So Enid and Dorothy From West Covina Can Hear You

Delta Winds cover 2014Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College

So Enid and Dorothy from West Covina Can Hear You

Caitlin McDougall

My sophomore year in high school the elective of my choice was full, so I was placed in a theater class. I enjoyed studying iambic pentameter and working on scenes. But I was certainly not considering auditioning for the school play. Only die-hard drama nerds auditioned for plays, and I did not fit that description. My teacher was directing the play and asked me to audition because it would be "fun" and I had "nothing to lose." Two days later I dropped all of my other extra-curricular activities to be Bianca in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. I fit right in with the other thespians and started to treat the black box theater as my second home. I loved performing on the stage, so it was not long before I decided that acting was what I wanted to do as a career. Of course I wanted to spend my life feeling liberated and free to express my full range of emotions-behind the guise of a character. After graduation, it made sense to go to an acting conservatory to pursue my dreams, until those dreams had to adapt to the climate of "The Industry." The dream morphed into a product of my environment. The dream became glamour, money, and fame. But there is no glamour, money, or fame in being a theater actor, so my focus shifted to the silver screen. I began to audition almost exclusively for film and television, but when I finally landed my first role in a short film, I was surprised by what I found. The process was not what I had anticipated, and all of the things that I loved about being in a play seemed to be absent. They were replaced by a whole new set of rules specific to the camera and its role in my performance. It was an eye-opening experience, and it forced me to question why I wanted so badly to become an actor. I finally realized that acting in a film is an immensely gratifying experience, but nothing can compare to the raw humanity of acting in a staged play.

One of the most rewarding aspects of putting on a play is the rehearsal process. From the table read up until the very last dress rehearsal, the preparation is a group effort. Spending day in and day out, cast-mates develop a deep bond and trust. Rehearsal is a safe and intimate environment that allows actors to explore characters in relation to others. By interacting in this way, actors are given the freedom to try different things and to evolve with their characters. This is incredibly helpful and fosters truthful performances and organic line delivery. It gives the actors time to find the things the writer intended to show the audience, but did not write on the page. Without this period of experimentation, the play would be stiff and lackluster. With each rehearsal, actors become increasingly more comfortable baring their emotions and building relationships with fellow actors. These relationships will be carried over into performances. The more human and heartfelt the interaction onstage is, the more involved the audience feels, and the more they sympathize with the characters. The rehearsal process can last for a month or more before the play opens.

In the film industry, establishing relationships and finding the emotional truth of a scene are also priorities. But the rehearsal process of a film is usually only a few days long. The actors in a film are expected to learn their lines at home and arrive on set ready to learn their blocking and to establish relationships quickly. Character choices are often dictated by the director, or made individually by each actor without the joint effort of exploring to see what comes naturally. While this method saves money and time on a movie set, it is not as emotionally rewarding for the actors. Because everything is so rushed, they are robbed of sharing their artistic experience with one another before the camera starts rolling. Time, after all, is money. In lieu of repeated rehearsals, the actors are taped doing the scene multiple times until the cameramen have what they need. This may be advantageous for the filmmakers, because they have the ability to capture every moment of the emotional journey, but it may not give the performers the preparation they need to develop the strong human relationships appropriate for their characters.

Every character has an arc, an emotional journey from beginning to end that tells his or her story. A character may start out in love, be cheated on, go through a terrible divorce, and then find love again. When all of this happens over the span of a two-hour play, the actor gets to experience each part of the journey in sequence. The love scene occurs immediately before hearing about the spouse's infidelities, making the betrayal feel all the more real to the actor. The story unfolds and the actor has each scene to build up a range of emotions. This style of performance is undeniably the most natural and fulfilling for the performer.

With movies, however, an actor almost never has the luxury of experiencing things in order. More often than not scenes are filmed out of sequence, based on the days the location is booked. This is done out of financial convenience. The actor is given the task of conjuring emotions without experiencing the character's arc as it was originally imagined. She may have to fight with her cheating ex-husband in one scene, and tenderly love him in the next. The actor never gets to complete a character's journey full circle, only an unsatisfactory piecemeal version of it. It becomes a disjointed performance-later edited into the proper order and used to elicit an emotional response from an audience. Whether or not it is effective after the scrambled filming process is dependent on an editor's ability to recreate the story. The actor, however, will never get to feel that full arc.

In a play, there is only one chance to get it right. If an actor cannot bring tears to his eyes at the appropriate time, he has missed the opportunity for the night and will have to try again tomorrow. This happens all the time in theater because not everything goes according to plan. Some of the best moments in theater are when something unexpected happens. The actors are forced to think on their feet and have very real and sometimes comedic reactions.

It is surprising and exhilarating for the actors and for the audience. Not knowing what will happen next is exciting, and that is the beauty of live theater. In contrast, if something goes wrong on a movie set, you simply stop the camera and do another take. If you cannot cry on cue in a scene, you can keep filming it over and over until you can cry. Doing a series of takes of the same moment captures the desired product, but may have its own drawbacks. The potential magic is lost, because it does not translate as "magic" on film; it's just a bad take. There is no "the show must go on" when acting in a picture, and therefore less opportunity for spontaneous creativity.

Another thing that makes a stage performance so special is a live audience. A theater audience has a collective energy that can feed actors. The audience's laughter can cue an actor to the comedic timing needed for a scene while the audience's tears can heighten the emotion in a dramatic moment. An audience's energy provides a sense of communal human experience, which is much more powerful and tangible than an individual performing in front of a camera. For people who love to attend theater, sheer proximity to the action is enough to feel drawn in. A theater audience is made a part of the play and a part of the journey. A Shakespeare professor of mine told us that it was our job to give the audience members a cathartic experience and to use our whole being to reach them. She believed that a lot of what connected us emotionally was the physical vibrations of the voice in the room-changes in tone, pace, and resonance. My professor would say an actor gets that message across by projecting "so Enid and Dorothy from West Covina can hear you." In film, the voice's flexibility is still incredibly important, but less effective because the sound is recorded by microphones and heard through speakers instead of directly from the actors. Projecting to reach each and every human being in a room is a much more visceral form of expression and feels more satisfying on a basic physical level.

Before taking part in a film, I thought that the two acting styles were the same, and that I would get a similar emotional result from each. I thought that acting in front of a camera would feed my soul and desire for community in the same way that acting in a play did. It has become clear, though, that while the end product's effect on the audience is similar, the actor's experience is very different. A play offers an environment of creativity in which actors share art with a live audience. Making a film can be a special process shared by a group of people as well, but the process is fragmented and less creatively fulfilling. Only one is an emotionally and physically thrilling journey. Only one provides the instant gratification of having a profound and visible effect on other people. And that is what live theater is like.