On Friday night I watched a high school play, Ann of Green Gables; the lights in the auditorium dimmed, the lights on the players came up, and then 17 year olds tried slipping into new personas. They dropped into unfamiliar accents, into other ways to walk and to carry themselves. They clipped the rhythm of their sentences. They pretended to inhabit someone else for an audience.
Think about being those high school actors (women are also included within this term). They have to imagine themselves into a history other then their own and do so even while they remain focused on the necessities of their brand new craft — hitting their blocks, moving in concert with others on stage, responding to cues, making off-stage costume changes, unearthing the emotional provocations required to scream, weep, mourn, grow joyous, darken with fury. For example, how does one occupy Matthew Cuthbert, one of the leads in Ann? How does a 17 year old suburban boy show what it feels like to live in a farmer’s middle-aged body with a heart problem; to live with his sister, neither married; to show a buried yearning to love another coming into blossom with the entrance of 13 year old Ann into his previously narrow and bereft life? This is what that 17 year old did: he thickened his body through slower, work-worn movements. He filled his voice with a restrained, too-long subdued delight in providing for a child. He shifted its tone when speaking with Ann so that through pitch and pauses the bone-deep warmth of his persistent kindness gave her comfort. He gave a splendid performance. He was emotionally authentic. From the stage, that faraway place, he called out to those kinds of yearnings and memories in the audience.
Sitting in the dark I began to think about this mercurial quality of actors, this now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t ability to slide from one character to another when the lights flash on. Maybe great actors have retained within them this quality of the young — the fluid ability to try on identities. So Ann prefers the name Cordelia or she wishes her name to be spelled with an e — either way she slips away from the Ann she was to someone not an orphan, but instead someone who belongs in the Romances she reads or in a real family. So it is with most adolescents — possessing an unsettled self and driven by both insecurities and risk taking, by their inhalation of what feels like a pure, often uninhibited freedom and by a desire to follow, they can transform themselves in moments.
I vividly remember the shifting circus acts of my daily emotional life as a teenager. Who am I today? Look at how I can become another with a hat to shade my eyes, a leather coat worn shoulders back, a cigarette held like Bogart, a slouch in a chair like Pacino, an ironic glance like Redgrave’s, a hard gaze like DeNiro, an accent wielded like Streep, a swag of a walk like Travolta. The best actors and actresses manage to keep some part of themselves flexible, unclenched, liquid, malleable. Daniel Day Lewis appears and disappears into his parts as if his identity lacked a skeleton, a spinal column, a past. Some element of Brando always seemed boyish.
When we age, our jawlines set, our faces wear the rigors of our lives, and most of us can be only lively or stoic or long-suffering. The framework of our playing narrows. Some turn into people like the town busybody in Ann Of Green Gables who warns us that “Play acting is abominably wicked,” but such tight-asses forever get it wrong. They never experienced the invigorating, rising shock of waiting in the wings and feeling the force-field of the audience and whispering to themselves that “Tonight I will be Adam or Eve, Hamlet or Horatio or Blanche Dubois.” Or they’ve forgotten what it was like to joyously hurtle out of the house on a Friday evening into a car packed with friends and think I’ll wear this face or maybe that one tonight. Who knows what might happen. Who knows what we might become.