Bring Honesty to the Stage
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about honesty and what it means in acting and life. Sadly, I don’t think we live in a culture that values honesty as much as we should, but I believe that many people still greatly appreciate honesty when it is shared with them. But in acting, honesty is not merely an act of kindness or respect, it is essential. You must be honest with your audience, and you must be honest with yourself.
This might be confusing, since the nature of theatre is often compared to a lie – what is happening on stage is not really real; actors are portraying characters. But I don’t always like to consider theatre a lie. I like to consider it a different representation of the truth. Even an autobiography contains some altered or fictional elements that have been adjusted or rephrased for the integrity of the entire message. A play should be performed with honesty if it is to share the integrity of its message with the audience; the performers must believe in their characters if the audience is to believe in them.
I think the process of acting would be easier if actors placed greater emphasis on portraying characters and situations with honesty. At the same time, I don’t mean obsessive realism. Film can be a medium for obsessive realism, but it is rarely manageable on the stage. By its very nature, the stage is an unrealistic convention for sharing moments of significance with an audience. Instead of bringing honesty to the stage through ulta-realism, bring honesty to the stage through authenticity.
To play Hamlet, for example, it is not necessary (nor advisable) to work yourself into a suicidal state. But neither is it good to demean the character to a stereotype, to a Shakespearean cliche from centuries past. To paraphrase noted film and stage actor Anthony Zerbe, “you must take a step towards the character on the page and let Hamlet take a step from the page towards you. You are not Hamlet. Hamlet is not you. But if you meet each other in the middle, you can find a little of each other and share something with an audience that maybe no one has ever seen before.” And that authenticity is compelling. It is honest, and that is an undeniably satisfying quality to see portrayed on stage.