Friday, October 29, 2010 Leave a Comment

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?


  • Travis Bedard said:  

    As I understand unacting from what you have descried here - you're talking about the acting commenting on theatre as well as it's subject at hand. Stylistically is is the equivalent or the irony that is prevalent in every other form. You don't find the empathy because that sort of style is intended to illicit any, it doesn't trust authenticity in the artifice to win the day, so it comments on the artifice instead.

  • Aaron Andersen said:  

    I'm post-ironic. And I mean that.

    Irony is great when it does what you and Travis Bedard are saying in different ways, when it reveals the artifice and comments on it. However, I too often see irony becoming the default defensive position of people apparently unwilling to take a risk and make an emotional or vulnerable connection with one another. This is less the case in theater, because it is deliberate and less defensive (I hope). But the over-abundance of very cheap irony in all other walks of life (no, I don't need a mustache-themed amuse bouche, thanks) makes me weary of irony in general.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Travis, I think that's true for That Pretty Pretty and Young Jean's work - very clearly commenting on performance while using it to explore a subject. Gatz felt different; as if acting like people who aren't good at acting was actually more sincere; rather than being a comment about performance, it felt more like a way to achieve greater directness.

    Aaron, agreed; although there is a kind of irony that goes beyond distancing to embrace opposites and contradictions in a single action that makes it more powerful for me; it's the irony of sarcasm I lose interest in quickly.

  • Gwydion Suilebhan said:  

    There's a way in which the new naturalism, as I've experienced it (with Circle Mirror Transformation), seems to be bringing us closer to the story, rather than distancing us. By not "acting" so hard, the actors seem more human, the story more accessible: in other words, the inverse, I believe, of what Travis and Aaron are describing. (I'm very much post-ironic, too, Aaron -- supremely well said.) Un-acting seems to make drama less about heightened speech than about common speech: less lyric poetry and more prose poetry, or at least more prosaic.

    I haven't yet decided whether I like this trend or not. So far, it has left me a bit perplexed and felt a bit flat. Perhaps it's an acquired taste. Inasmuch as it may be designed to call attention to the artifice of the play, however -- to the nature of the play as a manufactured thing -- I'm quite happy to give it a second chance.

  • Ganya said:  

    "Ironic" might not be the best description for shows whose effects are designed to disorient and decontextualize. Irony depends upon a consistent context and a stable orientation betwen spectator and spectacle. Works like Lee's and Maxwell's tend instead to confuse that orientation by detaching an audience's aesthetic responses (pleasure, boredom, laughter, ironic knowingness, sympathy) from the ethical and political judgments conventionally packaged within those responses.

    The results seem more uncanny than ironic. Sometimes they're achieved by exposing artifice (as in, to take Lee's work, parts of The Shipment). But sometimes they're achieved by appearing to sublimate artifice entirely (as in Church, to stick just to Lee's work for the sake of illustration). The goal isn't to appeal to the mind over the gut or deprive an audience of its affective reactions to a performance. The goal is to provoke your gut reactions without allowing you to be comfortable that you know what to do with them — and that includes provoking empathy (as hard as it may be to believe, there were tears among the audience with whom I saw Lee's divisive Lear).

    To the extent that "ordinary" theatrical acting is typically careful to provide audience members with cues about what to do with their affective responses, then a performance technique that lacks those cues might be called "unacting." But can it really in turn be called a recent trend"? Just on the downtown New York stage alone, the flat avant-garde performance style must be entering at least its third generation by now.

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    CMT was for me the epitome of great acting in the Stanislavsky tradition, not unacting as I'm considering it here. The text itself feels me to natural in the way Chekhov seems natural - precisely crafted artifice giving the sensation of catching life with its guard down. Cromer's OT lived on the edge of that tradition and flirted at times with unacting, but including it in this post I think may have clouded things.

    New to me then - I've only lived here seven years, and I'd appreciate whatever perspective you might have on the generations of this style.
    I agree that unacting is effective in allowing political and ethical judgements to emerge from their aesthetic packaging - to me it seems what this kind of unacting is best at. In general, I find this kind of work academic in both the positive and negative resonances of that word; they feel like fascinating staged essays. Lear moved me primarily from Seasame Street nostalgia - I was just the right age for that to bring a host of emotions flooding back; and I appreciated thinking of those scenes juxtaposed against Shakespeare's Lear; but this appreciation in no way matched the narrative impact of say, King Lear itself.
    Gut versus mind is probably a dangerous distinction for me to use; ideas can be viscerally moving, and the interplay of character and plot can spark complex ideas. It is the distance between myself and the story being told that unacting creates for me that I'm trying to understand better.
    And your last paragraph I think is they key: I have never experienced unacting as anything other than an extremely heavy cue about how am I to feel. When a great actor playing Beatrice asks Benedict to "Kill Claudio" I laugh and am appalled and terrified at her bottomlessness and utterly uncertain of what I am to feel, and in that uncertainty, my perception of what is possible in human experience expands. If that moment were to be played in any of the variations of unacting, it would feel to me a cue of indifference and distance, and while that cue might allow me space to consider the moment free of emotional narrative charge, doing so seems to me the opposite of the primary purpose of playing.
    But I've learned a lot from the discussion here and on twitter; and hope to stay open to these possibilties, rather than mark territory. There is so much I don't know, not only about this legacy of unacting (or whatever language you prefer), but about my own continously evolving aesthetic passions.

  • August Schulenburg said:   This comment has been removed by the author.