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The Return of Bad Acting

I’ve had it with the latest acting trend. And though I don’t want to blame anybody, I think I kind of have to.

What I’m talking about is much more than good old-fashioned bad acting. I  got the idea for this article from talking with a friend of mine — a veteran of Canadian theatre. I asked him if he’s seen any good plays lately. He said “Well I saw this play, but the actors in it were doing that bad acting thing that’s so popular right now.” “Oh what do you mean?” I asked. He said, “Oh you know, when they are trying to show you what good actors they are all the time.”

Right.

What my friend was talking about was actors who have great technique and are always showing it off. In other words, they’ve been to theatre school. They’ve learned how to project their voices and how to move their bodies with exquisite poise. But when you see them onstage they are so busy showing off they’ve forgotten to pay a character.

When you watch these actors you may be fooled into thinking you are watching great acting (especially when we rarely get to see any really good old-fashioned good acting these days).

You might think Brecht is to blame for all this, because he went on about alienation. But I don’t think so. Brecht wanted audiences to be wrenched out of their rapture, their ‘hypnotism’ — as he called it. But in order for alienation to work, the audience has to be pulled in at some point so that they have something to be wrenched out of. A truly Brechtian performance pulls you in and out — it doesn’t just leave you at the sidelines, admiring the actors.

I think David Mamet is somewhat guilty, because in his book True and False, he goes on about how actors don’t have to play characters, they just have to say the lines and express the emotions. Well call me crazy, might Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pigeon be a credible exponent of his acting style? Then why is her acting so boring? (Answer: because she’s always playing Rebecca Pigeon).

But I’m afraid the real origins of this new acting style can be found in mega-musicals and the schools that train actors for them. These days acting students all want to get the big bucks by starring in American megamusical touring productions. In megamusicals actors do nothing but show us how talented they are. And when called on to sing, they just step downstage and deliver directly to the audience — usually fierce anthems about AIDS or poverty. But playing a character— that’s the furthest thing from their minds.

Recently I bought a recording of Crazy for You (yes, I am a trash queen), and was listening to a duet version of ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me.’ I noticed that the guy was singing the line “the way you sing offkey’ to a girl who was doing a passable imitation of Kristin Chenoweth (don’t they all?). Well of course an actress in a jukebox musical would never think of actually singing off-key. What if some mega-director saw her?  

A part of me welcomes the latest reality theatre trend (i.e. people talking to their moms or their best friends, people arguing about politics, people talking about their lack of privilege). At least these people aren’t showing off what great actors they are.

Recently at a party I was introduced to a couple of students from Randolph. I couldn’t help myself. I was just a teensy bit tipsy, so I leaned over and said — “I bet you’re triple threats, right?” “Oh yes,” said one, beaming, unaware of my irony. The other was a bit craftier.  “I’m a double threat “ he said. brazenly, “acting and “ — (he  pointed to his brain) —  “thinking.”

Which one do you think gets the part?