Bear with me here, it will make sense in a jiffy.
Take a moment to think back to your last argument with someone. Think back to an intensely intimate conversation with a lover, maybe when you shared a secret you never shared with anyone before. Remember that time when you were caught lying to someone you respect. Now think about how you acted in those moments. Did you look directly at the other person or did you look away? Did you evade their eyes in order to shield yourself from judgement, from seeing their anger, from the possibility of seeing their scorn and profound disappointment, or even from seeing too much love and acceptance?
If you watch yourself or others in these or similarly intense emotional moments, I think you’ll notice that people don’t always look each other in the eyes as they talk. Even in non-intense moments, pay attention to how many times you are not looking at the person with whom you are speaking.
Now, go to the theatre. Watch how many times actors look directly at each other during the most emotionally fraught moments. Even when characters have something to hide, actors will often maintain eye contact. I really, really, really hate this about a lot of “realistic” theatre productions. I’m not looking for perfect naturalism in the theatre, but I am looking for representations of what it means to be human. To put it bluntly, humans don’t stare at each other the way most actors stare at each other. Sure, it’s a small thing, but that’s the definition of a pet peeve. I guarantee, however, that if you start paying attention to this, you will see that this practice is nearly ubiquitous. By the way, it’s not the actor’s fault. Actors are supposed to pay close attention to the other actors in the scene, to use the words and tones and body language directed at them in order to respond organically. So of course actors want to keep their partner in sight. Ultimately, it is the director’s fault.1
When I go to the theatre, I am honestly hoping to experience something potent, something that will allow me to understand myself and my world in more depth than I did before the show began. That sounds all big and grandiose, but it’s really not. Chaplin’s silent films showed us something about being human that we’d never seen before—or at least never seen in that particular fashion. Comedy, clowns, satire, and parody equally as suited to revealing our humanity as are the forms of tragedy, drama, avant garde, or absurdism. So this is not about a theatre of ponderous seriousness. I am hoping for a theatre that, no matter the form, is engaged with what it means to be a human, what it means to love or to hate, what it means to laugh or to cry, what it means to tell ourselves the stories that tell ourselves who we are. For this, I need to see actors and directors paying attention to what humans do and how they do it. If a director wants the characters to look at each other directly no matter what they have to hide or how intense the emotions become, that is fine. Such a production is perfectly fine, is peachy-keen, is jim-dandy as long as the director is aware of making that choice and uses it meaningfully instead of simply being lazy or unobservant.
Getting actors to stop looking at each other is not easy. I know. Almost every show I direct I end up having to constantly work with my actors to overcome this particular ingrained habit.2 I strongly believe, however, that the effort is worthwhile and can make for a much more compelling production.
Compelling is good.
Thus endeth the diatribe . . .
On this day..
- Really, every failure of a production needs to be laid at the doorstep of the director. Failure is different from the mistakes that happen during a show, such as flubbed lines, missed cues, etc. Mistakes are inevitable and in no way constitute failure on the part of the production. [↩]
- And by “work with” I mean “nag.” [↩]