Blog | The Actor’s Body

The Actor’s Body

By admin | January 10, 2018

by Colin Thomas

Playwright Ayad Akhtar believes the physicality of theatre can provide spiritual balm in this age of digital alienation. Photo by Vincent Tullo for The New York Times.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar believes the physicality of theatre can provide spiritual balm in this age of digital alienation. Photo by Vincent Tullo for The New York Times.

The Actor’s Body

Playwright Ayad Akhtar writes that, as digital dehumanization threatens us, our collective salvation may lie in the actor’s body.

Accepting the 2017 Steinberg Playwright Award on December 4, Akhtar, who is the author of Disgraced  and more recently Junk, warned of the attention-finance complex, the monetization by social media of our need to belong: “Transformed into economic subjects, our humanity is being redefined; we are valuable only insofar as our economic behavior can be predicted and monetized. Indeed, the technology has enabled the very movements of our mind to become a steady stream of revenue to someone, somewhere.”

From that bleak assessment, Akhtar turns to the balm of the actor’s body: “A living being before a living audience. Relationship unmediated by the contemporary disembodying screen. Not the appearance of a person, but the reality of one. Not a simulacrum of relationship, but a form of actual relationship.”

The playwright goes on to address the interplay between the collectivity of theatre and the cult of the individual that underlies so much economic and social injustice: “Whether we like to admit it or not, we herding social animals are programmed at some very profound level to think and feel as one. To me, this is why the great lie of American individualism—that my experience is the most important thing, and should be protected and enabled at all costs—why this thinking is so pernicious. It isn’t really true to what we really are.

“But the theater is—in its essence.”

Executive director Leslie Lester has followed her husband Albert Schultz out the door at Soulpepper Theatre. Photo by Christopher Wahl for Soulpepper.

Executive director Leslie Lester has followed her husband Albert Schultz out the door at Soulpepper Theatre. Photo by Christopher Wahl for Soulpepper.

The Reckoning

The biggest news story to hit Canadian theatre in decades involves allegations of violation.

Last Thursday, amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, Albert Schultz resigned as artistic director of Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company. On Saturday, the company severed its relationship with Schultz’s wife Leslie Lester, who was the company’s executive director. In a statement, the company added: “We have also, by request of our artists, cancelled the production Amadeus”—which Schultz was scheduled to direct.

In separate claims, actors Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley, and Hannah Miller are pursuing damages—a total of $4.25 million from the company and $3.6-million from its artistic director. Their allegations against Schultz include indecent exposure, unwanted kissing, and inappropriate sexual touching—sometimes during rehearsals.

This Monday (January 8), filmmaker Sarah Polley and author Anne-Marie Macdonald joined hundreds of other artists in issuing an open letter in support of the women accusing Schultz. That letter reads, in part, “we call on the Board of Soulpepper to acknowledge the harm these women, and others, have suffered.

“In the coming weeks, we look forward to the Board’s announcement of concrete steps it is taking to ensure that Soulpepper is a safe environment, where abuse and harassment cannot be tolerated, and where art can flourish.”

Letting the Peasants into the Castle

If you love theatre and want to maintain your joy in it, watch this video.

In 1993, George C. Wolfe directed Joe Mantello in the Broadway premiere of Angels in America, in which Mantello played Louis, the neurotic legal “word processor.” Now both men are iconic directors. In this juicy conversation, they share their insights about the directorial process.

Mantello on what he learned from Wolfe: “One of the things that I remember you saying to us during Angels in America when we were very, very frightened and we were about to start previews…We were all nervous and we didn’t know what to do. And you said, ‘Oh please! We’re letting the peasants into the castle to see what we’ve been up to.’ It was such a great way of reframing the experience.”

Wolfe on collaboration: “Be careful who you sleep with because that’s what the baby is going to look like.”

Wolfe on working with actors: “If actors think they are working on something important or if they think they are working on something that matters, they approach the material differently. And they let go of a lot of the vanity that can come from insecurity.”

Mantello on directing the musical version of Nine to Five: “I learned a lot from Dolly Parton.”

At PuSh, Northern Irish artist Shannon Lee invites you to disassemble yourself. Photo by Stephen Beggs.

At PuSh, Northern Irish artist Shannon Lee invites you to disassemble yourself. Photo by Stephen Beggs.

Seeing Things

In January, when the previous year’s shows are (mostly) done, we look ahead—directly into the bright lights of the PuSh Festival.

With its abundance of offerings and maddeningly short runs, PuSh is, logistically, a reviewer’s nightmare—but it’s a dream come true for adventuresome theatregoers.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew (January 17 to February 4 at the Culture Lab) was created by Northern Ireland’s Shannon Yee, who is the survivor of a medically induced coma and an acquired brain injury. In this immersive aural experience, audience members lie down on hospital beds, put on headphones, and enter Yee’s disoriented mind.

I am also particularly looking forward to Patrick Keating’s solo show, Inside/Out (January 17 to 21 at Performance Works), in which the local artist explores his years of incarceration, and Neworld Theatre’s King Arthur’s Night (January 31 to February 4 at the Frederic Wood Theatre). The latter’s inclusive cast features a number of actors—including co-author Niall McNeil—who live with Down syndrome.

Actor Andy Serkis and his supporters argue that motion-capture technology is like make-up and shouldn’t blind us to the skill of the performances beneath.

Actor Andy Serkis and his supporters argue that motion-capture technology is like make-up and shouldn’t blind us to the skill of the performances beneath.

Come To Me

Come to me—by which I mean sign up for Colin Thomas’s Newsletter, if you haven’t already done so.

This week’s edition will include a couple of great videos.

In “An Ape in Brogues,” actor Andy Serkis explains how he embodies Caesar the ape in the Planet of the Apes reboot series.

And Camille O’Sullivan’s performance in a video I’m calling “I Am Not Mad” is a lesson in interiority. O’Sullivan is playing the character Constance from Shakespeare’s King John. Constance argues that she has not lost her reason—that, in fact, she would rather be delusional than experience the depth of the grief she feels over the death of her son Arthur.

“I am not mad; this hair I tear is mine.”

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