Saturday, November 13, 2010

In pieces

I am recovering from two days of season auditions for our company, during which time we saw nearly a hundred actors. These lucky hundred people were whittled down from nearly a thousand submissions we received online. We are also accepting video submissions this week, and from this pool of talent and skill I have the happy and terrifying task of choosing two companies of actors numbering twelve and fourteen respectively.

When I got home this evening, from the depths of my deeply fried brain came all these bizarre thoughts about the audition process. I am supposed to make an incredibly difficult and crucial decision based on very little data -- data which suggests how authentic a performance an actor will give me in February or next July. But the audition process has to be one of the most manufactured and awkward processes ever.

Many companies do a two- to five-minute audition slot. Actor enters, smiles, states their name and prepared piece, smiles, states their name, and exits. How on earth can you get to know someone and their work in such a short amount of time? And as an actor, how on earth are you supposed to manufacture an authentic performance? And yet ... it happens. I've seen it. (PS - It's so cool.)

Over the last few days, I've been watching a lot of video submissions as well. As difficult as offering an authentic performance in an audition is, it is confounded by the addition of a video camera. Walter Benjamin in his excellent article "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction" argues that "situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated." I realize, and I know our actors realize too, that submitting a video audition is better than nothing, but it's not as good as being in the room. The art (at least this kind of art) is somehow "depreciated" by the camera. These are not carefully crafted films in which the camera is being used in a particular way to tell a story. The camera is a tool so the actor can convey to the auditor certain information -- but the information will hopefully be an inspired and authentic snippet of a performance. I think the camera tends to get in the way somehow, in such a case as this.

Benjamin defines a thing's authenticity as "the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced."  But what is an object of art's "essence"?  What does it have to do with its duration, its place in time?  This is even more confusing with theatrical performances which are constantly re-produced.  Furthermore, if we look at an actor's performance of a single monologue, how can the question of authenticity be applied?  The monologue is lifted completely from the context of a play, and often does not make sense unless you happen to know the context.  How can it possibly be considered authentic if the "beginning," as well as the middle and end, of the story have been removed?  (Incidentally, this is partially why there are so few really great audition monologues, which are self-contained stories with a beginning, middle, and end.)

I don't feel like I am any closer to answering these questions.  I would say definitively that I have seen authentic performances in an audition -- both in person and on camera.  They do have an "essence".  A connection happens between the actor and the audience -- but I'm not certain that can be defined either.

All of these questions are supposed to tend back at some point towards Composition Theory.  This is always at the back of my mind in these posts, and I'm going to try to bring a little more to the forefront here.  I think I can translate these questions about theatrical authenticity to writing as well.  Writing is an activity of contrivance -- so is theatrical performance.  Benjamin's "essence" could apply (at least in a modern, though not so post-modern sense).  And I think a connection is established between a writer and his/her audience.  I find it just as difficult to define these essences and connections, but I do at least think there is a parallel.

Now, I will end these particular ramblings for this evening.  But I have talked so much about auditions, I feel it only right to end with sharing a video audition of my own from about two years ago for your viewing consumption.  So:

Hello, my name is Tara Bradway and today I will be reading for you Joan la Pucelle from William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1.

Thank you.

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