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On Watching Actors Act

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When you’re at home, watching television, you usually don’t think about the actors. You think about the characters that the actors are portraying. You get a front row seat from which you can view their entire life. You get involved in that character’s story, their drama; you become emotionally attached to these characters.

Some shows have popular celebrities whose personal lives are posted all over the internet, so to some extent this analogy falls short. A better example would be watching stage actors – many of whom won’t have a public personal life (the bloody irony) and whose names you’ll forget in a few days, if you even took the time to learn them. As you watch them act out their parts, you don’t consider that these characters are being portrayed by real people with real lives apart from the stage. When you’re watching the play, you don’t think about how the hero might be going through a rough break up, you don’t consider that the love interest has a lovely garden that she puts many hours into every day, you don’t wonder if the villain is so good at playing the part of the villain because he had an abusive, violent childhood that taught him how to be angry.

And no one can blame you. You don’t go to the play to worry about other people’s lives. The actors don’t put on the play because they want to share their deepest secrets. It doesn’t matter!

But what if it did?

In one of my favorite analogies Shakespeare compared the world to a stage: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” Most people are acting whenever they are in social environments.

We all know at least one actor and it wouldn’t be unlikely that we only know actors. It could be that kid who covers their bruises and/or cuts, who who tells ridiculous lies to get attention, who gets straight As because they’re on a relentless quest for achievement, fearing punishment for failure and peer rejection for underachieving. The last example is a particular soft spot for me, as I’ve played this role myself.

While teenagers are far more prone to acting as they are still “looking for themselves,” it is not exclusively a teenage problem. Many adults also act (some of them having never dropped their acting careers as teens, some of them for other reasons) as a defense mechanism of sorts. To name a few: that uncle who’s stuck in a loveless marriage, but plays the part of a happy successful businessman, the teacher who feels stuck in a dead-end job because they didn’t get their dream job and feel that their life is going nowhere, the social worker who works ridiculous hours helping other people because doing so gives their life purpose, but doesn’t pay attention as their own lives fall to pieces in the background.

Chances are that you, the reader, are also an actor who conforms and performs.

I’m not writing this with the intention of providing an answer. I don’t have the answer. I doubt that there is any single catch-all answer. I don’t know what steps should or could be taken to help someone “come out of character.” I’m not a professional with a proper grasp on the subject. I don’t want to offer advice for off-chance that it may prove to be more harmful than helpful.

I write this purely with the intention of presenting a problem, feeding your mind a little something to chew over. I do want to ask one thing of you though: every now and then, think about the actors. Why are they acting as this character and not another? What reason(s) do they have to act? Where did they get the mask that they’re wearing? Who are they? Forget about the character and look through the cues they take, look through the costume they wear, look through the script they recite and do your very best to see who the actor is.




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