My uncle is quite a character…literally. His preferred enterprise is acting, one that he has embraced living in both New York City and Los Angeles. If you ever met my uncle (my father’s first cousin), you’d think he had just drunk five cups of coffee. I mean that in the best possible way, though. My uncle is certainly an extrovert…one who bursts at the seams with positive, enthusiastic energy. He’s always delightful to be around…a natural raconteur who literally has the “moves like Jagger.” What drove him to become an actor though? What drives anyone towards the domain of theater and performance?
I have engaged in activities like it—namely tour-guiding and improvisation, and I can say that performing provides a certain experiential “click” that my otherwise more introverted personality steers clear of. Acting goes a step further…as the person who acts delves into an entirely different “world” …one that’s been developed ahead of time and is then continually rehearsed. It’s a reality that its performers carefully craft. So, when, where, and why did this whole endeavor begin? Turn the clock back several millennia to find that answer. We’ll return for a third time to Ancient Greece.
Theater of Dionysus
The Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus, located on the south slope of the Athenian Acropolis, was the world’s first formal theater. From its inception, drama was born, and it developed into the magnificent, artistic enterprise we know today.1
The Theater of Dionysus, directly associated with the establishment of the god who bears its name, took shape in Athens in 350 B.C.E. and served as a model for all future theatrical structures.1 The cult, which arrived in Attica and Boeotia from the city of Eleutherae between 560 and 530 B.C.E., imported its traditions to Athens under the tyrannical rule of Peisistratus.1
Every year in late March/early April, the Dionysian followers held a major, popular festival.1 During the Attic month of Elaphebolion, actors would dress up as satyrs or animals, draping themselves in goat skins, performing ritualistic dances, and singing dithyrambs (sacred songs in honor of Dionysus).1 The music of aulos (wind instruments) would accompany their productions.1
The “tragos eido” (“song of the goats”)—stories of suffering and loss– became popular attractions for Athenian spectators, and, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, gave rise to the “birth of tragedy.”1 During the 5th century B.C.E., the age of the ruler Pericles, the most significant works of great dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander, literally “took center stage.”1. Various actors would engage in “agons” (competitions). The lead competitor was the “protagonist,” and those who followed him were “antagonists.” “Agony” literally refers not to pain or suffering, per se, but the “competition” of forces that underlie it.
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ famous tragedy about fate, (mis)fortune, and blindness, is perhaps the primary source of the “MF” word and people’s awkwardly humorous attitude towards the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Both Aeschylus and Euripides wrote tales following the aftermath of the Trojan War, while Aristophanes and Menander ventured into comedic territory. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a brilliant work of laughably uncomfortable social commentary. The women characters (whom male actors all portray) withhold sex from their husbands until they refrain from warfare. A salient feature of all Greek productions was the chorus, masked “singers” who’d narrate the various stories, and, in some sense, act as intermediaries between the characters and the gods (or cosmos/universe).
Various Athenian figures reconstructed and renovated the Theater of Dionysus, including Euboulos and Lycurgus (334-326 B.C.E.)1 The latter was an orator and statesman who managed the city-state’s finances and greatly admired the works of the above fifth century B.C.E. tragedians.1
The main feature of the world’s first theater was the “Orchestra,” the circular stage. The Greek word orkheisthai literally means “to dance.” Surrounding the orchestra was an enormous amphitheater (shaped like a horseshoe). Its tiered, Pentelic stone slabs could accommodate up to 25,000 people.2 During Lycurgus’ rule of Athens and role as epistate for the Theater of Dionysus, it is believed that the builders constructed the theater into two sections (which a diazoma, or horizontal aisle) intersected.3
Twelve narrow stairways divided up the auditorium’s thirteen kerkides (wedge-shaped blocks), and two additional staircases ran inside the southern supporting walls. Lycurgus viewed productions from the prohedria, or “seat of honor.” The parodos served as the entranceways to the orchestra (where the altar was placed). The skene, proskenion, logeion, and paraskenion all comprised the theatrical backdrop.
The model of the Greek theater held sway throughout most of western history, including during the Roman Empire, as well as William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan/Renaissance era. Other major figures and household names, such as Moliere, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Christopher Marlowe, Lorraine Hansbury, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, all (in one way or another) took inspiration from the works of the Ancient Greeks.
The Different “Methods”
Now let us turn our attention from the stage itself to those who occupy it…those who make its stories come alive—its actors!! Actors can approach their roles through various tried and true techniques. Konstantin Stanislavski, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, created a revolutionary approach to the standard “classical” training. Whereas most thespians historically believed in an “outside-in” method—one that entailed exaggerated, melodramatic movements, gestures, and expressions, Stanislavski took the “inside-out” approach.4 He believed that the actor must truly feel the emotions of his/her character every time they come onto the stage.4 Laurence Olivier was a famous practitioner of “the system.”
His “system” would later give rise to “Method” acting (a technique that actors such as Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg would endorse and actors like Robert DeNiro, Daniel Day-Lewis, James Dean, Ellyn Burston, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Heath Ledger would embrace). DeNiro drove a cab around New York City for 12 hours a day to get into character for Taxi Driver (1976). Leonardo DiCaprio ate a live buffalo heart to get into the shoes of Hugh Glass for The Revenant (2015). Heath Ledger famously locked himself in a hotel room and “went mad” to become the Joker for The Dark Knight (2008).
The “Method” encourages actors to engage in “emotional recall.” If the character is grief-stricken after their spouse dies, the actor might conjure up sad memories of a childhood pet that they lost. The “Method” approach is a notably controversial one, as actors/actresses can potentially get “too far” into character (as in the case of Heath Ledger, e.g.).
Stella Adler, an artistic disciple of Stanislavski and rival of Strasberg, also had her own method…one that encouraged actors to “develop deep visions and metaphors for the circumstances of their characters.”4 Her angle was to stoke the actors’ and artists’ imaginations, and her followers included DeNiro, Benicio Del Toro, Mark Ruffalo, and Melanie Griffith.4
Sanford Meisner didn’t want his actors to become so obsessed with imagination or intellectual interpretations.4 His technique involved repeatedly and meditatively removing all “psychological connotations from an action or line, revealing the character’s most humble form.”4. His followers included Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, and Grace Kelly.
Tricks of the Trade
There are of course many other heuristics that actors use. “Blocking” is a notable concept in the world of thespianism. How does the character move? At what speed and in what way? Are they trying to threaten someone…beg for someone’s forgiveness…coolly observe their surroundings? If the character lacks a spine (proverbially speaking), they’ll undoubtedly keep their head low and their shoulders hunched over. If they’re confident, they’ll stand with their back straight and their arms akimbo (maybe). Or maybe the character is desperately trying to appear that way, but it isn’t working.
There is a countless multitude of expressions an actor can convey with precise nuance. Emotions like sadness, anger, fear, and joy are only the tip of the iceberg. There is also embarrassment, confusion, disbelief, bemusement, self-consciousness, self-hatred, desperation, and well…you get the point.
The “magic if” is perhaps the biggest theatrical concept of all. “I know I’m not a pirate, police officer, or 18th century aristocrat, but if I were…if I really were…if I could really imagine that I wasn’t just imagining this role and this person was really who I was…the living, breathing character whose conscious perception of the world I was inhabiting…”
Some actors disappear into the role and let intuition be their number one guide. Others take a slightly more intellectual, although still experiential, approach. One method involves an actor asking questions such as “Who am I? Where am I? When is it? What do I want? Why do I want it? What obstacles do I need to overcome to get it?”
Amy Adams has reported that when she takes on a role, she tries to create an “autobiography” of sorts…charting her character back to the age of three-to-five. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) approaches his characters by giving them a singular motivation. Fear comically drives Hal from Malcolm in the Middle. Cranston put on a Broadway performance as President Lyndon Johnson, whom he believes was driven by a desire for love, and Walter White (Breaking Bad) …well, Walter White is a tricky one. His motivation is some mixture of narcissism, greed, and pride mixed in with anger and vulnerability.
Range and Expression
The other notable aspect of acting is range. Cranston displays enormous range. Hal from Malcolm in the Middle (or Dr. Tim Whatley from Seinfeld) couldn’t be any more different from Walter White (a.k.a. “Heisenberg”) from Breaking Bad. The late Robin Williams also excelled in this territory. His roles in Good Will Hunting and One Hour Photo were night and day from his roles in Mrs. Doubtfire or The Birdcage.
Then there is the range of emotional expression an actor/actress deliberately displays. Consider Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”) or Al Pacino in Scarface (“…say goodnight to the bad guy. Last time you’ll see a bad guy like this!”). Or…there is the famous story about Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. During a very tense scene in which the evil slave owner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) confronts Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), both of whom he realizes have tried to swindle him, Calvin snaps.
He gives a controversial “lesson” on phrenology before slamming his fist down on the table, smashing a drinking glass. Except it wasn’t a prop. DiCaprio bloodied his hand on a real drinking glass. He could’ve called “cut,” but, too into character, DiCaprio carried on and finished his character’s raging monologue, chewing up the scenery in the process. When Tarantino finally called cut, the cast and crew gave DiCaprio a standing applause.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, actors who quietly “chew up the scenery” are equally as noteworthy. In one live performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the late Phillip Seymoure Hoffman enters with Willy Loman’s briefcase in hand. Hoffman saunters back and forth across the stage for several minutes, never muttering a word…silently conveying Loman’s overwhelming weariness and despair.
A more upsetting example occurs in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 drama Manchester by the Sea:
SPOILER ALERTS: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handy man from Boston, returns to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea when his brother, Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) dies from cardiac arrest. Lee learns that his late brother has made him a guardian to his 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The catch—Lee doesn’t want to stay there. Years ago, on a cold snowy night, an intoxicated Lee left his house and went on a beer run. He forgot to put the screen in front of the fireplace, a log rolled out, and the house went ablaze. Firefighters were able to save Lee’s wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), but all three of their children perished in the flames. Lee– understandably grief-stricken and guilt-ridden– sunk into suicidal despair.
In a later scene, Lee runs into Randi, now his ex-wife who has remarried and has a new baby. The two characters nervously and awkwardly exchange pleasantries, before Randi asks her ex-husband out to lunch. The two characters try to maintain a certain “calmness,” but a tidal wave of profoundly intense and inexplicable emotions swells to the surface. Randi bursts out: “My heart was broken…it’ll always be broken,” and then laments that she should “burn in Hell” for the things she said to Lee. Williams portrays this with a certain reflexive naturalness, as though her character can’t help but involuntarily expel her deepest thoughts and feelings. Williams gently leans in, tilting her neck and placing out her hand in a calming manner, illustrating Randi’s conflicting emotions—her eternal grief and her loving desire to forgive Lee and not watch him slowly die.
Affleck, in a similar vein, captures the subtleties of a father’s unimaginable sadness…unable to finish his sentences and trying his best to avoid the mountain of crushing despair right in front of him. What he can aver with a sense of dreary conviction is that “there’s nothing there [he’s empty inside].” “That’s not true,” his ex-wife compassionately tries to reassure him, before, too uncomfortable with the whole conversation, Lee excuses himself. The scene conveys tragedy not in a melodramatic, Shakespearean, or Dionysian way but in an “everyday” manner. The actors brilliantly display this through subtle vocal patterns, body language, hand gestures, and a deliberately uneven pace in which the characters speak. They burst with emotions and then retreat, helplessly overlapping each other’s words in doing so.
Theater is one of the most interesting and profound enterprises that humanity has engaged in, and the domain of acting is as well. It is of course an aesthetic enterprise…one for which its raison d’etre is not always clear. Theater doesn’t directly aid our survival or reproduction, although many would argue that, like the other arts, it encourages social cohesion and can affect a certain way of thinking or behaving (e.g., Hamilton encourages viewers/listeners to pursue ambitious goals, to be mindful of the shortness and fragility of life, and to recognize the importance of American diversity).
But is it fair to write it (and other mediums of art) off as extraneous “games” (consider that there is a reason that even serious dramatic productions are called “plays”)? No. It isn’t. Theater provides a certain spiritual necessity (for lack of better words). The literal theater provides this provender, as does “theater” in the metonymical sense of the word. “All the world’s a stage,” Jacques proclaims in As You Like It, “and all the people in it merely players.”
The play isn’t a stagnant entity though. It unfolds across the four dimensions, and, unlike television or film, it does so in real-time. A theater company could run ten thousand productions of Hamlet or Les Misérables, and not one of them would be the exact same. And, yet its producers have pre-emptively contrived the events that will unfold…. when the eponymous Danish prince will ponder “self-slaughter”, or when the French convict will escape through the sewers.
Theater as a Living Philosophy
German philosopher Martin Heidegger asserted that “being” was the fundamental groundwork of reality. Not the measurable “stuff” with all its dimensions and forms, but the experiential “stuff” …decisions, emotions, dreams, and motivations. People should approach “being” as such and treat both the doing and the undergoing of events as that which is most real. The play is worth more of our attention than the props or the stage…even though both the props and the stage are obviously necessary.
The unique existential aspect of the theater, though, is that it produces complex variations of the unfolding reality we all inhabit while also intentionally extracting from it only that which is most subjectively important. The theater is, after all, a simulacrum…a safe, bounded space in which we can run recreational “experiments” (for lack of better words). The theater strives faithfully towards an organic representation of the narrative world, while also carefully crafting the conditions (such as the settings and the actors’ movements, expressions, and words) that will create the impression of such.
What reality do the actors inhabit when they enter the stage? I recently viewed a production of King Lear in Washington, D.C. (April 2023). Actor Patrick Paige portrayed the eponymous lead, an aging monarch who suffers madness and betrayal at the hands of two of his daughters. A specific reality was unfolding in the life of Mr. Paige when he acted out his role. Paige is an American actor who enjoys acting and has likely made his living by doing so. He has his own family and friends, foods he likes to eat, activities he likes to engage in, and a lifetime full of experiences unique to him as an individual person.
He’s not literally a “mad king” contending with treacherous daughters and a kingdom on the brink of war (any more than Marlon Brando was an Italian American crime lord). Or is he? No. Of course not. That’s all fiction. But the impression that fiction can have on us (at least when done well) is so strong…it’s almost as though there’s a certain “hyper-reality” to it.
The actors and directors have distilled the most important elements of “being” into a real-time concoction that transcends the reality we inhabit by merely sitting in a dark room or atop stone slabs watching it unfold. Are the actors then inhabiting two “realities” at once? They enact their roles, transcendentally embodying the fundamentals of the human condition, while also concretely attending to their uncontrived personal lives (the ones that they have arrived at involuntarily by virtue of simply being born). These lives they live outside the world of the stage…what kinds of “roles” are these (if any)? Is a “role” an experience one by necessity must voluntarily opt into or can a “role” be thrust upon us?
Let’s return to the beginning question. Why does my uncle love acting and theater? I have never explicitly asked him, but I imagine it is because it allows him to express a certain authentic part of his personality…the impulse to embody different variations of the human experience (and to have fun as well). I am of course more familiar with my uncle’s original “role”, though …the one he acts out even when he’s not on stage or in front of a camera.
He has a wife and three children and lives outside of New York City. His family is a large Upstate New York family with Irish and English heritage, and he always has a good story to tell. My uncle enjoys rock music…especially Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones, and he’s a very good dancer! From what I can tell, this role- voluntary or not- is the one that he enjoys the most (and finds the most meaningfully engaging) and the amphitheatrical “orchestra” that he is happiest acting upon! So, I guess all that’s left to say is… “break a leg!”
 Plato, Symposium 175e, if taken as a reference to the theatre suggests it could seat 30,000. Pickard-Cambridge, 1988, p.263 dismisses this and states “[a]s reconstructed by Lycurgus, the theatre can have held 14,000-17,000 spectators.”
 Pickard-Cambridge, Sir Arthur Wallace (1988). The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. Oxford.