O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

“Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington”
Noel Coward

O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

(“David Garrick as the title character in Shakespeare’s ”Richard III””

William Hogarth.


It is always dangerous to attempt to put your daughters, or your sons for that matter, on the stage. It is a very risky business with the odds of success (and by success I only mean being able to earn a living without the aid of a taxi cab) significantly stacked against you. As in gambling, the odds favor the house, the house in this case being the folks that collect the ticket receipts and even they have a hard go of it.

But nonetheless there is something alluring about the theater. What is produced is called a play and is staged in playhouse. This speaks volumes about the nature of the work. A good actor, as well as a number of bad ones, if nothing else know how to play, they have not lost the sense of make believe, the ability to imagine themselves as someone else. Of course there is a lot more to it than that; it is first a craft that can be learned like the craft of writing, or house painting, and it requires an apprenticeship of sorts where the tools of the trade are mastered. It is also an art and that cannot be taught any more than the art of painting, sculpture, or hitting baseballs successfully over the center field fence on a regular basis can be taught.

One premise of the theater is that it provides a glimpse into life as it is lived by others, that it is real and captures the reality of the moment. When an actor brings a character alive on stage she or he is said to be “in the moment.” It is what every actor strives for, “to be in the moment.” There is a lesson here for us all perhaps as life is a lot richer if we can find a way to embrace each moment and make the most of it, though, speaking for myself, there are many moments in life that are not easily embraced. Like cactus they are best experienced from afar.

Still, the actor is trying to make the moment real, to make it look like life as it is actually experienced. E. B. White once said (though I forget his exact words) not only does art not imitate life, it better be a hell of a lot more interesting than life. This does not mean that what art captures is not true to life only that much of life is very uninteresting and the artist selects the interesting bits and gets rid of the rest. We never, for example, see Hamlet cleaning up his room or doing the dishes. There is not much there to hold an audiences’ attention. And if there were a scene featuring Hamlet cleaning his room it would be what is happening to him as he goes about cleaning his room that keeps us interested. Like the scene where Polonius comes upon Hamlet reading. The interaction between Polonius and Hamlet holds the audience’s interest; a scene featuring a man quietly reading a book, not so much.

The theater group at school is doing a play that steals its title from an old Jack Nicholson film (Five Easy Pieces) and its plot from Othello with a dash of Finding Nemo. It is Othello as it might have happened if Othello and Iago were fish. It is called Five Easy Pisces. Being a lover of puns I am thrilled by the title. It was written by the group’s director, Don Bliss. There are few who will mistake the life in a fish bowl with life in the real world, but often it is the theater’s ability to remove us from the real world that provides some of its magic. Edward Albee’s Seascape involves crustaceans on the beach. Some of the most dramatic moments in Peter Schaeffer’s play Equus revolve around horses. Then there is, of course, The Lion King; music, dance, and political intrigue in the animal kingdom.

Stage SetBaldassare Peruzzi

These plays are entertaining and a pleasure to watch. But what do they say to us about who we are and how to live from day to day. Is that the purpose of theater, or of any art? If not what is the purpose? Renaissance theaters in Europe (England did things a bit differently) tried to make the theater as true to life as possible. The stage design was intricate to the extreme. Often three sided panels would have each side painted with a different scene and by rotating each of the panels the scene could change from a city street to a room in the palace and each scene was painted in perspective to create the illusion of space and true architecture. There was, of course, only one seat in the house where the perspective was perfect for all the angles of vision and that of course went to the local monarch. The seat was in fact called “the eye of the duke.”

The point is that these theatricals were expected to look and feel real. They even had an elaborate set of rules that a play was expected to follow. The action of the play had to be limited to a single day, the setting of the play had to be limited to a single town, and there could only be one plot line that resolved all loose ends at the play’s conclusion. These were called “the unities” and no self-respecting playwright would ignore them.

The Swan Theater

The English were different. They did not care if the play took a day or a number of years. As can be seen from the illustration their sets were much simpler. But the plays they produced at their best captured better than most the human psyche and its complications. Everyone says Shakespeare did it best, but Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson didn’t do too badly either. The point is that it is not the set design, it is not that the characters are like you and me, it is that for the moments the characters spend on stage a kind of life is being lived. We may not know what it feels like to be a fish in love or a lion with ambition beyond his station. But we have experienced love, jealousy, and ambition. Do we come away learning how to better deal with these shortcomings of the human character as a result of watching the play?

In Mr. Bliss’ play it is the fish tank’s filtration system that does the fish in, something that is not likely to worry most of us. But it is not the cause of the fish’s demise; it is the personal interactions that produce this cause that is the heart of the drama, and the comedy. These are struggles that are human, and perhaps the play offers insight. Or perhaps, the true nature of the play and of theater in general is to offer commiseration, a chance to say “and I thought I had it bad.”

From Slings and Arrows

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

As the director says “the whole thing falls apart if one of the actors is not good at pretending.” This is the heart of good theater. For a play to work well the cast must work as an ensemble. Each actor must be able to pretend well or the production falls apart no matter how good the rest of the cast may be. In order for the audience to enter this magic world a group of people must learn to work together and to play together well. If the work looks like work and not play the play does not work. If the pretending is not built upon something real it amounts to pretense and no one believes it. And it takes work to rise above pretense. There is, I think, a truth here for all of us. A key to living well is discovering how to put the play back into the work that we do, while maintaining the quality of the work that we do.

For the Greeks this was there religion. Once a year everyone went to the theater to learn something about how they should live, to be reminded that the gods are involved in our daily lives and the rich and the powerful cannot escape the will of the gods. Oedipus may be king but at the end of the day he is as answerable for his misdeeds as the slave that sets his table. That is the point of the catharsis at the end of the play. Bad news for Oedipus, but when put into perspective good news for the rest of us.

I had a professor in college that believed plays, even the plays of Shakespeare, should not be read as literature, as we read a poem or a novel, that plays are not literature. The only way a play can be experienced properly is by watching it performed. A play creates a bit of magic and it goes against the creed of the magician to reveal the secret of the trick. A play is multi-sensory and audiovisual. Lee Strasberg, one of the founders of the Actors Studio, said nothing of importance gets said in a play except for maybe five minutes in the last act (or words to that effect). Yet when we read a script all we have is the words that are spoken.

The magic of theater, and a reason we study plays and watch plays, is discovering what is happening behind the words. What motivates Hamlet to say what he says? What is the real life that lives under the words? Most of what we say in conversation is a kind of playing for time, filling the space with words while we try to figure out what the moment is all about. In watching characters on stage, or reading their words in the script, we realize that we are not alone in our struggle to find meaning in the day to day activities that fill our lives. Plays confront important issues but at the end of the day most of us are not concerned with how the powerful misuse their power or whatever the important issue of the play is. What does concern us is preserving the scent of the rose in our day to day experience while enjoying the coffee. It is not what happens to Hamlet and his family but how they persevere.

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21 thoughts on “O, For a Muse of Fire, a Few Fernels, and a Follow Spot

  1. Yes, yes, yes! A play can no more be considered reading than a sermon. Both are mere outlines of the fully enfleshed human experience that involves all the intangibles of spirit!

  2. I myself, also see an actor as a true artist. It is not as much a talent as it is a gift. If this were not true, the film business would not be as difficult to get in as it is. Not everyone has the ability to push aside their own character, mind, and emotions. Even if some have the ability to transform themselves to another they also have the task of being convincing. The entertainment business is all about pleasing the viewers. If the audience cannot be absorbed into characters then all is lost and a whole production would fail. Acting is an art, it cannot be easily accessable to everyone. There are only a few who can make it into the big time because no amount of practice can give one the skills needed to completely transform themselves, it has to be natural.

  3. I agree there is more involved than learning a skill, like hammering a nail. I also think it is not all that easy to make it into the small time, that is working as an actor in a regional company that pays their actors enough to pay their bills.

    J. D.

  4. I agree with the fact that people are born with different gifts. Special gifts can’t be taught people are just born with them. People like movies and/or pllays because they pull them away from their own lives. I believe true art is something you lose yourself in becoming someone different. Being a human-being and experiencing all the character’s emotions in a play eventhough it might have been in a different situation makes it easier to understand. I do believe the cast must work together as a team pretending to be people they are not to decieve the audience. Aren’t we all just living in one huge play? Each and every single one of us are playing our own distinct role.

  5. I agree with the statemtn that although art should portray life, art should be a lot interesting than the life it portrays. In different movies and television shows, you rarely see a character going to the grocery store to get milk, getting the mail or even using the bathroom. Art is supposed to portray the aspects in life that make your life worth living and the things that make change your life completely. A good artist knows what is interesting in life and what would bore the audience.

  6. I very much agree that theater is a risky business. I feel that it is a rare gift, but at the same time it takes much practice and effort to master this talent. I myself am more than positive that i would never make it in the world of entertainment. It is much more difficult than it looks to transform yourself into a different character and even if one is able to do this they also must be convincing. Todays audience has very high standards thus making it harder to persuade them into thinking what one is acting out is genuine. I also agree with the statement that the whole production falls apart if one is not good at acting. All it takes is one actor to make the performance seem less believeable. Therefore for the performance to be enjoyable I definately feel that the whole group must work together and better themselves from each other.

  7. Acting is not something that is taught, but a gift, rather. It is very difficult for someone to put aside their own selves and pretend to be someone else. They have to be able to get into the minds of their characters and act and think like them. I agree that actors strive to be in the moment. They become someone else and are suddenly living another person’s life, and experiencing different things.
    It is true that actors perform only the interesting things, and leave out the rest. In movies, TV shows, or plays, the audience rarely sees the characters doing normal daily activities, but they show the dramatic or exciting parts.

  8. I think that an acting takes alot of work and i too believe that it is a risky buisness. For some people it comes natural others it doesn’t and thats why i also agree with you when you said that acting isn’t an art that cant be taught. The “living in the moment phrase” i have always liked that phrase becuasei think that is precious time becuase you dont know what to expect later. When talking about plays not being able to be longer than a single day it made me think of a video i watched. Last years english class when we were done reading Hamlet we watched this movie about the whole play process. I found it very interseting becuase they were saying like how you said they can take a day. The people in the audience would stand the whole time just to watch it and there was no roof. The towns people standing faced the weather conditions. I think the movie said something about how the plays were done for the queen and when shakespear first started it took alot of time, people didn’t just immediety like him and his plays. That follows up with the thearter being a riskly buisness. The movie also showed that when acting on stage it takes a lot of heart for it becuase you want the people to like it so it has to be done well and your aciting for long hours. Reading this blog was very interesting i liked it.

  9. The idea that the odds are stacked against one who dares to enter the world of acting is most definitely accurate. Acting involves the ability to transform oneself into another being, temporarily letting go of their own identity. There is no doubt that this is an extremely difficult task. Portraying a character whose qualities are so distinct from those of the actor is a challenge I cannot even begin to imagine conquering.
    This particular blog has encouraged me to reflect on the true beauty that lies within acting. I never realized how artistic acting actually is. Plays express such significant ideas in complex ways. Furthermore, plays express ideas in ways that we are so capable of perceiving, as the actions occur right before our eyes. I agree that there is far more to literature than simply what presented words indicate. Literature goes beyond the words on a page. This lends to the fact that a play’s beauty lies within the actions gracefully taking place, not simply the conversation between characters. Examination of what prompts certain actions taking place is what makes acting uniquely beautiful, aside from all other forms of literature.

  10. It is easy to confirm that acting is a very difficult art to master, and it is imperative to master the art in order to best present the show without flaw. But I think that plays, much like novels, poems, movies, and songs, are created so that the audience will discover something more about themselves. Like listening to the experiences of others rather than our own personal experiences, so that we can leave having learned something new about ourselves and who we want to be. I was fiddling around with iTunes yesterday and I discovered that they actually have very decently priced audiobooks and I purchased “The Crucible” so that I can read along with the play. I thought it would be interesting to hear how the characters talk and with what emotions they are motivated to speak. I really enjoy listening to the audiobook because it makes the play come alive much more than just with the written word, so I agree that plays require a little more magic to fully be appreciated than novels or poems. One last detail of your blog I would like to comment on is living more in the moment. I also think that it is important to keep in mind how many moments each day we either take for granted or let go to waste. Especially with computers and technology it is sometimes hard to avoiding merely giving ourselves something to do when we are bored that isn’t meaningful at all in the overall scheme of things. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. Granted that we do need to set some time aside for sleep, there is nearly infinite “moments” that we could have daily if we allow ourselves to.

  11. I agree with the author that the main purpose of an act should bring us values. Values we can connect and use in our own real lifes. The renaissance theaters in Europe made the theater as true to life as possible because thats what makes theather interessting for the people. They want to be able to discover a little bit of them selves in the play, so that they can learn from it, learn for their real life. The thing that make theater so atractive for the people (more than a school or other study places) is the way theater work. It is the specialness, the action in the plays, connected with dramatic, comic, … that lets us fell like our lifes were as actionfull and funny like the play. That is what still brings the people to go in the theaters.

  12. This blog initially makes me think of the reality show “I know my childs a star.” It was a show of parents who thought that their child was a gifted actor/actress and could make it on Broadway or in Hollywood. I really like this blig entry because it brings forth an art form that is said to be diminishing in todays culture. It has been said by many, with the introduction of movies and sports events, that the theatre is dead. If this is true then ths blog is not worth reading at all. But many do agree once they have gone to the theatre, they agree that it is alive and well. As it says in the blog, it takes a lot to be a great actor. I agree that actor’s are some of the most creative people in this culture. Of course, European plays have been around a lot longer thus having more time to become complete and more perfect. I initially thought that all European theatre was the same so I found it interesting regarding the theatre of England. When I watched the clip, it made me think of a sports team and the old saying “You are only as good as your weakest player.” Apparently, these two subjects, even though can be completely different, are more alike than I previously thought. I truly enjoyed this blog entry.

  13. Many people may wake up one morning and think to themsleves ” I want to act.” However, these are the people that dont understand the true nature of acting and being involved in show business. It takes talent and determination. To be an actor or actress you have to have something special within your self. Acting is not something that is merely taught. It is a gift in which one must embrace. Acting is not as easy as it looks. When on set you must often have to forget everything to get into character.
    Think of yourself as having to fill someone else’s shoes while also having to fill your own. Actors these days are always beign watched and criticized. If theor performance is not perfection, they will surely be critized. There is so much oressure in the entertainment business and actors must really prove themsleves. They need to take their gifts to the next level and practice at them everyday. Not everyone can act.

  14. I agree with the fact that theater portrays the interesting bits of life. It shows how life is, but without the everyday ordinary things that people need to accomplish. I feel while the theater gives us a glimpse into the life of the glamorous, it should also give a glimpse into the life of the ordinary. It makes people think that their lives are not worth while because they do not have the same accomplishments as someone in a play. The theater gives a false hope to some people and sparks the need for a life like those that they see. In my opinion, the theater gives people a vision of a life that they should have, but is one that not many people can achieve.

  15. Acting is not just a way to make money and become famous. Fame does not always bring happiness and people don’t always understand that. Acting is a talent that only few are born with. Without talented actors the entertainment world would be hurt. Acting is an art that only a feel may pursue in this career. Plays show people a different way of things. Like how people live differently and how things can be changed through the directors perspective. I think that acting takes practice, time, and dedication. People cannot just instantly try out and get the part, they must practice and practice until they are confident that they can act the part. Acting is changing personality into a different. Like having emotion you usually would not; it takes a talented dedicated actor to do these things. And most importantly these talented artistic people should enjoy and be happy with acting.

  16. I most definetly agree with the fact that it is not the set design, but the actors who are performing, that matter the most when it comes to watching a play. If the set design looked prestigious, but the actors who performed were terrible, the only thing you would remember the play for was the nice scenery. There is a lot more to acting than what is seen on stage. Just like any other professional, actors may too also make what they’re doing look easy. I like to act, and not too long ago I took screen acting lessons. After having given everyone a script, the teacher would then pass out another paper that said ‘who, what, where, when, how, why’. This was to get us involved with the character. We were allowed to make up whatever situation the character was in if it fit the script, but this was all part of getting us to ‘become’ the character. Movement, speech, even the time of day in a scene (not in real life, the ‘time’ it would be if we were in the characters scene/life) all played a factor into the affect and outcome of the scene.

  17. Theater is a difficult profession and an art that only the select can master. In order to succeed in theater and acting, one must create a “world of the play” in which the audience can live. This world is created by illusions: The illusion of make believe allows the audience to believe in things that could not exist in normal life. The illusion of reality gives the tangible presence to the stage. The illusion of the first time is very important to theater because using this illusion you don’t seem like you are reciting lines, but instead that you are experiencing the plot and the play for the first time. Using these and other illusions you can make people believe the performance, and if it is done well then the audience can even feel emotions for the characters and the plot. I love theater and I think everyone who experiences a play should.

  18. I must offer the contrarian viewpoint to what seems to be expressed frequently here. Acting is an artform, yes, and therefore, the roles that are created are not divorced from the actor, but rather lacerating self exposure. John Proctor’s lust for young Abigail is the actor’s lust expressed (in a very risky manner) before those who peer anonymously from the darkness. The fears of Richard III’s Queen Anne are the actor’s real fears exposed onstage. Theater is compelling because the very things about us which we strive to keep hidden in real life are coaxed out of us to cavort and cajole on the stage before the prurient eyes of the invisible masses.

    An attractive young painter friend of mine asks me why those who buy her paintings also play hard for her affections. I tell her it is because they cannot distinguish between the two. Likewise, we are obsessed with celebrity because we cannot separate the act from the actor.

    In fact, the writer’s story, the painter’s landscape, the sculptor’s statue, the singer’s aria, the composer’s symphony, the actor’s portrayal – are all the bastard children of their sundry inspiration, but are their children nonetheless. They bear the likeness of – they carry the creative DNA of their creators.

    Acting is deeply personal in nature. Success may be enjoyed only by those who have the courage to unleash the full range of their human experience.

  19. I think being an actor requires a very special blend of person. It takes talent, often good looks, and most importantly dedication. Some of the most memorable characters had actors that were fully dedicated to the role. During the entire filming of “Scarface,” on set and off, Al Picino spoke in a cuban accent to add more realism to the movie. It made it a memorable and believable role . The same could be said for Daniel Day-Luis in “Gangs of New York” as “Bill the Butcher.” Again, on and off set, he embodied the butcher; accent, attitude, and everything. I think this dedication to their character may have made the less intricate settings of the English theater just as good as the other European theaters. More than anything, I think good acting is needed to produce a good movie, play, etc. The props and settings can add to it, but they in no way can make a movie.

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