When I think of the origins of acting, I think of kids. The wild worlds created by young children as they imagine themselves in the midst of adventures. It is deadly serious, this game of playing. If you are invited to play you must commit and focus on the world created.
At the start of this semester I was talking about the 'value' of acting with my acting students. Partly because it is a class of students who are new to acting, I wanted to share with them the passion and love I have for this part of the world, but it is also a question I wrestle with. What value does acting bring to our world? Many dispute that it brings any worth or value. It is easy to make it a narcisstic selfish way of grabbing attention. It can be self-serving.
As an adult I question the value of acting. Because beyond the negative things it can produce it is also of little 'value' within our money based society. Acting doesn't equate to large sums of money, except for a select few. Thus the work can be brushed aside as frivolous and the question of when you will get a 'real' job is constantly brought up.
I asked my students to name one of their favorite actors and then to say what value their work brought to their lives. What did their performance add to their life? It is a question that was helpful for me to ask myself.
We don't often pressure young children to give up their play. We have seen the value of their pretending and interacting in the world to shape it and work in it. This play is their serious work. And it has value. Value for their development, value for their understanding of the world, value for their development of relationships. And it is often in those moments that we find memories we go back to, times when we imagined adventures and stories.
As my students reflected on the value specific performances had brought to their lives, I thought of the many actors who had touched my own life. The serious dramas that had helped me ask hard questions about life and the silly films that helped me smile and laugh. I shared with them the time I came back from my grandfather's funeral and watched Bridget Jones Diary. How the release of laughter and silliness was a gift on a hard day.
When I strip away the things that get in the way of play, worry about success, money, people liking my performance, and focus like a child at play, there is great joy in my work. There is freedom and a lightness.
Several of my students are getting ready to graduate from college this year. The transition is weighty and one of them said that coming to acting class was a place away that helped them stop and let go of the stress for a brief part of the day. Their words reminded me that a simple acting class can be a place of freedom in the midst of the fears and worries of life.
I think I need more play in my life. I think the world needs more play. To step away and seriously imagine and play and laugh and cry and work out new ways of being in the world. There is currently a huge duck floating in the water by Pittsburgh. Many people say it is silly and why would someone create that and go through the work of putting that up. Yet, when I see the smiles and joy of people playing and taking pictures I am reminded that adding play to our lives has immense value. That as an actor I have the responsibility to take my play seriously and to share the beauty of play with others.
Maybe the value of acting is to remind adults the importance of play. The joy of serious sillyness and whimsy. Just as a child can remind us to see the magic in life, so too acting can help us practice that way of seeing, even as we reach adulthood. So I leave you with some adults who are taking the role of play seriously.