid of over acting. I just think they were afraid. It’s a weird thing to do. To try and act out some life and death event in a believable way that will bring an audience along with you. Students would say, “You don’t really want to see what I’d be like in that situation.” I would sigh. It’s the only thing the audience wants to see, whether they know it or not. The contradictions abound when it comes to acting training. In high school you’re told to show everything. Then you get to college and you’re told to be more subtle and to quit acting. Then you get to my class and you’re told to raise the stakes over and over again. Then you go to grad school and you’re told that the way you use your shoulders isn’t right and you should lose weight.(It’s really a frustrating thing to take several years of acting classes in a row. I strongly suggest not doing it. Just go do some plays for a paying audience.)
While teaching at the university I had an epiphany about what had happened to my dear girlfriend in college, the thing I’d felt such moral outrage about as a nineteen year old. That acting teacher had gone to rehearsal and called bs on what my wife was doing. No way. Nuh-uh. You’ve got the man who attacked you tied up in a chair. You’ve got a gun. You could kill him. And that’s how you’re acting? Nope. Quit wasting our time.
For crying out loud, RAISE. THE. #%$#!!. STAKES.
I’m into week three of my new job teaching elementary school theatre. Believe me, I haven’t once had to say “raise the stakes.” There’s no fear of over acting. There’s no fear of extremes. Based on the first three weeks, I’ve had to make some “scene rules.” They are: no fainting, no dying, no guns, no violence, no threatening, no yelling, no running. (I’m in a smallish classroom with over twenty students and there’s just not room to run.) I was packing up to leave the other day and I saw my list of rules on the board. What an about-face I’ve done. How odd, I thought. If I followed those rules as a spectator I would need to clean out every DVD, every play off the shelf, everything I’ve ever written. I don’t know what’s right. Part of me just wants to let them go nuts. But I can’t. Someone would get hurt. The disruption would echo through the entire school.
Just a few years ago I was telling my college students the opposite: more dying, more yelling, more violence, etc. Now I’m telling elementary students to tone it down.
I’m not sure what that means. But it seems like there’s a connection. Or a remedy. Or something.