What’s Polite Got To Do With It?

From the moment we come into this world we are given a set of rules that we are expected to live by. We are told what is acceptable and unacceptable, appropriate and inappropriate. We are expected to act respectfully and comport ourselves with dignity in a restaurant, theatre, church, temple, school, family gathering, et al. We are taught to “think” before we speak.

The rules that have evolved over time are necessary if we are to maintain and be a part of a civilized society. We cannot become slaves to our impulses lest we return to the Stone Age. For actors however, as far as their craft is concerned, the reverse is true. To be effective on stage or in front of the camera actors must strip away the “civilized” routine and replace it with impulsive, thoughtless behavior. They must be fully present and reactive in every single moment. As Sanford Meisner instructed, “Take the nice routine out of your work.” There is no place for nice and polite in acting.

In “A Streetcar Named Desire”, ‘Stanley’, in a fit of rage, rips his plate from the table and smashes his coffee cup against the wall. There is nothing civilized or nice about Brando’s “choice”. In “Five Easy Pieces” ‘Robert Dupea’ becomes so incensed with the attitude of a surly waitress that he clears the table, sending dishes crashing to the floor, with the swipe of his arm. Jack Nicholson’s choice is by no means nice or polite. In both cases the actors in preparation for their roles, found something in the character living inside themselves and responded impulsively. In “Ray Donovan”, father ‘Mickey’, fresh out of prison, seeks out the Priest that molested his youngest son, puts a gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. Nice? Not in the least. “Oscar Madison” fed up with “Felix Unger’s” incessant nagging, grabs Felix’s linguini from the table and throws it against the wall, declaring “Now it’s garbage.” It’s a comedy but that doesn’t mean that the characters are always nice and polite.

Truthful acting requires that we learn to accept the given circumstances and inhabit the world of the characters, responding not as we would, but as they do. We cannot “think” about what we should or shouldn’t do, or where we should or shouldn’t be in the scene. We must learn to trust and develop our instincts so that we respond impulsively based on character and circumstance. To do that we must begin to break down the defenses that have built up over the years that block the instincts. We have to train ourselves to “listen”, remain open, vulnerable and available at all times. All of this requires that we unlearn the proper, expected, rehearsed, thoughtful way of responding and allow our impulses to dictate behavior from moment to moment. For actors, “thinking” before they speak/do is a recipe for disaster. It is what you do that is not on the page that brings the writer’s story to life.

There is a saying in acting: No conflict = no drama. Characters are placed in desperate circumstances in which they must go to extreme measures to get what they want and need. Good writers make sure of that by painting them into a corner, creating great obstacles that raise the stakes to the nth degree. To live truthfully in the given circumstances requires finely honed instincts, not thoughts. What you should or shouldn’t do has nothing to do with what is happening right here, right now. And “polite” is not a part of the dramatic equation.