Decide the AnswersBy Ty Unglebower • Jan 19th, 2011 • Category: An Actor's Advice
“Some questions can never be answered. The must be decided.” — Harry S. Truman
I am sure that Truman was referring to matters of graver importance to society as a whole when he spoke those words. But his sage farmer’s wisdom can apply, as it often does, to any aspect of life. Believe it or not, it can also apply to acting.
There is no doubt that asking questions is a vital thing for the actor. Especially the new actor, stepping onto the stage for the first time. If one is not curious, one cannot be a great actor. The best directors out there encourage the asking of questions. (My argument against directors who feel it is their job to answer and decide all questions for the actors is for another time.)
But at some point, the questions of character have to be decided. As Truman pointed out, some questions never have a definitive, final answer. Least of all in the creative arts. Too many possibilities. Too many influences and too much room for experimentation and exploration. Too many variables. There is no one answer to most questions ever asked inside of a theatre. Which is why eventually decisions have to be made and stuck with.
In college I was involved in a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost. There is a reason that play is rarely performed. It’s a mess. Full of inside jokes that expired centuries ago, and language so flowery, even for the Bard, that at times it can hardly be spoken. “Rich” was a term our director often used to describe it, and indeed rich it is. But like a decadent desert, a little of it goes a long way, and trying to explore every nuance and interpretation of every scene or every line in the piece will get one nowhere.
That is unfortunately what happened to our production. It was not unheard of for a discussion about one single monologue to go on for two hours, as everybody had a question about it. The person giving the speech had many questions, which in turn sparked questions from the director. And those questions would spark questions from the other actors who appeared in the scene, each with their own set of questions about their own character. “What did he mean? Could it be this? Was it Shakespeare’s intention that he do thus? I was reading up on the time period of this play, and I learned XYZ. Should that be applied here?”
And on and on and on.
As you can imagine, progress was slowed and ultimately the quality of our production of this already inaccessible play dropped considerably. There was more than one reason for that, but I believed then, as now, that the biggest was that we asked too many questions to which we sought answers as opposed to decisions.
At some point each of us in the play simply had to decide what was going to be true about our performance or the scene or the moment. We needed to acknowledge that while there may be volumes of evidence to support Option A, and just as many volumes to support Option B, performing both in front of an audience would be impossible. So, as we neared opening night, more often we should have said,
“This work presents many fascinating possibilities, but I am making a decision as an actor to go with Option B. I realize that in so doing there will be a few mysteries left unaddressed in both my character, and the play as a whole. Yet in the end the finished product must be a collection choices we all make if we are ever to present anything coherent to the audience.”
We didn’t do this until it was too late. I even think some were seeking answers between performances, if not between scenes of any given performance.
You do not have to make this mistake. You can stop things from getting out of hand for at least your part of the play in which you appear. And you can do so by knowing when to stop asking questions. At least the big questions. Know that even though another way may be legitimate, nothing in a play works without decisions. When you get past a certain point in the rehearsal process, consistency is the biggest legitimacy.
Which means it is not enough to stop asking your questions out loud. Deciding means that you stop asking them to yourself as well. If you are still asking them when the opening night curtain rises, you are not prepared to perform.
Therefore, have many questions, and keep your mind open to new ways of looking at what you are doing as an actor. Explore. Experiment. Make mistakes. Just remember that no matter how good you are, and no matter how inquisitive your nature is, you have to make those decisions, and stick with them eventually.
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Ty Unglebower is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs offbook.blogspot.com (for theatre related thoughts) and tooxyz.blogspot.com (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.