How Do Actors Act?

By Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

How Do Actors Act?
A review of Peter Brook’s documentary film The Tightrope

Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

How do they do it? How do (good) actors get us, the audience, to suspend belief — even recognition — of the person behind the actor’s mask so we can enter the different reality they have created?

You can have a rare look behind the curtains and the masks by watching Peter Brook conduct a master class, filmed by his son Simon using five hidden cameras to capture the experience without intruding. Brook was born in Britain in 1925 and launched his famous directorial career when a student at Oxford. He then joined The Royal Shakespeare Company, where he directed Olivier, Gielgud, Scofield and Kingsley and a prolific list of plays and films. His career has spanned two nations, which have honored him with both The Order of the British Empire (1965) and Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur (2013). He is a living legend and going strong as he nears 90.

In this documentary, Brook works with eight students of all nations and various ages in a large Persian carpeted room with little to draw attention away from the task at hand, which in his words is ” …making theatre that is real, alive, that touches one… and does not let one go.” The class focuses especially on having the students walk an imaginary tightrope on the carpet. They do so in progressive stages of complexity: alone; with music (improvised with a hand drum or Asian string instrument, or with piano excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute); with words; as pairs, triples and as a group in relation to each other; and with the license to follow their body’s imagination. Every second and every silence count. A group of actors, an ensemble of two or more, can only succeed when they become one, when energy and improvisation flow through all the participants.

We have moments with Brook, facing the camera off center but full visage, when he offers viewers a philosophy as much about life as it is about acting. We can go from “here to here” with élan but only by being completely alive — when we act (sic) as if we are on a tightrope escaping the chasm below only by utter attention yet at ease enough to allow inspiration to enter. He distinguishes the actor from the nonactor by the former’s capacity to imagine through the body (not the head). His notions of a play, for example, playing on words, go well beyond theatre and reminded me of the innocence of a child who delights in enacting what comes to mind unbounded by reality or convention — otherwise known as play.

The closing of a performed play, or our transitory existence for that matter, is not about it being the end, he remarks. What keeps the light burning is when an ending leaves a person or a group having a shared mind (even more than a shared experience). When actors achieve this they feel joy. …read more

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