Acting:  the first four fundamental lessons



An actress did not receive any notes from me after the first dress rehearsal.  She approached as we were adjourning.  Anything for me?  I remember sputtering and stuttering.  Let me note immediately that she was a talented and capable performer.  I could have, if nothing else, offered something about what I liked in her performance.  So what if I didn’t have a brilliant insight into what she might be lacking at that moment?  What was my problem?  I told her something that would somehow cover over the fact that I had nothing.  First dress and she’s hungry for a response, a reaction.  I knew that this was a moment where, as a director, I had a fundamental responsibility.  It was a basic test, and I had failed utterly.  And I knew it immediately.  It was with great and miserable relief that I retreated into the darkened auditorium.

Step back a few months to my first meeting with the costume designer.  The play was a period costume piece–Europe in the early nineteenth century–and a studied look at the Romanticism of that era.  We discussed the style of women’s dress, particularly the high Empire waist and more particularly the low necklines above those Empire waists.  We were having a jolly time.  The spirit of the play and the era should also be expressed in a certain forthright eroticism in our choice of fashion.  She goes on to tell me that often the dresses were sprayed with water to cause the fabric to cling to the flesh and leading to more than a few fatal cases of pneumonia.  Wet dresses, we agree, might be going too far.  But the necklines, yes, there we will go.

And I don’t remember if I had already more or less cast the play at that point.  I want to believe that I had.  I must believe that I had.  If I had not, then I am a despicable grub worm.  I am lower than low.  Once the costume designer invoked the image of the neckline, I began to think about actresses with endowments.  Corruption was instantaneous and absolute and I lost certainly about everything, even time. So had I in fact already cast it?  I came to believe my interest in necklines reached back in time, already at work even before it became an explicit issue in discussions with the costume designer.  I had probably already been thinking about it from the moment I thought about doing the play.  So I am a loathsome entity.    I was from the get-go.  There was no before.  No matter what I may have believed I was thinking about the talents and abilities of particular actresses I knew (it was school, so everyone knew everyone) and about whether or not they might be right for the assorted roles in the play, what I was thinking in actuality was:  talented and endowed.  My guilty appetite shaped everything.

Back to the first dress rehearsal.  I am sitting in the dark and seeing, suddenly, how it is all so realized.  I feed greedily.  Talent/endowment.  It is shameful and delightful.  I am not a director taking notes.  I am not reflecting.  I am content.  I lack nothing.  And the actress who will approach me afterwards with her doubt, her questions?  She isn’t lacking anything, either.


The woman at this particular restaurant works as the hostess but also clearly presides as the owner.  Every time I go there I ponder my discomfort.  She is not exactly unwelcoming, but I always do feel that she is slightly put-out with the fact that it is I and not someone else more suitable who has turned up to occupy a table.  Even when I’ve made a reservation.

Once it had been decided that one of the roles I’d be playing in an all-male production of Coriolanus was Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, I immediately thought about this woman at the restaurant, this woman who clearly ruled, who was right, who I would never please.  And who would eagerly turn one of her recently sacrificed and butchered children into the special of the day.  Something about the incongruity of a skeletal woman running a restaurant.  There was a different sort of feeding at work.

There would be no costume or make-up changes as I jumped among roles in this production, so I had to come up with something more immediate, ceremonial, and emblematic.  This woman at the restaurant wore a chain around her neck with a pendant hanging from it.  I am certain it had seen it around her neck each time I’d been there.  It was part of her.  This, then, would be the way I would become Volumnia.  Just put on the chain with the pendant.  The bauble.  When I wear it, I have the power.

The nature of the power?  I don’t know.  I went to Goodwill to look for something that might work.  A chain with a thing dangling.  What might it betoken?  Her disgust?  How might you get her to see you as valuable rather than as noxious?  A second-hand store: the place where one person’s trash becomes another person’s treasure.  How might you be transformed into a treasure in her eyes?  Only by sacrifice?


Another earlier stripped-down production of Shakespeare with a small cast handling all of the roles:  As You Like It, this time.  I played Orlando, Charles the Wrestler (so I had to wrestle myself), the country wench Audrey, and assorted Lords.  The production received press coverage, and even though I was generally ambivalent about acting, having done no more than stumbled and fallen into a few roles up to that point, I found myself evaluated, the critic deploying a couple of choice phrases.  I had been reviewed.  It was no longer possible to hide behind ambivalence.  Things were writ down now.  I had to make some decisions about what the hell I was doing.

Obvious comic gifts but lacking vocal interest.  Such was the reviewer’s verdict.  Let me address the “comic gifts” thing first.  When you are required to wrestle yourself, it’s kind of a pre-packaged comedic tour de force slam-dunk.  It’s a given.  The task is the comedy.  A member of the audience could have been pulled on to the stage and asked to do the same thing with the same result.  My head was not turned.  Same thing with a guy playing a country wench.  Seems I was inherently funny doing inherently funny things.  What a surprise.  But this “lacking vocal interest” business…

Up to that moment, up until the moment I read that phrase, I had absolutely no conception of what it might be like for an actor to have “vocal interest.”  This is how dim and unreflective I was when it came to the nature of what I was doing.  The implication that someone in the audience might be affected by my voice, might be enjoying my voice, might be taking a particular interest in my voice…Let me stop an unfurling sentence that has no foreseeable predicate on the horizon and confess that when I first began writing it, I put down “affected by your voice” and “enjoying your voice” and “particular interest in your voice.”  My first impulse was to dis-own the voice, to cast it on to an other.  Even now in writing I am reluctant to claim it.  You have to be made aware of the truth of the voice.  You have to be initiated.  You have to accept that it produces sensations that pass from you to the other.  After all, what is at issue in psychosis?  Who’s voice is it?  The voice is in you in ways beyond issues of ownership.  It exists as a turn between you and not-you, between out and in, traversing space, closing distances.  Even if you cover your ears, you feel the vibrations. It’s a bit embarrassing.  You have to get comfortable, which is not easy, and only then you can begin to have some distance and regard it as an object.  You can play around with it.  To say that I have since developed a vocal interest is to indulge in understatement, and it began with a word from an other.


A number of years ago, our parish priest first asked me to organize the reading of the Passion for the Palm Sunday and Good Friday services.  He liked the way I read when serving as lector and had gotten wind of my “theatre background.”  He was hoping for some kind of multi-player performance event.  I did not want to do it.  It was not in my nature to recruit the willing and the less willing, to beg and plead, to make back-up plans for when folks didn’t show, to hold rehearsals for which no one would have time, to weigh questions of miking and not-miking.  On top of that, the assumption was that I would read Jesus.  I did not want to do that and organize at the same time.  I would try to foist that responsibility on others, but it never worked out.  Additionally, what with our priest having arrived from the ivy-wrapped North Atlanta avenues of Emory and Decatur, I knew he would want something interesting, something with conceptual clout, something that would confirm and validate my “theatre background.”  There were just not enough microphones for interesting, however.  Or, alternatively, how could you be interesting if you had to rely on microphones?  I suffered my reluctances.  Inevitably, however, each year I ultimately pulled something together with the willing, guided by an ambitious but O so subtle and disciplining concept, and also read Jesus.  I would begin my dreading process around Christmas of the previous year.

Finally our parish acquired a Music Associate, an actual staff person, also with a “theatre background,” who now could organize the reading to fulfill a part of her job description.

I still had to read Jesus, however, but now free from administrative concerns, I had time to reflect.  That means obsess.  I had time to obsess.  I became preoccupied with whether or not I was to act the role of Jesus as I read my text.  I struggled with this every year, but this year my obsessing was more acute.  What was my responsibility?  Usually in a reading of scripture, one presents the text.  I see it as my responsibility to provide text and space for contemplation.  I try to set aside impulses to take up an imaginary relationship with the text and portray a speaker who might be a character other than myself.  With the Passion reading it was feeling a bit different.  The were multiple speakers, multiple roles, and even staging.  There I was standing at the top of the steps in front of the altar, the center, the focal point.  The Vanishing Point, all lines of intent and concern leading to the place where I stood.  The Horizon of Meaning.  Obsess, remember.  I had time to obsess.

I was tempted and terrified at the same time as I entertained the possibility that at that moment I was truly called to channel the ghost of Antoinin Artaud.  Finally, there, then, at that place in time and space, what with the curtain of the temple coming down and the Alpha and the Omega impossibly coinciding for a preternatural instant, it was actually appropriate to regard myself as burning at the stake and signaling through the flames.  After all, there is even a cry in another tongue:  Eli, Eli, lemma sabachthani!    And, yet, I could not resolve the issue to my satisfaction.  I could cry out.  I could be Jesus.  I could cry out but not really.  I could not so much cry as lift.  I could not cry out at all but try, rather, to emphasize the otherness of the moment by pointing up the exotic glottal fireworks exploding in sabachthani.  I put myself in the congregation.  I sat in a pew and beheld myself up there.  What was my responsibility?  What was my role?  How do I play this?

Could I solve the problem by trying to formulate a super-objective?  I wondered if basic actor analysis could save me, could allow me to at least get my words out in a reasonable way.  What did I want to do up there?  What did I want to accomplish with my various utterances to Judas, Peter, disciples, Pilate, God, my fellow performers, the congregation, our priest?

I found my answer while praying to my Father in the Garden of Gethsemane.  At that moment (we were running through the reading the day before) I uttered these words:  My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.  Before and beyond and beneath any question of intent or objective was the actual truth of my performance:  I was doing something I didn’t really want to do.  Of course! That is what I was offering in my performance.  Up to that moment, I had been blind to the truth that was too close, too much woven in and around my being in the instant.  I couldn’t see it because I was it.  I was up there because I had been asked to be up there and there was really nothing I could do about it.  I didn’t want to be there.  I could certainly wish it was not the case, but…there I was.  My misery, my dread, my obsessing, my confusion, my dissatisfaction, my doubts–there was no resolution.  It was my performance. I was Jesus, a man doing things he wished he didn’t have to do.  No escaping it.


Actors, dig in and work on that super-objective.  It is your first and best defense against the other things that go on out of your awareness and control.  Do what you can.

Each numbered lesson addressed the other things going on.  Psychoanalysis calls them drives.  When you attempt to explain them, you inevitably begin to sound like you are beginning a bedtime story:  a long time ago, before you were you, you were a pact with the other, an understanding, you communed and communicated via a system of paths and circulations and objects established in, on, and around your living body.  Upon this system of exchanges is built the complex self.


Language and learning take shape.  Identity coalesces.  Upon the drives is built the you who is the analyzing actor.  But at the limits of your analysis, of your self, is the invisible realm of the drives continuing on.  You will not be consulted now or in the future.  You will not know.  You can speculate and explore and hypothesize, but that is as clear as it will ever get.  You can think of this kind of speculation as an optional supplement to questions of actions and objectives.

There are debates among the various camps about drives, but a few aspects seem fundamental and definitive.  A drive has an object.  A drive moves around the object.  Movement is endless.  Beyond this, different theories take over and attempt different things.  I embrace the Lacanian view because it emphasizes the permanence of the drives and the non-hierarchical, non-developmental nature of the drives.  You don’t achieve new drives as you mature.  It’s all there all the time, and there’s no consistency or permanent coordination.  This suits me.   I also like the drives Lacan added to the classic line-up.  In addition to the traditional Freudian oral and anal drives, we have have the invocatory and the scopic.  Voice and vision.  Both elemental in performance issues, I think.  (No sexual drives?  For Lacan such things take shape well within language, logic, and discourse, emerging as the speaking subject takes the stage and are, therefore, conceived and handled differently.)


Each lesson covers the invisible work of a drive.  The object in each lesson serves as a pivot and a point of linkage between you and the other, between knowledge and ignorance, between clarity and opacity, between lack and fullness.

I:  the oral drive.  It’s object:  the breast.  This one takes a particularly playful turn in that I play the role of the other.  The actress is the performer who is not aware that the truth of her work lies in my possession of her breast. An impossibility:  she cannot act my appetite, yet it’s constitutive. Additionally, in her hunger for a word from me, the director, I am also the breast.

II:  the anal drive.  It’s object: excrement.  Everything hinges on the possession of the necklace.  I do not know exactly why I need it, but I know it holds the power.  What is treasured?  What is excremental?  What is kept?  What is sacrificed?  Note how I seemed to struggle to squeeze out a few short paragraphs with this one.

III:  the invocatory drive.  It’s object:  the voice.  The voice, at first, is not in my possession.  I was not even aware it was lacking.  Like each drive object, the voice is enjoyed.  Singing as you go about household chores is supposed to be therapeutic.

IV:  the scopic drive.  It’s object:  the gaze.  It’s the point of blindness, pure and simple.  As such, it’s inherently paradoxical.  What do you want?  You want access to what is there to be seen?  But you, in seeing, are seen.  You want that.  From an impossible perspective.  As if the impossible is just covered up by the visible.

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