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Belly flops on the fringe

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Last week, I witnessed a terrible piece of theatre that was truly painful to watch. Opaque, pretentious, poorly directed and shakily performed; it was interminable. But as I escaped I couldn’t help but feel that, even apart from the other captives in the audience, I had not been alone in my discomfort – perhaps those most suffering were the actors themselves.

Is a belly flop more painful for the swimmer or the viewer who sees it happen? For anyone who’s ever performed such a watery failure the answer is surely that the doer feels the discomfort most acutely. For all the viewer’s propensity to cover their eyes and emit sympathetic groans, enacting a disaster is more painful than watching one happen.

But while the swimmer is responsible for the quality of their dive, in so many theatrical situations the actor is not responsible for the quality of their character. How many of you have performed in pieces that you felt were awful?

[pullquote]How many of you have performed in pieces that you felt were awful?[/pullquote]

In a profession that is underpinned by a crippling passivity, actors are at the beck and call of the writers who write for them and directors who employ them. Surely this is why so many end up becoming writers and directors themselves. In the fringe, where resources are stretched further than anywhere else, this is even more pronounced.

The writer Tom Stoppard recognises this brilliantly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as Rosencrantz says: “We hand over the letter which may or may not have something in it to keep us going and if not, we are finished and at a loose end, if they have loose ends. WE could have done worse. I don’t think we missed any chances…Not that we’re getting much help…if we stopped breathing, we’d vanish.”

Surely every actor has felt as powerless as this at one point or other and in writing this column I am of course restating a well known fact. But perhaps the seriousness of such a predicament is never fully realised until awful work is experienced.

And how best to act in such situations? Do you perform with one foot out the door, as though you know it is terrible, in an attempt to distance yourself from the piece? While seeming selfish this must be hard not to do, even unintentionally.

In the production I saw only one actor was able to transcend this dreadful quagmire by dedicating herself entirely to the business at hand. She created a watchable character simply through her sheer determination to do so – and believe me, as with Rosencrantz she was not getting much help.

Of course the argument of natural talent is perhaps also relevant here. But it felt like a brave choice – she suspected she was going to belly flop and jumped anyway. As such she went from being passive to proactive – making choices of her own and taking responsibility for the quality of their outcome. It must have been hard for her to do so and I wonder, if you are a performer, how challenging would it be to do the same?

I’d love to hear about your own experiences below.

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