In Praise of Actors

In a blog supposedly dedicated to scenic design and lighting design, I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time on actors.   Most theatrical designers and technicians have an assortment of disagreeable nicknames for performers:  meat puppets, light reflectors, moving mannequins etc. but without the actors, there would be little reason for designers to exist.  Additionally, I like (most) actors.   And sometimes there are really special actors.

There are actors who are skilled at comedy, and those skilled at drama.  Some actors make any costume they are given look fabulous.    There are those who can sing, and dance, and sword fight.   Some can effortlessly project.   Some can capture the audiences attention with the smallest of gestures.   Some can speak with different accents.    And all of these skills are needed by the various productions so the the director can blend the skills of the cast, with those of the designers, and the technicians.

The theory on any show is that the director, and the designers, and the actors, and the technicians are all working toward a single unified vision.   Everyone says they do it, but usually the actors act, and directors direct, and designers design, and technicians tech — but there seems to be a firm division of labor.  Actors Act, while inhabiting the designs of the designers, and doing the movements prescribed by the director — and everything seems unified.

Sometimes though you run into a performer who molds with his costume, who connects viscerally with the set, who makes the lighting do his bidding, whose blocking looks completely natural, who seems to intuitively understand the all the technical aspects of  a production, and makes them work to his advantage.   I want to tell a tale of two college actors who did it.

Both actors played the role of the Amanuensis in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion.   Both actors seem as if they have a definitive interpretation of the role(s).   Both actors have a series of challenging cues to coordinate with the design, technical and stage management staff.  And both have studied the design around them to make it seem as if they control the small subtle shifts in design and space.

The first actor was Robert Baker.   Robert performed in the show at USC around a decade ago.   Robert managed to always find a mark on a pitch dark stage so that a single light cut to just the size of his face would light him.  He learned to feel when the “flames” would extinguish so that he could snuff them out with his magic.   After he left U.S.C., he went on the great success in Grey’s Anatomy on TV, and Leatherheads in the movies.

The second actor was Ben McNamara.   Ben will open in the show on Friday night at Fresno City College.   Tonight, durring the second dress, I saw many tiny movements which made it seem as if he controlled the lights.   In one of the magical transitions, his body seemed to move in sync with the lighting and sound effects.  It seemed as if the stole the magic I brought to the moment.   I look forward to finding out what great success he goes on to.

Of course these to actors are not the only ones I have encountered with this skill, but I find it a curious coincidence that I found them both in the same play, in the same role.  Perhaps it is something about the role, but I don’t think so.   The actors are of rather different types, one broad, one lean, one fair haired, one dark.   They approach the character differently, but they both search for the magic.

I don’t know what the term for this skill is.  I don’t know where, when or even if it is taught.  But I admire it.  I know that the audience will credit much of the work of the designers and the directors to actors with this talent, and I’m fine with that.   I suppose the skill does not come in useful in every show — I don’t think it would be advantageous in plays like Mamet’s Oleana, but when a show requires the skill, these actors elevate the whole performance to the next level with their craft.

As much as I enjoy designing, it requires the actors to tell the playwrights story to give my work meaning.   So I want to say thank you to those actors I have been fortunate enough to work with.   And to those who take it all in and make it their own, I will enjoy designing for you that much more.

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