Look! 21st-Century Thesping Is Here at Last!

Seagull (Thinking of you)
Seagull (Thinking of you)
Photo by Ilan Bachrach

“It’s a new kind of acting.” Damn straight it is, and I’ve seen plenty of it in three productions over the last few weeks.

The character explaining the “new kind of acting”-a direct quote-does so during the Half Straddle production of Seagull (Thinking of You), shown as part of the Coil Festival. During the hour-plus that writer-director Tina Satter unfolds the piece, there’s so much blather about acting, about rehearsing, about things acting-related that what transpires in front of you can only be called meta-theater-a genre that quickly sets your teeth on edge.

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The six players moving through the gauzy-curtained New Ohio Theatre as versions of Anton Chekhov’s troubled folks-Arkadina, Treplov, Konstantin, et al-interrupt their cell-phone and Google-age take on The Seagull with lines such as “[You’re] acting like you were, like, acting,” “Your play is hard to act” and “You’re very talented-you should keep at it.” Oh, and “Do you know what it feels like to be a bad actor?”

That last one is risky, for the uninformed spectator could react to it with the sinking feeling that everyone on stage is experiencing that painful feeling, too-or ought to be. It becomes an effort not to shout, “Why is no one acting? Why are the six of you delivering your lines without anything but the most basic disinterested affect?”

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For example, Susie Sokol declares the line “I feel things passionately” with such a lack of passion that a glum patron could marvel at how Sokol’s abilities have diminished since her outstanding work in Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz in 2011. Sokol was also the brightest element in the ERS’s disappointing The Select (The Sun Also Rises) last year. So that glum patron might then wonder if the otherwise adept Sokol is behaving so woefully dispassionately because she’s been asked to.

But why would actors ever deliberately give the impression they couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag? A case could be made that Satter’s Seagull symbolizes “the new kind of acting”-acting in which actors act badly by design or, also by design, don’t act at all. Call it non-acting, anti-acting-bless their accommodating hearts. Perchance they’re ushering in a new phase of acting-a new addition to the long list of styles developed and discarded throughout the ages.

Who misses the Delsarte System of Expression, formulated by Francois Delsarte in the 19th century, whereby emotions were indicated by a series of gestures? No one, certainly not since Konstantin Stanislavski upended Delsarte with what became (courtesy of fervent acolytes like Lee Strasberg) the Method.

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If acting is shifting into a new mode, are we entering an era when actors trained in the aging mold are no longer going to be needed? Is the only requirement going to be the desire to get on stage and stay there?

(Playwright-director Richard Maxwell could be deemed an especially influential innovator here. An actor friend who appeared in Maxwell’s recent Neutral Hero told me about having a hell of a time squelching acting techniques developed over the years to give Maxwell the non-professional patina he wanted. Also spare a thought for Judith Malina’s revival of The Brig some seasons back, where most of the ensemble needed only selflessly execute military drills.)

A scene from The Soho Rep production of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Life and Times: Episode 2  Photo Credit: Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episode 2
Photo Credit: Nature Theater of Oklahoma

And speaking of simply having the desire to be under the lights, there’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Episodes 1-4 at the Public. Presented under the auspices of Soho Rep for the Under the Radar festival, troupe founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper make it plain in a program note that there’s a place in their troupe for all applicants. As the virtually sung-through ten-and-a-half-hour marathon marches on, it certainly looks like the claim is being realized.

The project’s premise and basis is that everyone on the planet has a story to tell. (Who would deny that?) The one told here-including every “like” and “you know” and “um”-belongs to company member Kristin Worrall, whose recollections are both particular yet ultimately universal.

In total, the players tell hours of Worrall’s tale, which Liska had taped over the telephone. (More of it is due in episodes to come.) In episodes one and two, the actors carry out T’ai-Chi-looking movements while singing Worrall’s words. In episodes three and four, they pretend to emote in an English stage mystery like Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap.

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During the first two episodes, the group need only perform the precision choreography while looking game for the musical assignment. The principals definitely fill the bill-and so do chorus members added in the second episode.

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But in the third and fourth episodes, when more than a modicum of skilled style-spoofing would seem necessary, the troupe was completely unable to come through. The “new kind of acting” exhibited during the first two episodes lets them down-resulting in the principals doing little more than pasting muted-alarm expressions on their face for a few hours.

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I witnessed a third demonstration of “the new kind of acting” at the Wild Project where Brian Bauman’s A Crucible, helmed by Kate Gagnon was presented by the Perfect Disgrace Theater. They said it, not me, but I can report the cast lived up to the company name. The action involved a group of Catholic schoolgirls tackling Arthur Miller’s The Crucible under the direction of their drama department priest. Their response to the script was an example of anti-acting in which the actors appear to have no idea of what acting is or have been coaxed by Gagnon to anti-act.

After watching 15 minutes of-what to call it? mugging? gesticulating?-I left. Was I right to spare myself acting of this caliber? Or was I was being curmudgeonly about shifts from 20th-century acting techniques to those of the dawning (and yawning) 21st century? Was I failing to respond to changes in the broader culture wrought by reality television, by a dumbed-down society where the deployment of craft now equates with artifice, with phoniness?

I happen not to think craft is artificial or phony, but if that’s what it’s considered elsewhere, I’ll embrace old-fogeydom and wish others better luck as early adopters.