Saturday, August 15, 2009

Art and Purpose

At the end of the month I'll be done with 12th Night, and done with acting, unless I can find a paying gig. I do look forward to writing every day without the enormous time commitment of rehearsal and performance. The time commitment is greater than just the hours spent with the other actors; acting takes over my life at home. I find it hard to write when I have an acting obligation I should be working on to perfect my part.

When I was in college my professors had nothing but contempt for community theatre. When I told one I was working for a local theatre festival in the summer, he said he hoped I didn't come back in the fall a worse actor for working with all those community types. At the time I was leery; his condescension struck me as a bit elitist.

Now I think my professors were right. I've tried to stay away from community theatre and work with companies that at least have the ambition to be professional regional theatres someday. That ambition does make a difference, but even so, those companies have no money and are forced to use actors with a community theatre mentality.

What do I mean by "community theatre mentality"?

It comes down to purpose. Of the three cardinal values defined by Ayn Rand -- reason, self-esteem and purpose -- purpose is the one that has been least explored by Objectivist philosophers (although I think I read that Dr. Tara Smith is writing a book on purpose). Perhaps it has been neglected because Aristotle made such a brilliant start with it.

Purpose is Aristotle's "final causation." It defines what one will do in an action.

In writing, I have come to learn that purpose determines whether or not a writer has a chance of writing something halfway decent. If you set your purpose as writing a comic book or a soap opera, that's what you'll get. If you set out to be a hack, you'll be a hack.

A writer cannot create great art unless he sets that as his purpose. Setting out to write great art does not guarantee one will succeed in meeting that purpose, but setting a lower purpose does guarantee that one will not write great art.

Of course, in our present culture, many writers never consciously define their purpose. They think something like, "I want a career as a screenwriter. I need to write what Hollywood will buy." This purpose pretty much guarantees that one is on the road to hackdom. To see the result, go check out the load of dreck at your neighborhood multiplex.

If a writer does not consciously strive to put art above money, he is doomed to a life as a whore. For many that is fine because they have no conception of any art greater than the whoredom they see in popular culture. To ask them to write something on the level of Friedrich Schiller would be like asking a punk rocker to play a diminished ninth chord.

The tragic cases are the ones who have some conception of what is better, but destroy the best within them in order to put food on the table in a mindless culture that only wants garbage. See Ayn Rand's short story, "The Simplest Thing In the World."

I write this as a defender of capitalism and money. Money is not the root of all evil. Money does not corrupt all it touches, as some Platonist might think. However, there are other values than money. It is the artist's responsibility to be clear in his mind that he does not compromise his art for money. Once you have that understanding, then I say go for the big bucks all you can. There is nothing in the least wrong with getting rich. The best deal is to make money while making great art, as Ayn Rand did. In the 19th century, before naturalism separated thought and plot, it was common for great novels and plays to succeed in the market place.

I should clarify here that there is nothing wrong with writing good popular art without deep ideas. Agatha Christie, P.G Wodehouse, Noël Coward, Harold Lamb and so many others wrote good, entertaining stories that do not rise to the standard of great art. I suspect that they all wrote what pleased them, what they wanted to read. To write a page-turner with suspense and twists is no mean achievement; try it sometime. But even on this level, a writer must be clear about his purpose and avoid any second-hand imitation.

In acting purpose makes all the difference. If an actor sets his purpose as making a career of it, then he strives for professional quality. He must meet the highest standards. Furthermore, he will put in the time needed to act well because acting will be a priority. Among professional actors there are differences. Some are content just mugging in sitcoms, so long the paychecks keep coming in. Others want to be classical actors and undergo more training.

Since I began acting locally four years ago, in every show there have been anywhere from a couple to a handful of actors who don't get their lines memorized until dress rehearsal -- and some never entirely get their lines cold. This is unheard of in professional theatre. Jon Jory in his book says actors should have their lines memorized after they block a scene: never do a scene twice holding a book. Noël Coward thought actors should have their lines memorized before rehearsals begin: don't waste precious rehearsal time fumbling around with lines.

Non-professional actors have day jobs, families and lives outside of theatre; acting is a hobby or a social activity. When you approach it that way, your thinking is different -- it's unprofessional by definition.

Non-professional actors have lower standards. (Many have no conception of standards or how to go about acting. They just get on stage and play make believe like children. Some actors with a little natural talent can get away with this their entire lives.) Non-professional actors are not going to work hard on their lines because they know they don't have to. The director can bitch all he wants, but he won't replace the actors for being late on their lines with someone new -- someone who would have only a week to memorize a part from scratch.

I'm just talking about memorizing lines here. All the other acting work you might read about in Stanislavsky is not a factor here or even for many actors in Hollywood.

I've worked with some fine actors. In every show there are a few who do quality work that could compete professionally if they wanted to. Those people keep the smaller Shakespeare festivals chugging along. My hat is off to those talented people who manage to do it year in and year out without pay. Long may they run.

I can feel myself getting lazy. I know I don't have to work hard. When other matters press, I know acting can be put aside. I feel the rust corroding me at the edges. Rust never sleeps. If I keep acting with non-professionals, then my standards will lower to theirs. It takes a titan of discipline to maintain standards when good enough is good enough. I don't know if I have that discipline.

So it's time for me to move on. From now on I either get paid or I do something else with my time than acting.


madmax said...


What is your opinion of Hollywood actors in general? Do you see a difference between TV stars and movie stars? I know you once said that Americans tended to be better for naturalistic parts whereas UK actors were better for anything classical or Romantic. I think that most of today's movie stars get by on whatever charisma and personality they have that translates to the screen. I also think that the most successful actors are the ones that can emote the most but there are exceptions of course like Keanu Reeves (who is as stiff as they come). Its rare when I say to myself "now that was a great performance". It happens but not often.

Myrhaf said...

Some Hollywood actors are movie stars just playing a limited range of roles. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood -- terrific actors, but I wouldn't want to see them do King Lear. They learn to act for the camera, which is different than acting in an outdoor theatre before 5,000 people. Look at the way De Niro moves his eyes; it's brilliant on a screen when his face is two storeys high, but it's lost on stage past the first few rows. Clint Eastwood's squint is worth a thousand words in a movie.

Lawrence Olivier, who started on the stage, actually comes off a little hammy on the screen.

A lot of actors do both. Nathan Lane, Al Pacino, Matthew Broderick, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline.

As I've written before, the art of acting, like the science of psychology, is still waiting for the great theorist to put it all together.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you need to quit amateur productions. There are ways to deal with the problems you mentioned. For one, you can always imagine that the other actor in the scene is doing a better job and react to that :) And when they forget lines some improvisational skills can come in handy. Also, if you're doing a great job and most of the other actors are not the audience often rewards you with more compliments, applause, or laughter. Other actors may also.
There are benefits to doing amateur work. You usually get cast more often and when you are the directors are often very appreciative to have you. You also usually have more opportunity for a greater range of roles. But the larger the cast the more likely it is that the production will have 'problem' actors in it. I've been in smaller productions and seen smaller productions where everyone was great.
Take a break from it if you must but it will always be there for you.


Chuck said...

The value of purpose was dramatized perfectly in episode 7 of Dae Jang Geum. Just go to the website (, click on Dae Jang Geum (also called Jewel in the Palace), and go to episode 7. No previous context is necessary to understand the episode.

In the episode, Jang Geum is banished to the herb garden, a place filled with hopeless, purposeless slackers. She refuses to give up like the others, because she has a purpose. Not only a long range, final causation purpose, but also intermediate stage purposes, stepping stones to her ultimate goal.

She maintains her heroic spirit, even when forced to live and work among a collection of purposeless sluggards. And she ends up bringing the sluggards around to her own, purposeful way of thinking, by the end of the episode, by her inspiring example.

Susan said...

I have spent my entire adult life in and around theater. I went to school in NYC for theater, and worked in small productions Off Broadway and in the tri-state region. Like most theater actors I had to hold a full time job to make a living and eventually I put my aspirations on hold to have a family. I still have good friends workin in the theater and I agree that the frustration of a good actor in a mediocre market is great. Occasionally you will find someone who is really dedicated and has great skill. There is no corner on the talent market nor does every TV, theater or movie actor have good skills. Sometimes, they just make it because they are in the right place at the right time or they have the 'look'.

As for is not money that is the issue. It is the love of money that gets us off track. We all need to make a living, but as any good theater actor will tell you: if you don't do the work for love...if there is ANYTHING else you can do to make a living and be happy...then do it. Unless you are so passionate about the art as to be incapable of doing anything else you will be miserable working in theater. Rejection isn't fun and the pay is non-existent for most.

In spite of all that, there are many of us who MUST be close to the stage in some way or we cannot be happy. I too am a writer and make some money doin free lance work. I have a larger project in the works and I hope to get published but, again, I am doing it for the love of the art.

As one actor to another, let me say, wherever you go...whatever you decide to do...break a leg!

Mike said...

Your writing example is dead-on. I cherish every hour I get to spend on my fiction writing. Little of it is even approaching publication, because I refuse to release even a 5000-word short story until it's good enough that I won't ever have to touch it again. This might be overdoing it; even Tolkien edited his books for subsequent printings.

I groan at every hour I spend writing non-fiction under a pseudonym, but, groan as I might, those books have sold well and continue to do so. Non-fiction even has this intriguing thing called a "yearly edition" which lets you sell the same book again. (That's the cynical take on it, though; I spend more time than I care to admit in updates and rewrites for new editions. Every error that makes it through to the published page burns me like Gollum's precious.)

And that's my moonlightning gig. I put food on the table by writing documents for (sigh) the government.

One day, one day...