Towards an Actor Neutral Theater
We're not audiences, we're vidiences. It's cramping my style, and your experience.
How much of prejudice is visual?
I’d argue almost all of it. The way a person looks, dresses and holds themselves takes a split second for us to parse - and requires an enormous force of will to overlook. Sure, we only have limited time and attention. But is it the best use of those scarce resources to automatically reinforce what we think we already know?
I believe the whole point of art is anti-prejudice. Art says ‘Look at this familiar situation from a fresh perspective. Bit more interesting now, eh?’
Perspective is the active ingredient in art’s antidote to prejudice. Perspective gives us access to the minds and souls of others. I believe literature is a perspective-generating machine. I believe theater is a pillar of literature - perhaps its cornerstone - because unlike the solo act of reading, theatre offers fresh perspective in collective real time: it’s group reading out loud.
If prejudice is primarily visual, then we’re in a bit of a pickle because visual culture is in the ascendant. Imagery defines and articulates our culture. Therefore the heartbeat of contemporary culture is manufacturing prejudice and pumping it throughout the vital organs and extremities of our collective body politic.
The resistance must be anti-visual
Grossly generalized, the way we watch stage and screen feels like Stars in their Eyes - a TV show that I loved as a kid where audiences thrilled at talented mimics.
Contestants appear briefly as themselves, to talk to the presenter, before speaking the famous catchphrase: `Tonight, I'm going to be ...' they walk through the now-famous doors, only to reappear completely rigged up to look like the celebrity they are planning to impersonate. The audience votes for the best performance.
The best performance is meant to be the best soundalike, not the best lookalike, but there’s something so instinctively wrong about a tubby David Bowie that any person of girth who wanted to compete would gravitate towards the impersonation of a more visually compatible star - e.g. Meatloaf. The winner was inevitably the best lookalike who sounded close enough.
As film audiences, we go goey for a great lookalike - to the point where it appears to be a defining criteria for a ‘good performance’. Think of all the best actor gongs that go to impersonations of people we know visually: Ghandi, Édith Piaf, Tonya Harding, Stephen Hawking.
A theater director who stages my work says that 90% of his job casting. He means that he’s looking for the person who makes the audience instantly comfortable, by instantly pattern matching their inherent prejudices. I’d argue that those prejudices are primarily visual, with sound a distant second (The only time I’ve overheard NZ audience members criticising an actor’s American accent, they were unwittingly badmouthing the accent of the only real American acting in the play…)
It’s worth the risk
“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” A paraphrase of H.L Menken
Conversely, a great way to go broke is to challenge audiences by doing things contrary to their expectations. Arthur Miller said:
Theater is not the place for new ideas.
What he means is that theater is a place for audiences to look at familiar things with fresh eyes, which is the perspective-porting beauty of art that I was talking about before.
Theater’s potential as an art form is to demonstrate the potential universality of the human experience. Whatever any human being has done or felt can be empathised and sympathised with by any other human. I believe that we can all ‘get it’ about anyone, if we are able to feel things from their perspective. The pride movement eventually won it’s generation-long struggle by getting the wider public to agree: ‘it’s the same love’.
But it’s not enough just to invert the standard visual identity
I’m interested in the results of colorblind, genderblind and ageblind casting, it often unlocks things in the text, but I find it limiting because it’s fighting smoke with smoke: it’s making a visual counterpoint to a visual culture. A woman playing a ‘man’s role’. An elderly person playing a ‘young person’s part’. These presentations enhance rather than obliterate the audience’s awareness of, and engagement with age, race, gender, etc. I’m proposing to render the identity of the speaker utterly irrelevant: actor neutral.
To do this we need to get comfortable with a transition of actors from ‘I am’ to ‘I play’ or ‘I represent’
It’s a pretty simple premise: whoever can play whoever. Obviously there will always be better and worse speakers, but it restores primacy to the underlying text, turns us into audiences again and lets the comedy or drama play out at the level of the collective conscious, rather than anchoring it in the person of the portrayer.
Playwright Sam Brooks is doing this already
I loved being in the audience for a reading of his latest play All You Had Was Fun. To describe it makes it seem complex. To witness it as an audience member is a powerfully simple sensory experience. Each of four characters are portrayed by four actors who rotate through them in different scenes. Because of this musical chairs-esque approach to who plays who when, you don’t know if the ‘base’ character being portrayed is a man or woman, young or old. You don’t know if the couples in question are gay, straight or bi. In fact they are ALL of these things simultaneously. Like real people, they contain multitudes. The story emerges from the mouths of the actors and plays out in the multiverse of our individual and collective minds. Before we can become comfortable with an interpretation/assumption of a character’s motivations based on the age, gender or race of the actor, the actors switch characters and force us to reframe our thinking. It sets up an incredible engagement between text, performers and audience. It’s theater doing what theater does best.
So in my actor neutral theater - anyone can play anyone. In fact, I’d like to explore randomized casting. I’d like to encourage actors to switch roles in the middle of the play.
In theory it sounds like clarity and meaning will be lost. In practice, I know it can makes the characters and themes MORE clear and present MORE meaning to the audience.
This is really smart for a bunch of reasons that go beyond making better theatre.
Women at my drama school made a moving and convincing complaint about the lack of good women’s roles in the work they were being asked to do.
Drama school student bodies are increasingly large and diverse, and published plays created for the professional stage are often characterised by small casts, star parts, bit parts, and homogenous milieus, and star roles. They demand a lot of a few people, and don’t give other participants a heck of a lot to do. A lot of the people who actually want to stage plays are big, diverse groups like drama schools, high schools, and dramatic societies.
I reckon if we make it easier for the people who want to get involved in plays to be involved, it’s going to make the art form better for everyone.
It’s not for every play
I showed a draft of this article to Sam, and he pointed out that there’s some plays that rely on identity to work. He’s right. For some plays it’s the whole point, but I suggest we can get pretty aggressive about challenging a bunch of these texts. Audiences are already comfortable with actor neutral in many contexts. I’ve seen Anthony and Cleopatra many times, and never once has the non-Eyptian-ness, or non-Roman-ness of the lead actors been commented on. I just listened to an audio recording of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen about the World War II meeting of two physicists - one German, one Danish. Both characters were played unapologetically by American actors with American accents. I thought about it for three seconds at the start and remembered it just now. Now that I think about it, when I first saw it in London the actors were all British and played it in, er, British accents. It’s universally acclaimed as a really good play.
I’m striving to make more of my work actor neutral. That means any actor - or any number of actors - can play any and every part.
That goes for new stuff, and I also want to retrofit plays I’ve done in the past. I also plan to present readings of other people’s words and work using teleprompter technology in this way.
I don’t know how to do it all yet, but I’m acting on it.
will it restrict or release me as a writer?
is it possible to translate established plays by myself and others that was written in a vidience paradigm to this audience-centered experience?
Will vidiences be delighted to become audiences again or will they resist?
Will the vidience paradigm be so strong that we need to hide actors behind screens or in monk clothes or something?
Will accents get in the way? (i.e. are there truly voices synonymous with physical characteristics or is that mostly just in our heads?)
Or is the foundation of theater still inate in us, where someone can say ‘I’m playing’ and the audience responds ‘ok’.
Ultimately, as with everything in the theater, the audience will have to be on board to… (as Chorus coaxes at the start of Shakespeare’s Henry V)
Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.