This is the second of six articles examining lessons I learned as a young actor at the Children’s Theatre Company. The first article, an overview of Transformational Acting with my unfair, unsubstantiated swipe at actor training programs, can be found here.
I suspect other actors, especially actors in other parts of the world, have a much easier time with this. But as a good Midwestern boy, I am very uncomfortable with conflict.
I’ve written a number of not-very-good plays. They mostly go like this:
CHARACTER 1: I strongly disagree with you.
CHARACTER 2: And I with you.
CHARACTER 1: It’s a pity we can’t find some common ground.
CHARACTER 2: Perhaps we can.
CHARACTER 1: Why, yes, I believe we can.
CHARACTER 2: I’m glad we came to this understanding.
CHARACTER 1: As am I.
At the first hint of conflict, I sprint in the opposite direction. But conflict, of course, provides the fuel that powers the engine that drives the theater along the highway of art and into the restroom-equipped wayside of popular entertainment.
The very first plays in the Western tradition centered on families – fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, husbands and wives – people who know and love each other, and want to KILL EACH OTHER.
The Greeks established the formula for every play written ever since: take at least two things that don’t go together and slam them together. Love and hate, good and evil, joy and grief, beauty and horror, etc.
Conflict is hard-coded into theater’s DNA. It goes way beyond protagonist vs. antagonist. There are opposing forces in nearly every relationship, every character, every scene, even in our way of working – heart vs. mind, internal vs. external, collaboration vs. puppet-master. For actors it works like this: whatever it is you think is going on with your character, look for the opposite thing – it’s probably true as well.
I learned this lesson most clearly during rehearsals for CTC's production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1993). Playwright Tom Olson wrote the role of the Tin Man for Tom Dunn (the best actor I've seen on any stage, any where). The story tells us that the Tin Man thinks he doesn't have a heart, though later we learn that he does. So Tom and Tom created a character who walks and talks like a heartless tough guy - sort of a metallic John Wayne – but who bursts into tears at the slightest provocation. He was a tough softie. His was the big, open heart at the center of the story. It was funny and surprising and beautiful.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? So obvious.
And yet, I’ve been to far too many productions where the actors, good actors!, burst onto the stage and play ONE THING. It’s never one thing. There can be no conflict with one thing. One thing is boring. Even when it’s done with energy and talent and skill, one thing is boring.
I’m sure you’ve had the same experience. “Oh, here’s the girl who cries all the time.” “He’s the guy who growls a lot.” Even if you didn’t see the Guthrie’s god-awful production of Macbeth, you’ve been to something where an actor walks on stage and in fifteen seconds you’ve seen the whole performance. Don’t be that actor.
I can’t go on. I must go on.
Once you start looking for conflict you’ll see it everywhere. Stanley and Blanche would not find each other so repulsive if they weren’t so wildly attracted to one another. Hamlet is a play of inaction in which the main character is very, very busy. Chekhov writes gentle, funny plays about cataclysm.
You’ll treat leading roles like character parts. You’ll find the comedy in tragedy and tease out the love between characters who hate each other. It’s fun. As I write this I’m in a Christmas play in which Mo Perry plays a woman who uses “niceness” as a weapon. It cracks me up every time.
But a final word of caution. Use your discretion. Don’t start ladling in conflict that doesn’t arise naturally out of the story. In many Classical works, the conflict is more likely to be found between the characters rather than within the characters. Moliere’s miser, for example, doesn’t possess untapped reserves of generosity and it would be wrong to “explore” those possibilities. His generosity is in the lavishness of his miserliness.
Look at that. I appear to be telling you that if you play the role of the miser, you should just play one thing. Isn’t that the opposite of what I said earlier? Why, yes, it is. You see, conflict is so deeply at the heart of what we do that with every rule we make about what we should do, the opposite is going to be true as well.
That’s what makes it awful. And wonderful.
Next time: The Big Art Ball!