Acting, Art, and the Christian Life


Acting: Four Disciplines

Learning to act means learning to reveal truth on the stage in a way that will 1) accurately convey the meaning the author had in mind, 2) clearly render that interpretation so that it is intelligible to the audience, 3) interestingly engage the audience members so they participate (rather than passively observe), albeit vicariously, in the event being re-presented, and 4) encourage a life-change response (i.e. it must be relevant; otherwise, it’s just ornamental).

We employ various techniques in order to be effective – that is, to achieve a desired outcome. The ultimate outcome we desire as actors is life change (number 4 above), but not at the expense of the first criterion: accuracy. If we surrender accuracy as a discipline, then the most interesting presentation becomes an exercise in crass manipulation. Technique ceases to be effective – at least, as we are defining it – the moment that either the technique calls attention to itself, or the presentation isn’t true to what the author intended. We are not concerned in this post as to whether “what the author intended” corresponds to reality as the Bible presents it. We’ll save that discussion for another day. For now our goal, first and foremost, is that we must re-present what the author intended to the best of our ability.


Acting: Edited Life

We must separate the technical side of acting from the actor. Learning to use the stage, speak lines, re-present a character are disciplines that remain  works in progress. It’s like riding a bike in one way. When we learn to ride, in the beginning our mechanics are hesitant, unsure, awkward – not at all what we aspire to. Same thing with a performer. So, we may need to cut some slack to the immature performer who, simply due to lack of experience and/or training, is not very polished. That’s a matter of immaturity in the craft.

There are others, however, who use technique like a bag of tricks. They are old enough in the Lord to know better, but they have a public “face” they hide behind in order to impress the crowds and to hide who they really are. They know enough to be dangerous and are using the craft to effect a disingenuous public persona. That’s a matter of integrity.

There is always going to be a certain degree of “artificiality” to any performance, since life “as it happens” is not art. All art is edited, whether it’s lifelike or not. Even the disciplines involved in preparing for the performance – disciplined rehearsal of movement and recitation – smack of artifice since we don’t get to rehearse life. It just happens. But life is different from art.  All of life is a moment-by-moment improvisation.


Drama is life with the dull bits cut out. – Alfred Hitchcock


Acting & Apprenticeship

Any craft – from plumbing to singing opera – carries with it the implicit demands of apprenticeship. We all must learn the tools of the trade and then use them with such frequency and precision that the wrench becomes an extension of my hand (if I’m a plumber), or my movement on the stage becomes second nature and doesn’t come across as mechanical or artificial.

My blocking/choreography is always conscious at first, and will need polish to appear natural to the point of nonchalance. Eventually, over years of rehearsal and performance, we find that characterization and blocking become more and more natural – almost instinctive – because we have trained ourselves to go to the “right place” for so long. None of us wants a “paint-by-number” style of performance. It should appear as natural as a summer rose, unfeigned and lovely in every respect.


Acting & the Christian Life

But art is not natural in and of itself any more than the Christian life is “natural.” The Christian life – as distinct from the stereotypical Bohemian lifestyle of the unconventional/unrestrained artist – is one marked by the “edits” on our tendency to satisfy our  sinful desires.  As artists we present edited life, lest we drone on about humdrum affairs that do not engage or instruct our audiences in the brief time we have them. The Christian life could also be considered a work of art. We don’t live it willy-nilly, according to the whim of the moment, but after careful consideration, prayer, and the discipline required by the spiritual life (asking the Holy Spirit to edit out the fleshly desires of the old man), we re-present the Lord Jesus to the world with truth, beauty, and grace.

Our life is a work in progress. As we submit to the “edits” of the Holy Spirit, we become more and more like the Lord Jesus, and so we fulfill our design “step by step, inch by inch.” As the apostle John reminds us in 1 John 3:2, the goal of our daily rehearsal will be consummated in the resurrection, when we will be made like Jesus:

3:2 Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. (NET)

I like to think of Ben Franklin’s epitaph – not the actual one, but the one he recorded in his diary as a young man – in this regard. He used the metaphor of a book, but the imagery works for actors and acting as well.  Just substitute the word “Script” where you read “Book” and you’ll get the point. Franklin was a deist, but his early sentiment regarding God as the ultimate final Editor is right on the money.

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer;

like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out,

And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here,

Food for Worms.

But the Work shall not be wholly lost;

For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,

In a new & more perfect Edition,

Corrected and amended

By the Author.

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