“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
That quote is allegedly attributed to Jonathan Swift, the 17th century satirist most famous for writing Gulliver’s Travels. But it’s an interesting quote, I think. The number of times I have heard a famous historical figure called a “visionary” are innumerable. Perhaps this is why they were famous – they saw what no one else saw (or perhaps they spoke out about topics that others simply would not acknowledge). Individuals like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and William Shakespeare all spring to mind. And it makes sense, to think that they all shared a remarkable sense of vision unique for their times.
Vision is useful for all areas of life, but I believe it is also invaluable to the art of acting. To be on the stage with other actors, portraying a time and a place perhaps only loosely related to the environment of a stage – that requires a certain amount of vision in order to be successful. You, as the actor, must make the invisible visible to your character.
Perhaps the most compelling acting I have ever seen was when I was fortunate enough to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot in London’s West End this summer. At the beginning of the play, Ian McKellen practically crawled onto the stage as this almost absurdly haggard old man and spent about five minutes fiddling with his moldy shoes! And it was captivating, I was completely and utterly taken in! Acting of that caliber is always hard to define, and for actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, you know their brilliance is attributable to a number of factors, some easier to define than others. But I think one characterstic of Ian’s acting was vision – he had that in the bag. Wherever his eyes wandered, the whole audience seemed to be locked onto the focus of his gaze. He had that much power. But then, isn’t theatre such a visual medium? Even when listening to the words spoken by actors, there needs to be vision there. We need to hear the transformation of their inner vision as it converts itself to sounds and words.
What is this vision? Whatever you want it to be. Whatever you want your character to see, with training, persistent practice, and perhaps a certain amount of innate skill, you can share that with an audience. Next time you are on stage, even if it is just a rehearsal, see if you can discover something that no one else sees. It can be in the text, physically on the stage, or even just a whimsy of your imagination. But for at least that one moment, embrace it, and see where it leads you. You might be surprised. And that is a wonderful thing to watch.