I’ve been fascinated lately by what seems a growing trend of deliberately bad acting in plays. Of course, it’s not really bad; on the contrary, it’s very highly crafted in the way only a truly gifted singer can sing spectacularly badly (proof, Miranda). But my curiosity is in what exactly is driving this particular aesthetic of unacting.
It takes various forms, from the farcically bad acting of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s No Dice to the hyper-naturalistic office workers of ERS’ Gatz; from the aggressively comic overacting of That Pretty Pretty to the mercurial character-immolations of Young Jean Lee; from Richard Maxwell to Matthew Freeman’s New Naturalism; all very different but all discarding or exploding traditional acting values. Even the long running hit Our Town shared a similar distrust of traditional artifice with its stripped down, accentless aesthetic.
This unacting can accomplish many things: it can reveal absurdities in the way we perform ourselves, call attention to beauties within the banal usually excluded from performance, allow a pleasurable dissonance between the character in our imagination and the character performed before us, create room for the audience to make their own meaning, clear away surface interpretations to reveal the deep story of a play, and just be flat out funny.
What it can’t do, or at least it hasn’t done for me, is establish that visceral thread of empathy that removes the distance between the story and my self, and this primal rush remains what I love most about theatre. It’s hard for me to ever imagine relinquishing this joy for any of the pleasures above; that connection and catharsis come first, and then all the rest can follow.
But clearly, many do find that connection in this unacting, and my sincere question is, how? What am I missing? What are you seeing when you watch this good bad unacting?