The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 4, No. 4

Why Act in Theater?

by Willem Dafoe

As someone who performs in both theater and film, I'm often asked this question in relation to film. I ask myself: Do I have a preference (which in principle I don't allow myself to have)? I bristle at the suggestion that theater is the place "I hone my craft," merely a place to stay in shape for the movies, or--conversely--that I do movies for money in order to support my "nobler" efforts in the theater. The two activities do feed each other but it's not hierarchical, and I love them both. I'm always looking for an analogy to put the comparison to rest, and I'm somewhat satisfied by saying that acting for film is like a musician playing in a recording studio and acting in the theater is like playing live in concert. I also accept the conventional wisdom that film is a director's and editor's medium, whereas for the duration of a theatrical performance the actor is in charge.
      When I'm working in the theater, I sometimes long to be on a movie set--the adventure of working on location, the attention, the money, the power of the moviemaking machine, which can only be compared to an invading army. Of course, when I'm on a movie set sometimes I long to be back in the theater.
      I don't always love the theater. A lot of theater is square, uninspired, and enslaved by academic notions of naturalism, literature, psychology, and design. My attraction to the theater is quite specific to the work and the people of the Wooster Group--the company I've been with for the past twenty-three years.
      I first saw the Wooster Group in 1977. The performance reminded me of Max Fleischer cartoons. As in animation, the actors had a magical fluidity, able to transform themselves before my eyes. I wanted to do that, and started working with them later that year. The Wooster Group has a very specific language and aesthetic. Often we work simultaneously with both live and prerecorded sound, film, and video woven together into a very precise, dense score. There is so much cueing and interplay between the technicians and actors that the technical responsibilities put upon the actor are ironically a lot like those put on a film actor. I am not a typical theater actor. I find these responsibilities not restrictive, but liberating.
      So why act in the theater? Athleticism, ritual, religiosity, audience.
      ATHLETICISM: You get your ass out in front of people and you do something. You act. You use your body, voice, and brain. It's not a passive activity. It's not fragmented. There's satisfaction in the theater to being present for the beginning, middle, and end. It is a series of moments that you string together like beads on a necklace. No breaks. You make the rhythms, you make the music. You bend time and play with silence. You establish a frame for activity and commit to that. You're running a marathon, as opposed to a one-hundred-meter sprint. The endorphins kick in--you get high. You're pacing your performance. You're in it and watching it at the same time. You're surfing--a balance between inner control and outer abandon--or is it outer control and inner abandon? Double focus--you are the creator and the thing itself.
      RITUAL: It is the ceremonial quality of repetition. You develop, rehearse, and construct a score--a series of actions and events. It's an exhilarating challenge to reinvest that score each night. In film, you do scheduled work for the day, never to visit it again, unless you get the luxury of "reshoots." (Or the curse, because sometimes I believe in "first thought, best thought.")
      In theater, you do a performance and it is done. But you revisit it again and again. That repetition gives you the opportunity to practice. Reflected observation meets action. You get opportunities to fail, fail again, fail better. Repetition develops your instincts and recognition of patterns and tendencies. If your environment is constantly changing (as on a movie set), you are always responding to the surface of things, but if you stay in the same place, often you're forced to look deeper.
      RELIGIOSITY: I once heard Marcello Mastroianni use the word "religiosity" during an interview to describe what he loved about the theater. There's a devotional element in giving yourself to an art that evaporates. Its temporality mirrors life. Sometimes theater feels beautifully useless because its exploitation is limited. It goes recorded only in memory.
      I love waking up in the morning knowing I'm going to perform that evening. My whole day becomes a preparation that conditions the state of mind I'm in before the moment I enter the stage. I have an idea of what has to be done--but how it gets done remains to be seen. I know the notes, now I have to put them together. I get great pleasure out of this preshow state. While I do the show, good or bad, I feel engaged with something bigger than me--nonstop--for an hour or two. I feel spent. It is done. I feel useful. Concrete work--like farming or working in a factory.
      AUDIENCE: The energy of the audience--all those eyes, ears, noses, and brains focused on an event--is the wild card that keeps you off balance, doesn't let you bear down, or allow you to hold on. You have to remain light on your feet. The audience is a mirror that amplifies, energizes, transforms your actions. You are a representative of the tribe with a primal storytelling role that can be very powerful--both selfless and a total ego trip. This power does present a problem when you are seduced by the audience's attention and you start to perform for their love. I'm not a Puritan, but trying too hard to please an audience tends to constrict your impulses. To strike the right balance with the audience is a wonderful game--letting them in but not letting them take over.
      Why act in the theater? Because it engages the high-minded seeker and simultaneously satisfies the crude exhibitionist in me--as does dancing, dressing up for Halloween, telling jokes, sex, reading aloud to someone, doing imitations, smiling at strangers, playing with animals, flirting, playing charades, singing on a bus . . .