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“Seeking Certainty We Shun Ambiguity...The Present Shakes Us Awake”

Actor Theatre Book

Declan Donnellan- The Actor and the Target , Nick Hern Books , April 4, 2024
Actor Theatre Book by Declan Donnellan- The Actor and the Target Declan Donnellan co-founded Cheek by Jowl theatre company with Nick Ormerod in 1981. He is much-honoured with a directorial career that has taken in the Barbican, the Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera, the Old Vic, the Bolshoi Ballet.

“The Actor and the Target” was first published in Russian in 1998, in English in 2002 and subsequently in translations that include French, Spanish, Italian, German, Romanian and Mandarin.

Theatre bars often host shelves of books to gift, to read, to borrow. So in 2024 I happened upon a book that had a reputation. To read it finally is to encounter a book of some wonder.

It is also a book that beguiles and roams widely. In the first pages the prose style of is set.

On being young:

“Adolescence can be a journey through hell when we feel completely misunderstood. “First love” only seems joyful in nostalgia. We are tormented not only by the spectre of rejection, but also by the spectre of rejection, but also by the creeping hopelessness that we will never be able to express what we feel. The emotions are turbulent, the stakes seem impossibly high, and: “nobody understands what I am going through.”

“Adolescents discover that the more they want to tell the truth, the more their words lie. They can feel doomed to generalisation, an abyss where their unique voice will remain unheard...there is always a gap between what we feel and our ability to express what we feel.”

That gap- the world within our head and its oft uncomfortable encounters with what occurs without- underlies much of Donnellan's discussion of theatre. It is not always easy for the reader who is not an actor but, like poetry, it is never less than stirring.

On the nature of our being and perception:

“We cannot force ourselves to see. We can manipulate ourselves not to see, and are expert at that. We can only force ourselves to “look at” things. But “looking at” is quite different from “seeing”. The difference between looking at and seeing is crucial for the actor. Seeing pays attention to what already exists. Looking at is more safely about me, which I can turn on and off like a tap.

We cannot control attention, that's why it is so useful, and so frightening.”

The limitation on the self, and within the self, governs the understanding of actor and character:

“The actor's senses will never absorb as much in performance as the character absorbs in the real situation. In other words the actor will never see the spectral dagger as acutely as Macbeth himself. Finally, this graceful acceptance of inevitable failure is an exhilarating release for the artist. That we will never get there is an excellent starting point; perfectionism is a vanity.”

The actor needs to accept this dependence on the senses' limitations for the imagination to run free.”

The concept of imagination runs central:

“The imagination is the capacity to make images. Our imaginations make us human and they toil every millisecond of our lives. It is imagination that enables us to perceive. Effectively, nothing in the world exists for us until we can perceive it. Our capacity to imagine is both imperfect and glorious, and only the paying of attention can improve it...it is only imagination that can connect us to reality.”

The world itself is a buzz without limit; the world we use and move in is an inner creation:

“The senses crowd the brain with sensations, the imagination sweats to organise these sensations as images and then perceives meanings in these images. We forge the world within our heads, but it is never the real world; it is always an imaginative creation....The imagination is not a fragile piece of Dresden porcelain but rather a muscle that develops itself when properly used.”

“...We learn to see both less and more than what really happens in the world. The identity has no intention of letting mere reality contradict its theories. When we see the world we create it; we never see what really is.”

This is where art fits:

“The word “aesthetic” comes from the Greek root meaning “things as we see them”, in other words targets. Anaesthetic can therefore be construed as “without targets”. We devote a lot of time and money to reassuring ourselves with anaesthetics of every kind....we desperately need to see, however briefly, a more real world where joy and pain are felt for what they are.”

This essential dichotomy guides the writing for the actor:

“There is always a target. The target exists before you need it. The target is always transforming. The target is always active. There is no inner source of energy. All energy originates in the target. The target is neither an objective, nor a want, nor a plan, nor a reason, nor an intention, nor a focus, nor a motive. Motives arise from the target. A motive is my way of explaining what the target has made me do.”

“The target exists before you need it. We cannot create a target. The target does not need to be created. As soon as we feel lost, the target is already waiting to be found.

“The actor cannot create the invisible. The invisible expresses itself through what the actor sees and does.”

Donnellan leads us into zones of paradox:

“We can never make life. Our performances will not live if we imagine that we are creating something. We can only see the life that is already waiting to flow.

...the fifth uncomfortable choice: creativity or curiosity. Renouncing creativity seems heresy to the artist. However, it is unhelpful to try to be creative. Curiosity is more liberating; curiosity is connected to attention and the target. Trying to be creative has a nasty habit habit of sending us home.”

Time and again the writing resounds with lines to alert and surprise.

“Time is the actor's friend but the character's enemy; it is as well to accept this in the briefest rehearsal. The present shakes us awake.”

As for theatre itself the call is clear-cut. “A work of art is something with a frame around it. A photographer frames things, but so does the theatre. The applause is a kind of frame.”

Theatre is led astray by those who wish it to be an other thing. Funders lack faith in art; they like calls that it raise awareness, as if art is to be a vector of information. Private opinion is elevated as an indicator of artistic integrity. Donnellan sounds the trumpet loudly for the essential value of ambiguity.

“To treat something sentimentally is to claim it has only one meaning. Sentimentality tries to separate the good guys from the bad guys, and wipe up the messy ambivalence of life. Seeking certainty, we shun ambiguity.”

A guide to books on actors and acting can be read below 10th July 2021.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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