Method acting, as it started in Russia under Konstantin Stanislavsky and was later honed and perfected by the Group Theatre in New York featuring Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, sought an authentic existence on stage. Steeped deeply in the traditions of Freudian psychoanalysis and Modernism’s emphasis on realism, the Method responded to the fixed expressions of nineteenth-century acting as expounded by the likes of Edmund Shaftesbury in 1889, whereby actors were directed to perform prescribed moves to emote the proper attitudes. For example, the attitude of triumph was elicited by the actor “stepping back with the weight upon the right foot, the right index finger raised over the head.” The Method instructed its actors to avoid such markers as overdetermining a performance with set responses. Meisner defined acting as “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” The playwright establishes the context. The actor gives that context depth through believable, honest choices. All writers can adapt Meisner’s mantra in how they treat their characters, for to live truthfully is to listen, to be present, and to follow authentic impulses. Give your characters spaces to live and freely breathe.
In almost every chapter of Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, the subtextual undercurrent to his work is encouraging artists to avoid the overdetermined. His chapter on narrative dysfunction seeks to give characters agency; his emphasis on defamiliarization is on finding the “moderately strange” within the ordinary; he dislikes the preponderance of epiphanic endings because they become too formulaic, an easy narrative solution for tired writers; rhymes or echo effects need to be forgotten before they are revisited; and counterpointed characters should never represent ideas but exist as fully realized people, bumping up against each other and eliciting honest responses.
Actors are driven by the same subtexts as Charles Baxter. They too always want to make the “hot” choice, the unexpected within the expected. The best performances are never over-scripted but full of complex, shifting tonalities.
Sean Penn lives truthfully in imaginary circumstances. A proponent of the Method, Penn said on Inside the Actor’s Studio in 1999 that his acting approach seeks the “uncommon thought in the common matter.” Penn paraphrased a poem by Charles Bukowski in which a young seven-year-old boy is looking out from a train window, watching the Pacific Ocean rush by. The boy utters to a traveling companion, “It’s not beautiful anymore” The man, taken aback, realizes for the first time that he too doesn’t find it beautiful. We’re conditioned to believe that oceans are beautiful. But actors break through our conditioning to transcend the all-too-typical and find the new response, the unpredictable that is also somehow inevitable. That’s living truthfully. Penn, indirectly, is reinforcing Baxter’s notions of defamiliarization.
A bad actor might play a “drunken scene” with over-the-top histrionics: wildly slurring his words, tripping over his feet, bumping, sliding up against fellow actors, falling into furniture. That’s the easy way and it’s predictable, overdetermined. By contrast, a good actor might play the same scene with greater control, all of his choices too precise, slowed down slightly, attempting to hide any appearance of inebriation. At least that’s the way the scenes played out with my father, a half-step slower than normal. And I knew, as a kid, that he was in a good drunken mood if he committed these half steps while sporting a pair of sunglasses (preferably Ray-Bans, which we really couldn’t afford).
So, how does a writer take an acting approach to his scene work and let his characters follow impulses and freely breathe? Ron Carlson has brilliantly argued that dialogue isn’t just exposition, a means of moving a story forward. Dialogue is the very stuff of individualism, allowing each character to have his/her moment free of the controlling voice of the narrator/author. Carlson believes that characters speak from their own place, and this can take a story in unprecedented directions. Invest in that freedom.