We all love our movies. We watch our favourite film stars saving the day, singing and dancing and living their lives on the screen, whether it be the big picture at the cinema house, the family television set, the personal laptop or even on the smallest of mobile phones. Truly, the world of film is full of wonder and magic, capable of transporting us from our seat to worlds so far away that we can easily get lost in them! And while the locations, computer generated graphics, large budgets and big names will usually be among the more memorable details in a movie, eventually the entire process revolves around the two most basic and yet the most important elements of all – acting and scene.
As long as these two parts are steady and well thought out, the rest of the building blocks become the decorative icing on the solid foundation of the cake. Take any great, critically acclaimed movie that you would have watched – observe carefully and notice that the common factors in all of them are brilliant acting and very meticulous scene building. It is no coincidence that these are the same factors at the very centre of all theatre. Being the predecessor from where most of our modern ideas for movies come, this has been the core concept among many others which film has adapted from stage. But how can we properly study theatre? How do we understand what makes what we see on stage work? This chapter will very briefly deal with some ideas of theatre studies and hopefully it will encourage you to look up even more about this wonderful area in future!
Acting as an Art Form
Firstly, we shall look at one of the most important developments in acting in the last century. For those of you who have wondered how actors get into their role, understanding how to prepare for it and somehow manage to perfectly capture even the smallest actions, especially when they are portraying a real-life person on stage or screen, the best place to start understanding this would be in the works of the influential Konstantin Stanislavski. He was a theatre personality whose work was ground-breaking and reinvented acting forever.
As an actor, Stanislavski often felt dissatisfied with his work on stage. As analyzed himself to understand why he felt this way, he came to realize that the challenge of an actor was to find the balance between 'truth' (being accurate in his acting and understanding the characters he was playing) and 'spontaneity' (using energy to bring new directions for his roles and making up certain things as he went along). This was the central idea which led him to develop his famous 'system' and he took to preparing a documented study as a guide for other actors to use, most famously in his book An Actor Prepares. Even though there are many ideas which seem to be confusing in his writing, it was Stanislavski's dedication to solving the problems around how to create the best performance that makes his work so important.
One of the most famous principles of his 'system' is the idea that actors must 'live' their part – it must become almost impossible for the audience (and perhaps even the actor!) to distinguish between the person playing the part and the character on the stage. Those watching must feel the experience before them as though it were real life itself. Stanislavski's goal was to create a system that would allow actors to consistently reach this very difficult space of mind – to be able to live through their work and not simply act it. The actor must be fully focused on their work as this allows them to remain alert during performances and make themselves fully believable. This involves a process first of relaxing the muscles in the body before preparing to immerse yourself into the character – the mind and body must become completely one.
The actor must also train their imagination. Stanislavski puts considerable emphasis on this. The basic technique for this is what he called 'the Magic If'. Actors were handed certain objects, such as a hairbrush, and asked to pretend as though it were a toothbrush or ice-cream. The exercise was used to develop the actor's ability to believe in imaginary objects and situations. It also helps to develop the dual consciousness – the idea that despite knowing he is surrounded by false sets and props the actor must react as though everything were real – "he must believe in it". Thus, an actor needs not only to train himself to be physically alert and relaxed, not only to develop his ability to concentrate, he must also know how to use his imagination productively. These are the basic areas of the actor's work. Do give yourself the chance to try 'the Magic If' exercise and see how well you can do – you might be surprised with the results!
The Stanislavski system is one of the most complex systems for learning theatre but it is a very important one. This is largely due to the fact that at the heart of the system are some simple principles, which though difficult to achieve can actually provide anyone with a map on how to prepare themselves for acting. This is why thousands of aspiring thespians study this method and attempt to find their own motivations for their work – and very often, it leads to outstanding results.
Realism on the stage
The other essential element which is at the foundation of great theatre is a sense of the scene. While the sets, costumes, lights and sound design are a part of this process, the deciding factor which influences the entire production is the theme. Themes can be of great variety – you may find yourself watching a play where there are no props on stage and the actors are miming everything because the production has Absurdity as its theme. Other plays may be Naturalistic – scenes are very much close to real life and follow the descriptions which you can read in the stage directions. The theme is often tied to the message that the scriptwriter and director want to deliver to the audience, which is what makes it so important.
To speak in greater detail of one particular idea, we may look at the play Evam Indrajit by Badal Sircar. The play was written at a time when Indian theatre was exploring many different ideas and experimenting with formats in order to find an identity. Sircar was one writer who chose to explore Realism by writing about what he saw around him. He revolutionised the way that theatre was performed with his "Third Theatre". This involved making the audience a part of the performance itself – the actors would dress in the same kind of clothes that the spectators wore and would talk to them directly, sometimes even allowing them to 'direct' the play with their ideas. This was done to make those who watched think over the message of the plays carefully. This new style, performed in open-air markets and fields rather than the closed auditorium and stage, was a huge change in how theatre was written, performed and watched.
Suitably, Evam Indrajit reflects the reality that Sircar saw – corruption, unemployment and the search for the meaning of life are central to the play. This becomes much clearer when the main character, who is a writer himself, asks his companion Manasi, "What shall I write about? Who shall I write about?". To this, Manasi replies while pointing to us the audience, "There are all these people here. Don't you know any of them? Don't you know anything about any one of them?". Lines such as this show that the real-life writer Sircar is very aware of the kind of play he wants to make and who he wants to write about – his work is not about a fantasy world but actually about everyday life. Another idea that makes the Realism of this play stronger is the use of simple language – there are no complex or artificial dialogues but actually characters who talk to one another as normal people would in simple conversations. The entire idea is for the play to be simple enough for everyone to understand, no matter who the audience might be. This is important as the writer's main goal is to create a connection with the viewers.
This chapter touched upon two ideas – Stanislavski's system for acting and the Realism of Evam Indrajit – which are only drops in the massive ocean of Theatre. Naturally, to go further in depth into the world of Theatre Studies would take more time and more reading. It is a world that allows us not only to understand what happens on the stage but also in life – everything that we can see in a performance after all is only a reflection of reality. Hopefully, in reading this you might have more questions about the entire process – if you feel curious enough, you may explore on your own the wonderful world of Theatre and the priceless lessons that it brings. For as Shakespeare most famously said, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women are merely players" – life itself is the most wonderful play of all and in time you may make your own important contribution.
Iyer, Natesan Sharda. Musings on Indian Writing in English: Drama. Ivy Publishing House, 2008.
Leach, Robert. Makers of Modern Theatre: An Introduction. Routledge, 2004.
Sircar, Badal. Evam Indrajit. 1962.
Stanislavksi, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. Bloomsbury, 2001.
Ph.D. Research Scholar
Department of Indian and World Literatures
The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.