Mental Flotsam, Mental Jetsam

Because the only thing that beats going crazy is going crazy with somebody else

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Acting Vs. Imitation

I read an article this morning in the Washington Post, by Ann Hornaday. She analyzes some of the Oscar-nominated performances from this year, and picks them apart. With or without delicacy.

It got me thinking. (Do try to recover from the shock of this.)

I’ve been an actor, learning as much as I can about the craft and employing it; for ten years now. It’s fair to say that I’ve gotten somewhat good at it, if the roles I've earned or the reviews I’ve gotten are any indicator.

But what exactly is it? How much is imitation, how much of it is mere characterization, and how much of it is genuine acting? Does it count if the particular role is fun, or easier than others?

I know I’ve imitated. I played Ben Franklin for Theatre IV my first year out of college, in a children’s educational tour. I read a biography of him, memorized the script, took a long look at who I knew this man to be… and couldn’t ‘find’ him. Then I watched 1776. Howard Da Silva’s performance as Franklin was delightful.

So I stole it.

Da Silva’s low, melodic baritone speaking voice is one of my favorites to imitate, even though these days there’s little call for it. But I got his patter down pat, and in doing so found Ben Franklin. The kids loved it, and I loved doing it. Going into that voice just tied into all the other Franklin-qualities (a bit whimsical, a flirt, loved talking about science) I’d been looking for.

I played Hal in Proof, and could feel it, because I had some things in common with him. We were both twenty-something geeks who still occasionally got nervous around the right woman. I had no background in Mathematics, but that wasn’t important. I could relate to Hal, so I became him.

Last year I played four parts in The Mystery of Irma Vep. The roles could not have been more different from each other, or from me. I did such a job of it that I garnered a WATCH nomination. It was a lot of work, and there was no shortage of effort or zeal in the performances, but I’m not sure I can call what I did there, acting. Partly because it was too much fun.

What acting? Adopt a limp, drop a shoulder, crook the neck and talk like a Monty Python reject, there’s Nicodemus. Straighten up the spine, hands perched just so, toss on a effete feminine Brit and shove a metaphorical stick up my rear, there’s Lady Enid. With enough practice, I could shift from one to the other in less than five seconds, ten including costumes. Arguably the best time I’ve ever had on a stage, but was it acting?

Now I’m playing Sam Byck, a homicidal lunatic in a Santa Claus suit. Again, I used literally finding his voice as part of finding the character. This Philadelphia native is using a gravelly Brooklyn accent, because it’s the best ‘blue collar’ I’ve got. The director hasn’t complained. But I couldn’t stop there.

Yes, he’s a caricature. Andrea put it best, telling a mutual friend that he had to come see the show: “You know how Casey likes to ramble? This is so his part.” Byck does go on for pages at a time. (Okay, two pages, but that’s still plural. What.)

He’s also funny. It’s not a coincidence that he’s been played by stand-up comics in the past. The more important thing here, is the pain the guy is in. He’s angry, he’s lonely, he’s bitter and desperate; and he has no shortage of words with which to vent those feelings.

I can’t fake his emotions, though. I have to get myself worked up to be that angry, lonely, and bitter before I can call myself Sam. Regardless of the voice I use, the feeling’s gotta be real. And it’s work. That’s what I consider acting.

I don’t know. I'm not claiming to be an expert, but that’s my feeling on the subject, folks.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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