That actors act, and characters are played is hardly a remarkable observation, but it’s also a rather shallow one. This sequence – taken during the rehearsal and performance of a production staged by a small, amateur theatre group – is a first attempt to sketch what appeared to me to be much more than the hands of actors inside the glove-puppets of their characters.
From the first seated read-through, when characters exist only in the still-to-be-learned lines and stage directions of the script, they begin to be outlined by their movements, coloured by their words, and given dimension by their voice; their existence is legitimised by the play’s plot, and consolidated by the set and costumes, which make their world quite solid-seeming in its way. Indeed, there comes a point when actor and character almost seem to exist in parallel, both present but with varying degrees of corporeality depending upon whether the actor is in character or out, on stage or off, in costume or not, rehearsing, relaxing, or performing, about to go on stage, or has just come off stage.
All these different states blur the line that you might expect to divide actor and character, and for a while – until the final curtain comes down and the cast departs, anyway – these different ways of being, as it were, overlap and extend actor into character, and vice versa.
It sounds like the start of a pop' psychology field trip, I know, but it doesn't need any polysyllababble. After all, we know that, in our heavily mediated society, everyday life involves any number of 'acts of theatre'; many of them are performed unconsciously, and some are more honest than others, but in almost all of them we believe, or ask others to believe, that we're being ourselves – our one self. In contrast, the mechanics of the theatre – though they amount to an invitation to the audience to believe for the span of the performance – make the different 'selves', and the shifts between them, quite apparent. And it was those shifts, not actors acting or characters being played, that I was trying to sketch with On-stage/Off-stage.
Who are we? 1/3:
The actors come together from their everyday lives, bringing all the colour and three-dimensional complexities that those entail into the theatre. In contrast, for the rehearsals immediately after the first read-through, the play and its characters exist only as ink on the page, in the as-yet unlearned lines and stage directions of borrowed or second-hand scripts
Drawing the line:
On a stage almost bare save for the left-overs of a past production and only the roughly sketched dimensions of the future one, the actors take direction and annotate their scripts. As they work, the thinnest of dividing lines between the real world and that of the play begins to appear…
…though while the actors still depend upon the script to prompt their speech and guide their movements, their characters have little substance. However, just as the essential elements of the set help bring stage directions to life…
Enter the characters:
...so the actors' growing familiarity with their parts sees the characters begin to come to the fore. Lines merely spoken are transformed into people speaking, and it begins to be the characters to whom we react, not the actors
That said, when words fail them…
…the illusion of character vanishes and the actor suddenly reappears, momentarily thrown off balance by the transition from play to reality
Who are we? 2/3:
With the set-building almost complete, the addition of costume adds to the definition of the characters…
Who we are:
…whose substance becomes such that they cast shadows of their own…
Who are we? 3/3:
The in-costume transitions between being in and out of character make for some curious moments
Between scenes 1/3:
There comes a time when actors inhabit the character so comfortably that both appear to be almost co-present…
Between scenes 2/3:
…and that thin dividing line begins to blur and vanish. Here for example – are they in costume, off stage, out of character…
Between scenes 3/3:
…or are they in costume, off stage, and in character as the ladies drink tea with the clergy, and the maid does the dishes?
…pull back, and the mechanics of the play’s moving parts become visible
Dress rehearsal 1/2:
The small backstage area becomes a place between worlds…
Dress rehearsal 2/2:
…where the materials of the play collect, actors and characters appear, disappear, and re-appear as they move between the two worlds making their entrances and exits
On one side of the curtain, the audience takes its seats; on the other, the actors assemble…
…and the transition into character begins…
…but doesn’t prevent the real world breaking through at times!
In contrast to the narrow backstage, the mirrors suggested the space that exists in the world of the play, and the doors of the imagination that connect it to the real world – which leads neatly on to…
Between two worlds 1/2:
…what is possibly my favourite captured moment. On the other side of the stage flat, the character has a part in a narrative, and occupies a room with doorways leading off, and a stairway up which he calls to a place that is real in the imagination of the audience. This side of the flat, meanwhile, is what the everyday world outside imagination looks like…
Noises off 1/2:
…and this is what the business of sustaining the illusion looks like
Noises off 2/2:
Slipping into character, and preparing for a drunken entrance
Dividing line 1/2:
Looking from backstage, through a pinhole in the scenery…
Dividing line 2/2:
…and what the audience saw from the other side