So much of what we do as freshmen studying theatre here at my school, is about being "honest", and opening up, and inhabiting the lives of the characters that we are supposed to portray. We spend very little time talking about the technical aspects of acting. That comes later. But an interesting question came up a few weeks ago during the rehearsals for "The Pillowman".
One of the characters, who spends the majority of the play insulting everyone and showing everyone that he is in charge, reveals something very personal towards the end of the play. His son died, fishing on his own. He tells this horrible secret to another character who he absolutely does not care for. When I read the script for the first time, I took this as being that character's one moment of redemption. He isn't just a heartless and violent man. He is, as many people say, "three-dimensional". There is depth to his character. He has a past, a background, that quite possibly feeds into why he is the way he is today.
At a rehearsal however, the actor playing the character suggested that maybe his character is lying. Maybe he never had a son that died. Now, as actors, it is our job to make specific choices about our characters. If something is not explained in the pages of the script, then it is the actor's responsibility to fill in the gaps with specific and relevant details that may turn out a richer and more interesting character. However, we all disagreed with this actor's choice. We all asked why would this character lie? What reason would he have for lying about his son drowning? How does that further the character's action, or get him closer to his objective? The actor said that we were making a big deal out of nothing, and that in the end, it really doesn't matter whether he chooses to make the son's death true or not. His reason: we will never know whether or not his character is lying or telling the truth.
This floated around my head for so long. Even now I can't help but think about it. If what he says is true, then everything that we do in terms of character and script analysis is useless. There is no point in filling in the gaps of the character's background because the audience won't be able to tell the difference. I have to disagree with this. Okay, maybe something small, like what kind of music the character listens to, may not have a very significant impact on how you play the character, but something as big as whether or not a character's son has died, that is an immense decision.
The reason why multiple actors playing the same character produce different results is because of their unique interpretations and choices. But a choice should never be made just to fake out the audience. An actor should never impose a choice on a script that may contradict the playwright's intentions. Choices should only be made to further along the play's objective, and the objectives of the characters within it. If we start adding to, or taking away from, our characters just for the sake of making an interesting choice, that may signal the end of theatre as we know it. The goal is not to entertain yourself or the audience, but to be honest. And the only way to achieve this is to make yourself vulnerable to the imaginary circumstances created by the playwright. It's a scary process, but one that is so satisfying that you will never want to work any other way again.