Creating the Magic of Theatre: The Actor

Creating the Magic of Theatre’ is a series that explores how the director, the actor and the audience all contribute to creating exciting & immersive pieces of theatre. 

Theatre is an experience. And the actors are the co-creators of an immersive theatre experience. As the audience watches a play, they bear witness to an actor’s transformation into different people, watching them react to the events of the play before our very eyes. They are the ones to make the audience believe that the stage is the truth, at least for as long as the show lasts.

The actor has as much power as the director in creating & maintaining the mesmeric reality of a play. And because an actor plays such an integral role in a production, they are particularly vulnerable to criticisms and judgments on the play’s final product. Let us seek to go in-depth and uncover the tools an actor possesses that can spawn an engaging, immersive performance through their acting.

1. Creating Complex Characters

There are many ways an actor develops a character that they’re going to play. Some actors approach a character by playing it the way it was written. For example, an actor would play a ‘Sweet, Innocent Girl’ simply as demure and timid. And then to add a certain ‘truth’, some actors draw similarities that they see in themselves with the character. This is one way for the actor to play somebody that they can understand and relate to.

However, the problem with such an approach is that it creates one-dimensional characters. Although it’s true that the actor’s job is to play the character that is written, it is also their job to play complicated characters, one that is interesting to watch. Instead of viewing a character simply as a ‘Sweet, Innocent Girl’, try to find the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ this character became sweet and innocent. Is it perhaps due to an abusive past? Perhaps the character is fearful and prefers to sit on the sidelines.

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Try to create contrast in the character played as well. Playing a character the way it was written ends up being very boring to watch. Find a different shade in a character. For example, showing a degree of rebellion & ferocity to the ‘Sweet, Innocent Girl’ character creates a more interesting performance. Not only that, the character becomes more real to the audience because at the end of the day, people are complicated and we want to see those complexities before us.

2. Kill the ego

One way to kill a performance as an actor is only thinking about yourself. Let’s say there’s an intense moment in a play where all the characters have to react to the death of a loved one. If the actors in the scene only focused on their lines, their actions and how much better they were at crying for example, the scene would become very jarring. This is because no connection and chemistry is established between the characters in the scene.

Acting requires collaboration. Actors have to work with other each other to make a scene work, not just their own individual development. An actor has to maintain their presence and listen to everything that occurs throughout the entirety of the scene they’re in. From a joke being uttered to a knock on the door or even a subtle furrowing of the brow; an actor has to engage themselves with every facet, big or small, that make up a play’s reality.

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Actors in a scene have a synergistic relationship each other. Like a team, actors accept what is given and give back to one another. No individual actor is more important, and especially more important than the scene itself. An actor should not focus on trying to be the best in a scene. What’s important is that all the actors succeed totally engage with each other and the entirety of a play/film’s reality. Unexpectedly beautiful things will happen.

3. Zanshin

Zanshin is a Japanese word that means, ’the mind with no remainder’, where a person is completely focused and aware of mind, body and surroundings while still in a relaxed state. An actor should embody this state when playing any role. Actors in a state of Zanshin are more receptive to stimuli and are actively aware of the happenings of a scene.

However, Zanshin is more than just staying focused and unstressed. It is about approaching situations with genuine sincerity. An actor can be completely aware and reactive in their performance but still be trapped in their head, dominated by the voice of the actor and not their character. The voice of the actor is aware of all the technical details in the performance, from voice projection to the way one stands to the audience’s reaction. The voice of the character is the response to the imagined reality of the play such as the way a scene partner says a line. If the voice of the actor overpowers, then there is a lack of sincerity in the performance.

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Zanshin is meant to keep balance between these two voices, where neither one overpowers the other. For example, if there is a scene where an intense confrontation erupts between two characters in the play. The voice of the actor would know to make a negative emotion visible at some point in time in the scene. Yet, the voice of the character shall still remain with its own internal thoughts and reactions to the stimuli of a scene (as the character). As the actor is relaxed, the actor keeps these two voices working in harmony.

What’s different between an actor in a state of Zanshin and one that isn’t, is that the former isn’t forcing these intense feelings to be shown. It simply happens. When in this heightened state of relaxation, every single action made by the actor comes in with fluidity and organicity. To the audience, they are able to connect with what’s happening in the scene. It is as if they are looking at a real person simply living in a separate reality.

Once the director has directed and the audience is ready for a show, everything else rests on the actors to bring the story and vision to life. An actor has the ability to instill a sense of wonder to a performance, drawing the audience into the verve and life of the character being played. Not only do these choices allow the actor to fully immerse themselves into the world of the play, the audience too shall follow suit.

Check out the first part of ‘Creating the Magic of Theatre’ series here.