Acting is an odd profession. It’s all about pretending, but doing it in a very real way, at least emotionally. Stage combat, physical injury, death, making out, and love scenes are all faked, of course, but done in a manner that makes them seem real.
In one play of mine, the finale of the first act was one character shooting another in the forehead from across the stage right in front of the audience with the blood and apparent bullet hole appearing live, without cover. It was a brilliant piece of work by the director, tech crew, and actress.
A different play involved a man apparently being murdered in his drunken sleep by a young man wielding a metal hammer, and this was a simple case of misdirection. Timed to a black-out, the younger actor raised the weapon, apparently aimed at his victim’s head, then brought it down — and missed just as the lights went out, hitting a part of the bed rigged to give us the sound of the impact.
That one got gasps from the audience every night.
Another odd thing about the profession of acting is that it’s about the only mainstream one (not counting stripper, prostitute, or porn star) in which a person can get nude in front of their coworkers and customers and not be charged with sexual harassment. Well, at least as long as they keep it in the context of the show. (Note that I’m lumping models who do nude photoshoots or who sit for artists in with actors, because what they do is a form of acting.)
This “nudity in acting” thing has actually led to some interesting exceptions in the public decency laws. Los Angeles County, for example, specifically exempts “persons engaged in a live theatrical performance in a theater, concert hall or similar establishment which is primarily devoted to theatrical performances.”
Other jurisdictions have similar laws while some others don’t. This situation arose when the Supreme Court basically punted on the issue of obscenity in 1973, leaving the decision up to local communities. At the same time, there really aren’t any Federal prohibitions on nudity in places like National Parks, although if they are co-run by a local state or county, then the latter’s laws will take precedence.
But the subject was acting, and one of the very necessary things any cast, acting company, or other assemblage of performers absolutely needs to have is trust — in themselves and in each other.
Trusting yourself comes from within and grows as you train and progress, but your fellow players can also help build your self-trust even as you come to trust them more. Any dramatic production, particularly theatrical, can be compared to a company of soldiers preparing for battle. This isn’t to trivialize what soldiers do. Rather, it’s to emphasize that what happens on stage relies on a cohesive unit that functions as one.
With scripted performances, the emphasis is on following that script and the blocking, not deviating from what was rehearsed while bringing full emotional truth to it, all while experiencing it as if for the first time.
Improv is a little bit different creature because, of course, there is no script. I know there are people who doubt that, but trust me, it’s true. If we do plan ahead, the extent of it is to decide beforehand which particular games are going to be in the show, but this is really more to make sure we don’t bore the audience by having a lot of similar games being played in one match, as well as to make sure that our players and referee are familiar with the rules of what they’re going to be playing that evening.
Otherwise, we really do make up everything on the spot.
And that takes a special kind of trust because we’re going in without a script and without a safety net. Well, without a safety net beyond each other.
One thing about improv that can actually be a problem for some people at the beginning: Anybody can be anyone. That is, when you jump on stage with one or more scene partners, you won’t necessarily be playing your own age, gender, or orientation. We once had a very delightful moment in which a (real-life) father and college-age daughter wound up playing a father and teen-age daughter — except that she played him and he played her, and it was hilarious.
I’ve played boyfriend to a girlfriend played by a younger straight man; mother to a pair of daughters, one played by an older man; and niece to an uncle played by a younger woman, to name just a few.
Improv can also get very physical very fast, especially when we’re sending up particular genres, like romance or a Tennessee Williams play, or in some games that demand it physically, like Big/Little and Moving Bodies. Then there’s always the infamous “cleave” move when the genre that comes up is Shakespeare. It’s basically an abrupt pull in and embrace that looks like the cover of a bodice-ripper, and can be hilarious when it happens between two men in a context other than anything romantic.
“ANTONIO: Nay, thou villain dog, dark not my door, lest I draw sharp steel to you implore.”
“PETROLIO: What, good knave, a threat do you intend? ‘Tis just one way to bring it to an end.”
[PETROLIO cleaves ANTONIO to him. ANTONIO drops his sword and gasps.]
The key point is that one of two things happens. Everyone establishes what their boundaries are and everyone else respects them, or everyone makes it clear that they don’t have boundaries. Surprisingly — or maybe not, because improvisers are all a little weird — I don’t really hear a lot of boundaries being set among our team members.
Or maybe it just gets back to that really trusting each other part.
Since last Monday was the first Monday of the month, it was workshop night for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League, and it was all about team-building through creating trust, which generally makes for a pretty intense and physical night.
One of the more interesting exercises involved us forming a giant human knot with fourteen people. Step one: Stick out your right hand and take the right hand of somebody in the circle not on either side of you. Step two: Repeat with your left hand and a different person. Step three: Untangle yourselves from the knot.
One of the things that becomes obvious from the get-go is that this is not a trivial problem. You’ve got arms over arms and under arms, and people that seem impossibly blocked from swapping places with each other. But, eventually, we start to figure things out and give each other instructions — “You step over their arms, but duck under theirs.”
“Turn around to your left, then bring your right arm over your head.”
“You get low and we’ll pass over you.”
And it didn’t seem to take all that long until we’d managed to untangle the knot. The big surprise is that we wound up in a circle with every other person facing out except for three people together all facing the same way, which was probably the point where the last two hands joined.
In the second round, the only rule was that we could not talk at all, and we didn’t even manage to do much in the way of untangling, which was a fascinating mini-lesson in communication. Even though we were trying to communicate through body language and facial expression, that somehow didn’t translate, and we only seemed to be able to make the knot worse.
We also did a sort of circular version of a trust-fall, although I prefer to think of it as vertical crowd-surfing. Called “Willow in the Winds,” one person stands in the center with everyone circled around, and then they fall. The rest of the group catches them and pushes them in another direction and the process repeats. Basically, it’s a game of pass the person while letting them almost fall but never really.
To the group’s credit, most of the people on the outside (yours truly included) eventually opted to go into the center, and I have to say that it was a very Zen experience, at least once I learned to just let go and let myself actually fall and trust that everyone would be there. And they were, even if a few times I wound up dipping pretty low, and it also became obvious which parts of the circle were physically stronger than others.
The most surreal exercise also turned out to be the most relaxing. I think it was called “Belly Circle,” and it was pretty much that. One person lied down, then the next person lied down with their head on the first person’s stomach. The third person did likewise to number two, and so on until we’d made it all the way around and the last person wound up with their head on the stomach of the first person.
I wound up with my head on the stomach of one of the tinier women and the head of one of the tinier men on mine, and like I said, my reaction wasn’t discomfort or anything like that. Rather, it was very, very relaxing. And why not? I was suddenly a sandwich, and the bread happened to be two people I already trusted a lot in the group. I could have easily fallen asleep then, and I think a lot of other people on the team felt the same.
And that’s kind of the ultimate trust thing, primate edition: The ability to fall asleep with one of your fellow “monkeys with thumbs” somehow touching you.
Full circle back to the “acting is weird” thing. It’s really only weird if you aren’t an actor or improviser. If you are, then you get it. We travel in a different world, have different rules and boundaries and, oh yeah — mostly only share those with our fellow performers.
And, anyway, it’s all just pretend, right? Except for all of the real that happens right there on that stage in every performance.