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PART I: What is Dramatic Theory, and why do you need it?

July 24, 2016


It is predictable that so many of us in front of the camera tend to think of things solely from the standpoint of the actor: “What is my character thinking?” “What is my character feeling?” “What should I be ‘experiencing’ – suffering, enduring, enjoying, loathing. “What is my viewpoint? What is my character’s viewpoint?” All of these are interesting and, often, valuable questions to consider.

But what is the value of dramatic introspection without a meaningful understanding of the effect of all that ‘interior’ work? What is entertainment? Who gets value out of it? What is its value? Why do we provide it? Is entertainment a valid value? Does an audience deserve to be entertained?  What is drama? Who is it for? What does the actor get out of it?

Most actors, it can be asserted, get involved in entertainment because early on they discover it’s something they are pretty good at, and maybe – just maybe – a living could be made doing it. If you get the role of Jiminy Cricket in the school play when you are eight years old, and your rendition of ‘Give a Little Whistle’ gets a rousing ovation from the SRO gymnasium audience, well…let’s just say Algebra will always come in second. So there was always a strong connection for many in entertainment for the ego-self – that which identifies with recognition and affirmation. And after all, a bit of ego and really thick skin are prerequisites for being able to handle the hardships necessarily to be endured in the performing arts – all of them. Musicians, dancers, singers – none of them get off easy. It’s also true for the actor, writers, creators, producers and directors of photography, designers and grips in the film and television industry. Life is as dicey for those behind the camera as it is for those in front of it. Have you ever seen a focus-puller’s hand? It’s the one that’s shaking.

But there is a purpose to all of this: entertainment. Humans have, since before recorded history (were they able to stop running from wild men and animals long enough to build a fire) – taken time to tell stories and support their relationships with song, dance and ceremony: cultural codes that established priorities, protocols and authority. These gave the members of the tribe respite and perspective into their own lives – and a sense of safety and belonging. In these fireside songs, dances and stories, they gave themselves over to an experience – a very special experience – one that we still practice today. It is an experience I like to call the Dramatic Event.

In this experience, something wonderfully magical happens: we surrender to our subconscious mind, for a period of time, participation in a fully-immersed experience which is more than vicarious; an experience that is actually a representation of an alternate reality – which if performed truthfully – seduces and intoxicates our senses into accepting what we are seeing and hearing as essentially real. What a ride! This is an old model, and I would not doubt, when research is done, that monkeys, too, daydream – that they, too, enjoy basically the same event.

This willful, voluntary – and in our case – premeditated event (we change the channel, we buy the ticket) – has become essential to the rest and recuperation of the human spirit. It has been realized over the ages in ceremony, extravaganzas, opera, plays, musicals, concerts, dances and chorales, in film and television – and as profoundly and perfectly as in a good novel. Reading Tolstoy, after all, is not an intellectual experience, it is an epic film in our heads – unfolding one scene at a time. If we are then gob-smacked at a turn of phrase or a descriptive passage, then that may be an intellectual revelation, but even this soon turns to emotional awe and astonished admiration.

That’s entertainment!

There is nothing easy about being in the entertainment business, so whether you do it for self-satisfaction, self-survival or because you want to ‘make a difference’ and change the world, there is still the necessity to be a contributing part of something that has some sort of value for the people who fill the seats and pay the tickets – whether in a movie house or in front of a large screen television. All of our favorite shows are part of a subscription service, after all, which is the ticket price. So, we do provide content for a paying audience who will, in one way or another, “report their findings” to the producers, studios and networks – whether the product is frilly mean-nothing or top-of-the-line social propaganda.

Drama is from the Greek: Miriam Webster says:

A: a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance:

B: a movie or television production with characteristics (as conflict) of a serious play; broadly :  a play, movie, or television production with a serious tone or subject

Late Latin dramat-, drama, from Greek, deed, drama, from dran to do, act

So direct from the Greek, we see that the headwaters of drama is the deed. The Doing. The Action.

And, for the record – all comedy is drama, and all drama is comedy.

Therefore, if we are going to place our boat in the original stream of dramatic waters – in order to better understand what we are doing – we have to place it in a river called Action, not in the downstream delta called Feeling. So now, we engage in the dialectic of the Acting vs Feeling genesis. Which came first, the feeling or the action? Well, that truly is the chicken and egg. “He threw weeds over my fence, which made me feel bad, so I threw manure over his, which made him feel bad.  I think he originally felt badly because I didn’t invite him to my daughter’s wedding.” So we see the genesis is always the deed. The action – and the result is then – feeling. How does this relate to the question “What is Drama?”

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One Comment
  1. Forrest Ashley permalink

    Question: How does my emotional response to a story relate to “Dramatic Theory’? I read, I watch, I listen, I react. I usually, but not always, understand my that time. Later I often do.

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