An Artist's Job is to Tell the Truth

Todd Rosenberg

Todd Rosenberg

Matt Whalen

The point of seeing theatre or a movie is to feel things. So feel them. Our society tends to shy away from expressing emotions outwardly, but participating in theatre, whether it's as a performer or as an audience member takes a certain level of vulnerability that is crucial to the experience.I find the magic of art is to be moved in a way that you aren't ready for.  

I'm someone who isn't made of stone, so yeah, if I'm watching Toy Story 3 I'll get a little weepy, but always feel the need to hide it, or force myself to keep the emotions inside...but isn't feeling things the point of art? So I've come up with a challenge for myself and you, the reader when you participate in an artistic experience, don't censor. Whether you are a performer or audience member, just be real. Tell the truth.

I recently performed The Mystery Edwin Drood. Our first performance was  for an audience mostly filled with senior citizens, and my instinct at that performance was "censor a little bit." Don't be SO creepy. Don't be SO sexually infatuated with Rosa. Don't push it so far.  It will make this audience uncomfortable. You will be giving them something they weren't ready for, and maybe can't handle." I'm lucky my other actor on my shoulder said "Tell the truth. They've lived a lot of life. They can handle it. Whether they know it or not, feeling uncomfortable is part of the experience, and it's what they are here for "They can handle it.

As an actor, it's not your job to read the audience, their reactions and base your performance on what you think they will appreciate/understand/enjoy/be able to handle. Your job is to tell the truth. If they can't handle it, that's their problem. When you are truly moved as an audience member, it's because those in the production...the actor, directors, designers, etc. are telling the truth. Maybe in a way it hasn't been told before.

Telling the truth as an actor can mean being truthful to the character even when it's ugly. I remember this in Parade, when I had to play someone with very different ideals than my own, living in a reality where racism, whether it's hate-filled or just a part of your belief system was just a part of your reality. Sometimes going that far into playing a character you know is wrong, can require almost creating an imaginary universe for yourself onstage where whatever they are saying is the truth...to them it is. It is their viewpoint, and that's what you're representing.

I found in Drood; it was hard to "really go there" in certain moments when I knew certain people were in the audience. It's something that is so hard to combat, even when you want to be able to say "I'm fully in character. I'm not thinking about the audience." We all know that's pretty impossible. Especially when the show has audience interaction.

I discovered in this process what that sense of discomfort is...it's a fear of vulnerability. Censoring the performance, even just a little bit is a way to put your wall up. It's almost like a fight or flight response. If I censor and don't tell the whole truth, they won't see ME. After all, you can't borrow someone else's emotions when you act. You are either telling the truth, or you are indicating the truth. You're either making angry faces and saying your lines loud, or you're having real thoughts and motivations and tactics going on in your head, and your true emotions are flying out of you in a way that only you can do. That requires letting the audience see YOU. Not the way Will Chase, Howard McGillan, or some other actor on YouTube said these lines or sang these phrases. It's letting YOUR emotion, how YOU react to things be the guide, even if it's decisions you wouldn't make, or disagree with.

The only way to tell the truth is to let your emotions be the guide. What would YOU do in this imaginary circumstance? the imaginary circumstance is not just this moment, but the entire life you've been given? In the case of Drood, I had to put myself in the shoes of Jasper, and say "If I were making these decisions, what life experiences would drive me to get to this point? and why do I need to say these words, do these actions NOW?Talking about the fear of vulnerability again, it is a scary, vulnerable thing to have to play out actions that are "rapey" and "creepy" when your parents are in the audience. However, I have found, and now will use as my guide in the arts, that unless you feel kind of naked onstage, kind of uncomfortable, exposed, without any shields, shells, or walls to protect you, you aren't telling the truth. On the contrary, if you feel that discomfort no matter how big it is and just go with it, challenge yourself, lean into it, you are probably doing work that is worth watching, worth reading if you're a writer, worth looking at if you're an artist, worth hearing if you are a musician. If you tell the truth in an email and you have a hesitancy to press "send," what you said probably needs to be heard, even if the aftermath is going to be something to deal with. Tell the truth.

An example for me of having the truth told to me in art was seeing Carousel recently. Now, I've seen the show many times; I've been in it, I've seen the movie, I know it by heart, nothing about it surprises me. However, seeing it at the Lyric Opera in 2015, touched me in a way as I've never experienced. I caught myself while watching “Soliloquy” near the end of the first act, feeling things I've never felt. Maybe it was because I was viewing it for the first time in the age group where I might be having the same thoughts as Billy, and my instinctual thought was "don't cry. keep it together."

During intermission, I had the thought, "You are here to feel things. You paid money to feel things. If it happens, let it happen, encourage it, lean into it. Let yourself be swept away...The second act started, and I let it happen.

During "You'll Never Walk Alone," I sobbed. The lyrics hit me in a way they hadn't before.

Normally, in the ballet, you see Louise dancing and imagine Billy watching from Heaven. In this production, they had him watching it, so you could look at his reactions. There was a bit of choreography where his daughter, Louise was possibly balancing on some rocks or a ledge, and it seemed almost like a toddler taking her first steps. There are so many minor details that can be added in a production that can pull on your heartstrings, a bit of passion or warmth, or empathy in a moment where it usually lacks can make so much of a difference in the emotional impact it can have on an audience. I love seeing that; even if it's in a play that's hundreds of years old, when an actor, a director or both find something there that wasn't there before.

Ugly crying at the theatre is okay. It's a safe place to feel things that remind you of why life is beautiful, or sad, or unfair, or hilarious, or amazing, or whatever it is that day.

But above all, as an audience member or someone in charge of what's happening on stage, tell the truth. That's art. Everything else is boring generalities. Make art that moves people and let yourself be moved.