I Do My Own Stunts Part 3: I Do My Own Acting
The phenomenon of Reality TV, ostensibly begun with Survivor in 2000, and boomed during the writers’ strike of 2008, has continued to be one of the most-watched genres in American television today. The premise of Reality TV being that there are no actors, no scripts, no direction, just real people having real reactions to each other and their situations.
This is problematic.
First of all, Reality TV, whatever the premise, is in reality (heh, see what I did there?) cast from auditions, staged, set up, directed, and often even scripted just as much as the average sitcom. This is a problem because a viewer who is uneducated in the realms of Show Biz will watch a Reality show and equate what she sees to “reality,” not knowing the difference between RealITY and RealISM as an artistic style. This then leads to the uneducated viewer into thinking that any shlub can act on TV, no training or talent necessary. Which then leads to our epidemic of what I call “empty celebrity,” and what Peter Brook, as far back as 1968, called The Deadly Theatre.
THE DEADLY THEATRE
It’s pretty amazing how much Brook’s iconic theatre book, The Empty Space, still speaks to multimedia and theatrical entertainment today. I would posit that his discussion of the Deadly Theatre is maybe even more relevant today as it relates to Reality TV.
“If good theatre depends on a good audience, then every audience has the theatre it deserves” (Brook 21).
Why is Reality TV so popular? Schadenfreude, for one thing. Another reason is actually at the heart of theatrical realism as it first came about in the late 1800s: it’s the direct opposite of elitist. It (supposedly literally) displays the Everyman, and isn’t lofty “art” that only the educated can understand. Problem is, the extreme that is Reality TV plummets into the deadliest theatre of all: the theatre that encourages incompetence in its audience, and thereby in its performers.
“Incompetence is the vice, the condition and the tragedy of the world’s theatre on any level” (Brook 31).
The most obvious/common way this widespread addiction to authenticity manifests is the bleed-over into the mindset of theatre/film professionals. Even in the minds of the conceptual artists, now Hyper-realism or Naturalism equals good acting. Not just audiences, but directors and even actors themselves think that if the performance isn’t “authentic,” isn’t Realism (to its extreme), then it isn’t high quality. At best, this limits the versatility of actorly styles, at worst it puts on display the untrained and even incompetent, in the name of authenticity. The artists forget that they’re doing, well, art. Even when one is acting in a realistic style, “the character is still a mask, created by choice and selectivity; it is not the simple revelation of the actor’s self, though it may make more use of it” (Harrop 189). As audiences, we often see what Brook called the “crude gesture of self-expression” (19) but nothing more skilled or refined than that.
How does all this affect the particular theatrical needs of stunts and stage combat? Stage Combat needs to be choreographed, performed within safe distance, rehearsed about a million times so as to ingrain the moves into an actor’s body, that he can feel safe acting while performing the potentially dangerous moves. In film, all this is true plus the stunts themselves need to be performed by another actor, a stuntperson. Problems come in when the actor or director begins to feel like the fight move is, well, rehearsed, and opts for a more dangerous choice because it feels more authentic than the rehearsed one. One example is from my first book, when I recount the actor choosing to receive a real slap to the face because the stage slap he rehearsed (only twice) didn’t feel authentic enough. This leads to a bad-looking slap (or a too quiet one, or a flinching attacker, or any number of non-realistic looking things) or, worse, an actor getting hurt. A more recent experience I had with this concept was when I was fight director for a play that required a gun to be fired into the ceiling. I insisted there was no reason to have a gun that shot blanks (which is what the director wanted), because a) guns that shoot blanks are way way way dangerous and shouldn’t be used unless necessary, and b) a localized sound effect would sound real, and the audience wouldn’t be the wiser. The director heard me out (I think) but opted to use the blank-shooting-gun, because of one word: “authenticity.” The thing is, the sound effect would have been just as authentic to the audience in that particular case. Even more so, as the actor ended up flinching before firing, and of course, blanks being the tetchy things they are, often the gun wouldn’t fire at all.
Basically, as artists and viewers, we need to understand the difference between Reality and Realism, between raw authenticity and a skilled, artistic expression of such. Even the fight scenes are part of the dialogue, of the physical storytelling of the piece. Relapsing into a Reality TV style with our fights is a dangerous game. Leave the actual drunken hair pulling to the Bad Girls and the Jersey Shore. I’ll take my rehearsals, thank you very much.
P.S. I am not snooty and/or made of stone. I have been known to enjoy Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice, and Iron Chef in the past. In the past, mind. ~Jenn
Below are my sources for this three-part article, “I Do My Own Stunts.” They’re not in any formal style, and one of them is from Wikipedia. Freshman Comp students, cover your eyes. 🙂