From The Cape: Opening Night and the Alchemy of Actors

Thursday, August 11

by Stephen Sachs

Think of these words: brave, fearless, heroic. What comes to mind? Soldiers, right? Infantrymen? Military men and women? What comes to my mind, when I think of these words? Actors.

Actors are miraculous and extraordinary beings. Brave soldiers willing to put their souls on the line for a cause greater than themselves.

Actors Ken Cheesman and Paula Langton in "Bakersfield Mist"

Veteran soldiers often admit that their conflict in battle, with bullets whizzing by, bombs exploding,  the threat of peril and death surrounding them, was the most exhilarating time of their life. When they felt most alive. Same is true for actors. Actors are the courageous foot soldiers of theatre. They volunteer, enlist themselves to be put on the front line, in the line of fire, at the very center of risk and danger, all for the sake of a higher purpose and the benefit of others. Willing to take a bullet — or rise to glory. That intoxicating thrill of conquering fear, the ecstasy of risk. When the battle is won —  it is glorious, transcendent. An actor connecting with an audience is an extraordinary communion of will and spirit that can lift an entire building of strangers up to heaven. How does an actor do it?

The lobby of the Julie Harris Stage.

Think of it. In the final frantic days before opening a new play the actor has to memorize 80 – 100 pages of text (often constantly changed and rewritten by a playwright); remember all stage movement and blocking (adjusted and altered by a still-tweaking director); know exactly when all light  and sound cues happen and remember precisely where to stand for best effect, learn to handle props and fidgety costumes — they do all of this — and must stillat the same time — give a performance with a complex emotional life that fulfills whatever the role requires: be vulnerable, be powerful, laugh, cry, bellow, whisper, be angry, mournful, philosophical, silly, wise — and do it all in front of 200 people, watching you do it, keeping them entertained and engaged throughout. And somehow tell the story of the play and dramatize the arc of your character. And make it all look effortless, spontaneous and alive, as if happening for the first time. How do they do that?

As Hamlet says,

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing …

I love actors. I am in awe of actors. I’ve been a professional director for more than 25 years and the whole mystical, methodical process they go through still astounds me.

Opening Night of "Bakersfield Mist".

I am witness to the actors’ fearless alchemy once again as we are hurled toward Opening Night of Bakersfield Mist at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. The audience arrives. The lights go down. A hush of silence. An inhalation, a breath of courage. Lights up! The play begins — all of it now, as it always is and will forever be — in the hands of the actors.

In Bakersfield Mist, art expert Lionel Percy tries to put into words how he feels about art. He could easily be describing how I feel about actors: “A work of art is both human and spiritual. A physical thing expressing the non-physical. The beyond physical. Great art has spiritual power. Embedded within it. The power to cure the heart, heal the human spirit, save and uplift the soul.”

The same can be said of actors.

2 responses to “From The Cape: Opening Night and the Alchemy of Actors

  1. You always surprise and amaze me!

  2. And you, me! Onward!

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