Working session on "Theater & Transmedia" (ASTR 2016; Minneapolis, MN)
Throughout a century or more of realist acting, Stanislavsky’s famous maxim has become a gospel truth: “There are no small parts, only small actors,” or as the founders of the American Laboratory Theater put it, “each actor” must strive “to act his part, however humble, as if it were a major part of the play” (qtd. Carnicke43). Invariably, this means reaching beyond the play’s framework—even when an actor has a genuinely “major part” to play. As Stanislavsky’s avatar Tortsov explains to his acting students in An Actor Prepares,
… the playwright gives us only a few minutes out of the whole life of his characters. He omits much of what happens off the stage. He often says nothing at all about what has happened to his characters while they have been in the wings, and what makes them act as they do when they return to the stage. We have to fill out what he leaves unsaid. Otherwise we would have only scraps and bits to offer out of the life of the persons we portray. You cannot live that way, so we must create for our parts comparatively unbroken lines.
In order to build “unbroken lines” for their characters out of the mere “scraps and bits” that playwrights have given them, actors must first, Tortsov suggests, fill the gaps within the play and reach out past the play in every possible direction.
If you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically, without fully realizing who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going, and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without imagination.
The playwright may outline a story, but it will never suffice. So, actors must work to surround it with supplementary texts—not just a subtext or objective (“what you want”), but also a back-story (“where you came from” and “why”), and what we might call a forth-story (“where you are going, and what you will do when you get there”). This isn’t an intellectual achievement. It’s not that the actor must simply know all these things. He or she must know how to flood each moment with back- and forth-story, with subject and super-objective—an endless excrescence of silent text and untold story.