A Lewd Act

An actor is performing onstage as a character in a play. At some point, the character cleans their teeth, and therefore so does the actor. In a sense, therefore, the actor isn't pretending to clean his or her teeth - they are actually doing it.

The same goes for smoking a cigarette, being naked, shouting, dancing, and kissing. Indeed, most of what the actor does on stage isn't actually faked.

There are a few cases where the real thing can be substituted with something that is 'near enough'. A high-tar cigarette might be replaced with a herbal cigarette, a punch will narrowly miss it's target, melodramatic crying might have all the right external componants except the tears - or the tears might be chemically induced. Obviously dying and (usually) the harming of others or oneself are simulated.

However, most of what occurs can't be simulated. The acts of moving and walking, talking and showing emotion, entering, exiting, and handling objects are all 'real'. The objects handled might be fake, but the handling itself isn't - except where 'slight of hand' is involved.

So what about a performance is always fake? In other words, what factors are always present in all acting that distinguish it from the real thing? What is it about acting that makes it acting?

An actor can pretend to cry, but even if they produce real tears from their own sorrow, it isn't the character's sorrow. They can display rage, love, lust, insanity, or even apathy, but even the method actor who generates these emotions inside himself for greater believability, doesn't display the characters emotion - he displays his own.

The interiority of the actor - their emotions, thoughts and history - can never be those of the character they play. There's two things to say about this.

The first is that it doesn't leave us with much fiction in our portrayals. If everything happening on stage can, in principle, be real, then there isn't much that distinguishes viewing a stage production from viewing a real event - even if the event is highly surreal.

The second comment is that the vast majority of acting never approaches this high level of realism. Props are made of cardboard, gestures are somewhat overdone, lines get fluffed, and actors muck about as much as they can get away with.

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