Dramaturgical Metaphysics: Essence of Performance – Part I

What is the essence of a great performance?  Where does it come from?

This seems like it should be our starting point as directors.  Is there some consistent principle in play that determines what an emotionally effective performance is and where it comes from?  The question is in essence a metaphysical inquiry.

I will try to briefly outline here different perspectives that one could assume about performance.

1. Performance as External Symbols –

This was largely the classical understanding of performance.  This idea suggests that external gestures or symbols make up the essence of performance.  The actor’s internal state is considered largely irrelevant, as it remains continuously “unseeable” in any traditional sense – while the external actions and behaviors contain some kind of symbolic resonance with us as audience members.  The act of crying for example – should make us sad – when viewed in an appropriate dramatic context.

2.  Performance as Truthful Emotional State –

This is the system largely advocated by Stanislavski and modern directors and teachers of performance.  This perspective on the performance suggests that the “truthful” internal emotional state of the actor will be the impetus by which the movements and gestures of the performance naturally arise.  This system does not suggest that internal state is the only thing that matters.  The dramatic form is seen as a more expressive – heightened – reality wherein the normally internal is externalized to varying degrees.

3. Performance as nearly entirely dependent on dramatic context.  –

This way of thinking about performance completely de-emphasizes the internal or external actions or states of the performer in favor of reliance on the story, script, communication through staging, blocking, production design, and shot design as means to successfully emotional state.  This way of thinking suggests that ultimately the performance of the actor matters very little in cultivating the emotional impact of the scene.  For example – if an untrained, inconsistent, soap opera performer’s script was revised in a strong way, shot designs, and lighting altered, and staging made very effective – would this ultimately succeed in moving the audience?

One problem inherent in this discussion is that most directors implicitly accept all three of these views in different situations.  The way they communicate this methodological confusion is with general statements like: “It is all entirely subjective really.  It depends on the performer.  It depends on the script.”

It may be true that different strategies work at different times for achieving effective emotional impacts on the audience – but that is not what I am holding in contention – I am not suggesting by this methodlogical discussion that only one strategy is appropriate.  The question is more of a general inquiry into the nature and essence of performance itself.

By implicitly accepting all three of these views at different times directors weaken their footing in solving problems.  Accepting all three of these views simultaneously is the same as not having a view on the question at all.  At that point we as craftsmen are uniquely blind to the solution of particular problems.

To be clear here – I am not saying that directors usually integrate all three of these views in a coherent fashion.  That is, in my experience, very rare.  What I have instead witnessed is directors holding one of these views at a time in different situations.

It is my belief that the reason we as directors are tempted to accept all three of these views in different situations is because there is some kernel of truth behind each of the three above claims.  As stand alone statements, all three are rather incomplete in giving us a coherent understanding of the nature and essence of performance, as I will try and demonstrate for you now.

A critique of perspective one.

One of the most obvious problems with this first perspective on the essence of performance is that it is pretty intuitively clear to us that not all symbols effect us equally.  A theory of performance dependent on externalizations as the basis by which emotional impact arises simply doesn’t jive with our own personal experiences of the narrative format.  We have all seen hundreds of scenes where actors or actresses weep.  Yet only a precious few of these performances ever has the potential to move us to join the performer in tears of joy or sadness.  If external symbols are the platonic ideal -why is this the case?  Shouldn’t all external gestures essentially be equal?  Additionally, why is it that one gesture can appear or feel cliche to us while another gesture or statement can feel deeply sincere and personal?  These are all questions essentially left unanswered by our initial inquiry into perspective one on the nature and essence of performance.  Without turning inward to the actor or further outward to the dramatic / audience context this perspective cannot successfully answer the questions that have been posed.

A critique of perspective two.

Internal state seems naturally insufficient by itself to satisfy the requirements of our inquiry.  It is clear to all of us that the most powerful emotions we individually feel in our continuous existence do not always express themselves consistently through our behavior.  A death of someone important will not always produce external behavior consistent with sadness.  Why is it that we can sit through the funeral of someone we knew closely and not cry but attend the funeral of a fictional character on the screen and weep?  If the claim of directors who believe performance is motivated entirely by the internal truthful emotional state of the character is that this internal emotional state will consistently translate to accurate onscreen emotions which effect the audience and read as true how is it that our own internal emotional states do not express themselves with equal intensity in our daily lives?  It seems as though the platonic ideal of the close adherent to perspective two is a strategy that approaches closeness to real life experience.  Yet our own real life experience is never as expressive or as emotionally volatile as the world of the screen and stage.  Thus we can state with some certainty that internal truthfulness, while it may be a necessary condition for effective performance, is not a sufficient condition for it.

A critique of perspective three.

At this point it may appear that I believe context is more responsible for emotional impact then either perspective one or two.  This is not actually the case however.  It is certainly true that events, facts, sequencing, and context are entirely capable of creating a powerful emotional impact in us independent of performance.  This is demonstrated by mediums such as the novelistic format.  The novel contains no “performance per-se.”  Nonetheless we are capable of being moved to tears by imagined characters experiencing events as staged by the author of the text.  The reason why I do not believe, however, that context is alone the impetus by which all performance arises is because many of us have seen films or television programs where-in the execution, the story, the dialogue, or the visual style are very much working against the end of emotional impact.  Still, however, it is likely you have observed a film that was otherwise unremarkable or even poor but contained a performance of marrow-deep impact, power, and depth.  If performance is inherently dependent on context to a degree that eliminates the performer’s ability to impact the viewer emotionally with real depth – this should not be as regular a phenomenon as it is.  Outstanding performers often stand amidst terrible productions and simply shine.  They are sometimes extremely memorable and moving – independent of the dramatic material which they have emerged from.

Thus it would appear all three perspectives are necessarily incomplete – at least when independent of each other.

In the next part of this article we will explore the integration of these three strategies into a coherent perspective on the nature and essence of the performance.  I will also try to explore the philosophical background and consequences of the integrated system.  There are phenomenological and metaphysical assertions within my view of the integrated system of performance that the theory does not depend upon but that I believe the theory helps support.