Acting? Schmacting by Matthew Murray

    Ham.jpgRecently, while watching an abysmal performer in a terrible revival of a major musical-theatre classic of Broadway's past (although the revival in question was not on Broadway), I was reminded of something one of my college professors called "schmacting."

    Even if you've never heard the word, I guarantee you've seen it in practice. Schmacting is, at its essence, "acting"—yes, with the quotation marks. It's not embodying a character by rigorously presenting truthfulness, but applying falseness to create the illusion of truth. (One of the most common forms is "indicating," an actor's using his voice or body movements to convince the audience his character is feeling something when the actor isn't actually taking them on the full journey.) When you see someone onstage who's clearly schmacting rather than acting, the experience of watching him or her is usually both painful and depressing.

    The reason for this is simple. Theatre is, at its essence, using artificial constructs (scenery, characters, and situations) to tap into a greater reality than the reality itself can. Playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and even audience members share the knowledge that what unfolds onstage isn't actually happening. But if every element is honestly conceived and executed, then what results will be dramatically true—even if every stitch of it is made up or, sadly, if it's not very good (which sometimes happens). Because of film's prevailing you-are-there naturalism, you can never be entirely sure whether what you see was fake. But in the theatre, you know that everything was assembled, and sometimes you can even see the strings or nails; that gives it a certain magic no other performing art can claim.

    Schmacting is a direct affront to this goal, because it's a conscious interruption of the flow of fabricated reality. If a playwright has plumbed the depths of his soul, if a director has staged everything with care and meaning, and if the designers have done everything possible to visually support the other artists' work, it can all still be sabotaged by an actor who either lacks the skill to communicate the truth through his performance or respects the audience so little that he doesn't think it deserves the truth. Either way, it's a despicable practice that destroys exactly what the theatre exists to create.

    Because musicals must cope with a few extra layers of artifice (the singing, the music, and the dancing), they are magnets for schmacting at the highest levels of professionalism in a way that nonmusical plays (relatively) seldom are. There have even been two enormous examples of it on Broadway in recent years.

    First came Spring Awakening, in which many members of its mostly young original cast perpetrated it time and time again in service of a story about 1890s German teenagers discovering sex. Unfortunately, I'll never forget the sight of Skylar Astin pounding his erect leg on the floor and all but thrusting his eyes out of his sockets to simulate lust for his piano teacher, or Jonathan B. Wright's Haenschen piling on the smut to seduce the Ernst of Gideon Glick, whose rapid double takes and stiff-bodied response were clearly calculated to suggest nervousness but resembled no human being I've ever known. The king of it in the original company was John Gallagher, Jr., who always affected being out of breath to show how his character Moritz was addled, a ceaselessly whiny voice to show how he was immature, and a blubbering giddiness to show how he was obsessed with sex. But almost every performer—including the older Stephen Spinella, who keened and all but swallowed his tongue to show his grief when his son died—was guilty of it at some point, and director Michael Mayer apparently did nothing to stop it. (The problem abated somewhat when new actors took over these roles.)

    Gypsy0509.jpgThen there was the Arthur Laurents–directed revival of Gypsy, where schmacting wasn't just rampant, it was more infectious than swine flu. It all began and ended with Patti LuPone. She would waggle her legs in a hopelessly modern way to show how she could use her body to attract men. She would make stern, bug-eyed faces at the audiences at the end of songs to let them know it was time to applaud. Her disconnected screams when angry (or at the end of the climactic song "Rose's Turn") and her voice dropping several registers to imitate a faux-romantic huskiness completed the picture of an actress who didn't think her audience could appreciate this woman unless they were told how to react. Over the course of the production's run, from City Center to the St. James, LuPone's costars began adopting her mannerisms: Boyd Gaines had a very calculated way of punching a dressing-room table to show he was Really Really Upset; and Laura Benanti would screw her voice up like a kewpie doll to get amorous and cast doe-eyed glances when sad. Leigh Ann Larkin, playing Dainty June, based her entire performance on imitating a robot—so there was no possible way you could miss how her mother was programming her.

    To be fair, I've seen most of these actors do much better work in other productions, so I'm willing to accept their descents into schmacting as momentary lapses in their craft. But that doesn't excuse what they did, and it's absolutely not acting: Performances that come from the heart and the soul need no explanation.

    You don't need to look back any further than last season to find some better examples. The Lincoln Center Theater revival of South Pacific was full of them, because director Bartlett Sher forced his actors to remain in the moment and never stray for laughter- or applause-baiting effect. I also marveled at the quality of the acting in Passing Strange (directed by Annie Dorsen). It was a highly stylized show existing somewhere between a concert and a traditional book musical. But even the untrained actor Stew, who narrated his own life story, never once indicated or visually lied about an emotion, and the other performers (including Daniel Breaker and Eisa Davis) were committed to maintaining a complete psychological reality in every line, even when the show around them became surreal or satiric.

    Sher and Dorsen believed that musicals deserve to be no less truthful than straight plays. But they could easily have cultivated companies of schmactors and still met with potentially great success, because schmacting is easy to pass off as acting. Audience members who haven't been exposed to truthful acting might not recognize it; or, if they're not particularly fond of the theatre, they might not care. Critics might interpret the style of the play or production bleeding into the performances as a natural outgrowth of the work's overarching concept. And, worst of all, lazy actors might think it's permissable because an audience responds to it.

    Which brings me back to that hideous production of a terrific musical I saw a while ago. Nearly every member of the large ensemble cast was schmacting to some degree, but the lead actor (in one of the musical theatre's largest male roles) was the worst offender of all. He spoke like Daffy Duck on quaaludes, which is neither how he sounds in real life or how he's spoken in other shows in which he's performed. He alternately flitted and lurched about the stage, as though he were powered by a malfunctioning diesel motor, to show how driven his character was. He batted people with props to prove his character's obnoxious playfulness. When he wanted to get angry, he'd spit out his lines. When he wanted to get pensive, he'd flood the house with wide-eyed, pregnant glares.

    But when two critic friends of mine called out the actor's behavior, he defended his performance by saying, in essence, "The audience responded, so what I did was correct." That's a lazy and meaningless attitude. There's over two millennia of evidence proving that people will laugh at anything, from schmacting to humor derived from caricature, scatology, or sex. They'll cheer performers who lip-sync to prerecorded tracks and they used to fill stadiums to watch ordinary people battle lions. Audiences have gobbled up American Idol's insults, The Apprentice's firings, and Survivor's bug-eating. In the right environment, the entertainment-starved masses will respond to anything—and they always have. What an audience will cheer or laugh at is not a barometer of its artistic or dramatic success and must never be taken as one.

    It's therefore ultimately up to the actor in a play to make the right (and, admittedly, more difficult) choice: honesty. If he does, the audience will almost certainly still respond, but they'll feel a connection extending beyond the shallow groan, laugh, or tear. Maybe they'll even respond in a way that you don't expect, but is still valid. One of the greatest joys in a performer's onstage life should be to go before an audience that is programmed to laugh or cry at anything and get them to laugh or cry at what matters, in a way that matters. Someone who succeeds—or makes a game attempt, even if it fails—are truly actors, working in favor of the truth, and not just seeking the onlookers' Pavlovian response to the basest of stimuli. The actor who e-mailed my friends fails in his show because he doesn't really desire to move and entertain on a deeper-than-surface level. For him, schmacting is good enough. It should not be for anyone else.

    Sunday, May 03, 2009 at 11:44 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    05/12/2009: Heartbreak Country

    05/03/2009: Acting? Schmacting

    04/17/2009: The Music, the Mirror, the Movie

    04/12/2009: Signature Epic

    04/11/2009: They Don't Write the Music, but They Make it Sound Great

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.