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Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

I Am Not a Contrarian

I’m not a contrarian.  I’m not.

Sitting many years ago in a Green Room, a female friend and I were talking.  I was hoping to woo her a little, as I recall.  She said, “We always argue.”

I said, “No, we don’t.”

“You just disagreed with me.”

“Yes, I disagreed with you just now,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we always argue.”

Well, she was probably right, and from the stand of many years – it was probably for the best that we never became romantic.

A funny part of the conversation didn’t reveal itself for many years.  A funny part is the real power that derives from what we perceive to be agreement. 

We’re told that as a culture we now split ourselves off into localized tribes that share belief systems.  Seldom do we – according to this theory – stray into realms where our belief system isn’t shared.  We see these belief systems translated into the stores where we shop and the television shows we watch.  And when confronted with a perspective with which we do not agree, we’re forced to rationalize away the people and ideas held by those people as foreign or strange or not worth our consideration.

As long-time readers recall, I enjoy listening to the radio – particularly shows in which people call in. Nearly every day I hear people strip the bark off folks who just don’t have the smarts, the will, the gumption, the grit, the curiosity, and the sheer mental force to understand why I’m correct in my beliefs.  And they, drowning in a pool of their own damnfoolishness, can’t even see it.

Surely people speak this way about politics. But also about sports teams. About recipes. About fan theories from a book series or television show.

They go hand in hand.  Why am I so damned smart?  And why are you so damned stupid?

Now of course we’re in the story-telling business. Whenever someone does media criticism, and someone points out that the media likes conflict, I generally think, “Well, yeah.” 

I work in an art form in which Aeschylus hit on the idea of conflict as a useful part of the art form rather a long time ago. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise in the 21st century.

Close readers should notice a contradiction here. We’re told we like agreement with our views.  But we are also told that media likes conflict – situations in which opposing sides clash. 

Now it might be tempting to think that we like conflict because we like to see “our” side win.  And yet we know that in media conflict, seldom is there a disinterested judge who can present a clear winner.  Often both “sides” can feel that they’ve “won.”  And as we know from our experience as observers of conflict, we can – depending on circumstances –  observe just as easily that both sides “won.”  Or, that both sides “lost.”

Goodness knows that over the years I’ve seen – and participated in – any number of disagreements about acting.

Acting is a behavior that’s probably inherent with inner contradictions.  We start with the fact that the #1 fear for most people in the modern world is public speaking.  So actors are already in an unusual place.

What’s the place of affective memory in acting? What’s more important – imagination or lived experience?  How much should the actor “feel” what’s happening on stage?  How much should the actor self-monitor?  On and on and on and on and on.  The endless opinions muttered in Green Rooms real and virtual could fill volumes.

Why worry about it?  Is it simply the power of agreement?  Is it a manifestation of our endless anxiety about where we are with our art, our abilities, our capacities?

I work with students regularly, and over the years I’ve changed how I feel about warm-ups.

First, when I see inexperienced actors who haven’t warmed up in some fashion, it seems evident to me that they haven’t warmed-up. They don’t appear to be actually listening to each other.  They don’t appear to be breathing.  Their reactions to events and each other seem “off” somehow.

So I tend to be of the opinion that actors should learn the habit of warming up before entering the stage.  My own warm-up regimen, such as it is, I’ve practiced mostly for the better part of twenty years.  I believe it has served me well.  But I don’t teach my own regimen specifically.

I think it’s helpful to warm up the body, the voice, and the imagination.

But warm-up in what way?

One of the things that I see young people do is a lot of jumping about and ginning up energy.  Again, as a slightly older person, from my vantage point a young person of nineteen or twenty years of age has endless supplies of energy.  And the process of going on the stage for many of the young people I see is still new enough that the adrenaline flows for them without hindrance.

Over the years I’ve gotten more and more to teaching a warm-up that is about finding stillness.  Breathing out.  Aligning the skeleton.   Breathing out some more.  Imagining something simple, like a color.

Instantly the reader can see the problem at the core of this approach.  For the young person who thinks of warming-up as jumping about, a quiet approach is looked at as lacking fun.

“I want to bounce,” the young actor says with pleading eyes to me, “I want to have fun!”

“I want you to know stillness,” I reply. “And I want you to be able to be really present in your body and really listen to your fellow actors.”   And the young person deflates like a balloon. They’re not here to listen – they’re here to perform!

Recently I saw a nice group of young folks do a vigorous warm-up about forty minutes before curtain, then they went and sat down in the Green Room to chat, etc. How long does a warm-up last before you have to warm-up again before going on stage?

Do I want agreement with my perspective? Oh, I suppose.  Don’t we want some kind of affirmation that we know what we’re

On the other hand, there’s also power that comes from the legitimate challenge to our ideas and our practice.  Complacency in art is no virtue.

In the end, of course, we each of us must find our own way and our own path.  When I was young, I wanted to find a path that was easier, less troublesome.  I’ve found, though, that the power comes from travelling the path you’re on.  If you’re lucky, you’ve chosen the right path for yourself.  You’ve chosen the right tools for the travel.  And, if you’re gracious, you put out some markers for the travelers who will follow in their time so that their going might be simpler, if not easier.

If you want to argue with that, that’s fine.

Just don’t say I’m a contrarian.

I’m not.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine




March 2017

Volume 17 Issue 10

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