Theater as Dialectic
No matter how much I insist that I’m not an actor, I frequently myself on a stage or in front of a camera. At the start of the year, I played the role of Lenin in a Saint Constantine-produced play about the martyr Saint Elizabeth, Conquer. A few weekends ago, I played a mad scientist who gets turned into a can of beans. That was not for a Saint Constantine play. For me, acting is one of those crafts I have no future in but practice simply for the fun and discipline of it. Many people are willing to try, for example, a watercolor painting class for fun, even if they have no particular skill in it. Acting, however, has the more intimidating factor of being a performing art. At some point an audience will gather, and that makes us skittish. While I won’t argue that absolutely everyone should try acting, I am glad The Saint Constantine School offers theater classes and takes students through the experience of putting on a play. I’ve come to notice how much the art of acting also trains people in the art of dialectic. Performing a play is, in many ways, a dialectic about its text, the script.
To put on a successful play, the actors must be skillful readers and even better listeners. Just as participants in a discussion should read the text carefully before coming together, the actor must analyze the script before coming to the first rehearsal. She must assume that the playwright has a reason for every word. She may be confused by the choices her character makes, why she speaks the way she does, or why another character responds the way he does. When such questions arise, the actor must look even closer and consider the possibilities for what could be going on in the characters’ heads. She may create elaborate backstories, determine the reason for her character’s choices, and find motivations for the other characters in her scenes.
And then she needs to be prepared to drop all her ideas when she comes to the first rehearsal. The director might give an unexpected note. Her scene partner will almost certainly not say his lines the way she heard them in her head. If the actor recites her lines the way she planned ahead, without listening to her scene partner, the scene will fall flat and fail. Instead, she must listen intently and react genuinely. This process of abandoning preconceived notions and responding to new ideas requires humility from everyone. Even the director, as a discussion leader of sorts, must be willing to let the actors take the play in an unplanned direction. He is there to step in and reign in the actors from poor choices that conflict with the text of the play.
Each rehearsal continues the discussion of the text. If the rehearsals become repetitions of the same discussion, then the actors have fallen into ruts. When the actor knows exactly how she will say her line and how her scene partner will then say his, the dialogue is stilted and the play is dead. Instead, the actors must constantly search for the most genuine delivery, for the truth of each scene and the truth of each line.
As the actors surprise each other with their deliveries and responses, they begin to see the text in the light of each other’s perspectives. Eventually their differing views must converge in a unified direction, because when they perform for an audience, they must perform the same play, not their own secretly preferred version of the play.
At the performance, the actors are now in a dialectic with the audience about the play. Every audience member brings their own perspective and experiences to the play. The actors may all be on the same page through every beat of the play and still be surprised by when the audience laughs or claps or keeps silent.
Recently, our very own Megan Mueller led a fantastic workshop on performing Shakespeare. As far as I know, none of us attendees plan on becoming Shakespearean actors. But by learning how an actor would have read and experienced Shakespeare’s lines—which were never intended, after all, to be read in a book—we became better readers of Shakespeare, and better understood his characters, who they were, and how they felt. When each participant performed their monologue in the workshop, we experienced their ideas about their character and reacted with our own. It was a lively, fun, activity-based discussion of Shakespeare.
So even if you’re like me and have no special talent for acting, practicing in safe environments like this school is valuable. Acting builds muscles for engaging in extended dialogue around a single text. It is a challenging exercise in careful reading and even more careful listening. You don’t need to be a future thespian to benefit from trying it out.