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Acting In Space

You all gather in a large room with a tall ceiling and a linoleum (or if you are lucky, a wooden) floor. The stage manager and his assistants have taped out on the floor the plan for the set, and rummaged up some approximately appropriate furniture from storage. The scene designer is there for the first reading as well, with a model of the set. You ooh and aah over the model, bend down, peek through the tiny exits and entrances. You check out the miniature sight-lines.

Maybe the director walks you around the taped-out floor plan. You ask questions about whether the door where you make your particular entrance opens upstage or down.

You have the first read-through, nice and casual, no acting allowed. You talk about the script some. Maybe you read through it again, or maybe the show is pressed for time and so you get up on your feet right away and start blocking the scenes. Or maybe you take the rest of the afternoon off so the director can meet with the designers to tidy up those lingering production problems.

You rehearse the show for a few weeks, growing into the character you'll be playing. Maybe if there are a lot of platforms and different levels on the set, the scene shop gets you some of the basic chunks of the set -- just so you can get an idea of the relative heights you and the other actors will be playing at. The costume shop gets you a rehearsal skirt or sport-coat if you feel like you need one to work with.

By the third week, the show is really coming together. It feels like you've got a pretty good handle on your character. There are rough spots. You really don't know what the hell you are doing in that scene near the top of the second act. Well, you'll get it sorted out. That's the great thing about live theater. When it's opening night, it's opening night, and you don't have any choice but to be there with all your chops.

Long day, tomorrow. First tech rehearsal. First time you're on the set in the theater. This is always the best. It's always the best when you finally get into the space, get to work the doors, get to try the furniture. You've been working for weeks on the world of the play, and the world of it is pretty solid inside your gut. Now it's time to bring it on out. Now it's time to let the world inside your gut inhabit the world of the set.

It's an amazing thing to watch from the outside, actually... the actors moving their characters emotionally, psychologically, physically into the space of the world of the play. You can feel them, I dunno, filling things out somehow. Like cats exploring a new space. Nervous, tentative, crouched down as they poke around. Then an ease seeps in. Their characters begin to understand the space they inhabit. The coil begins to unwind a bit. Things fall into place. Stuff that didn't quite make sense before -- that short cross you have to make to your mark behind the sofa -- it all begins to add up now.

The world of thing starts to live...

So I saw the new Star Wars tonight and the acting universally sucked. I dunno, maybe my views on this subject are warped by seeing actors working in live theater for years, but I just don't see how actors can do good work in a big empty space painted blue or green or whatever it is. I know they say they can do it. And I know the real thing -- building the real set -- would be prohibitively expensive, but, you know, I just don't buy it. I think part of the reason the acting was so universally bad was because they weren't really living in the world they were supposed to be living in... the world we see on the screen after all the fancy post-production is added in.

This Hayden Christensen fellow. He was just execrable in Episode II. I mean, barely watchable in spite of his physical beauty. I thought, sheesh, whoever told this kid he could act?

But then I saw Shattered Glass and he was excellent in it. I mean, his character was rich and creepy and attractive and smart and increasingly desperate and sad and you could really see how this Glass fellow ended up taking the path he took. I thought it was an excellent movie and Christensen did an excellent job in it.

And then tonight, Episode III, he pretty much sucked again... yes, the writing is bad, and the scenes are for the most part hackneyed. Still, once he got his glowering darkness on, he got to be pretty believable. Maybe he's too good of an actor for his really beautiful looks. Probably the last character he should ever play is one that is supposed to be the way he looks.

I don't know if acting on real sets would have helped. All I know is that this Hayden fellow did an excellent job in Shattered Glass, on real sets, and he did a (mostly) terrible job in both the Star Wars he was in. Yes, yes, I'm sure part of it was the script, part of it was the direction, but I'm afraid I'm convinced part of it was that these actors didn't get to have a real set. Christensen wasn't the only good actor in both those Star Wars movies who did a terrible job.

I want actors acting in spaces that are real to them. And after all, isn't it getting harder and harder for the visuals to really impress us? I'd trade some of the gee-whiz visuals for actors acting in real spaces. No matter where all these characters go, whether it's the galactic core or the outer rim, it's the people we ultimately have to care about. You can't take people out of the places where they are supposed to be and still have those people be believable and worth caring about.

People exist in spaces. Good actors know that precisely. The spaces people are in matter. Yes, I'm afraid I have Views on the subject of computer-generated sets.

Stop it. Just stop doing it.


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[spoiler warning!]

Gawd, wasn't the acting in Episode III just abysmal? I almost laughed out loud when I realized that Padme was going to die of a broken heart. I couldn't understand why she'd even want to be alone in the same room with Anakin let alone keel over from love lost.

I mean, really.

I had to account for it by imagining that long ago, in a galaxy far away, everybody behaved as if they were in a shlocky 1940s B-movie -- it was a cultural style choice. Sort of like we all wear baggy pants just barely clinging to our curvaceous asses. Well, not everybody, of course. Some people's asses couldn't possibly hold up a pair of baggy pants. They are the outcasts.

I have heard that the acting sucked as bad as part II (which I thought was so pathetic it was actually fun to watch) - and I think your theory has a lot of merit. But you have to admit, even with a beautiful set, the romantic screenplay really, really is hard to say without bursting out laughing, let alone saying it with any sort of genuine feeling (besides amusement). It's just - painfully stupid. Of course, however, I will go to see Revenge of the Sith as soon as my kids are out of exams.

Did you see Dogville?

I have not. I've seen it in the video store a number of times, and came close to renting it, but could not pull the trigger. However, I note the following from imdb:

DOGVILLE is shot exclusively in studio with a minimum of props once again allowing the actors' maximum freedom and full exposure inspired by televised theatre of the 70s.

So I will check it out and get back to you.

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