Culture Shock: If acting were as easy as it should look, it wouldn’t be an art
The days when actors were widely seen as little different from pimps and whores are gone. But there is still an ambivalence about accepting them as serious artists
Before that report a 2005 Arts Council study showed most actors relying on other jobs to make a living. Even so, theatre performers had an average income of just €20,000, a mere €7,000 of which came from theatre work. The average wage for a week’s performances in an Irish theatre was €456, significantly lower than the average industrial income.
The money isn’t everything, and no one forces anyone to choose a life that, for the vast majority of those who live it, has always been precarious. Most writers, composers and visual artists have little more financial security. But at least they are recognised as artists. Actors are not. I mean this in the most tangible way: the State supports and tax reliefs that are available to writers and composers and visual artists do not extend to actors. Nor does the official recognition that is expressed in membership of Aosdána. Archi- tects and choreographers can now (quite rightly) be members, but performers can’t.
The rationale for this is contained in a single word: “creative”. Aosdána is “an affiliation of creative artists” in Ireland. The implied distinction is that between the “creative” and the “interpretative” arts. It is a distinction I find impossible to tease out in any coherent way. WB Yeats asked: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And the question is rhetorical. We can’t separate the player from the play. No dramatist, even of the most literary kind, would insist that the text is the play; the play emerges when it is embodied and inhabited by the actor. That inhabiting is a creative process: performances are constructed under the same kind of imaginative pressure that the act of writing exerts on the writer.
Art consists in the transformation of given materials. A writer transforms words, memories and images into a text; the actor transforms that text into a performance. If acting were not a creative art, casting would be easy: just get someone who matches the age and gender, and perhaps the physique, of the character. Casting, to the contrary, is hard because everyone knows that the actor will turn what is given into something else – for good or ill.
Perhaps, in this, actors are their own detractors. Good actors create the illusion that the performance was just there, waiting to be picked up and put on like a costume. The art of acting, at least in mainstream forms, is to make the painful work of constructing a performance disappear. When that art is persuasive, it seems, like the actors invoked at the end of The Tempest, to melt into thin air.