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On Performance

Although performances have been my life, or at least my profession, I have no answers. The idea of performance is slippery and mysterious to me. This post contains highlights from a lecture I gave at Birkbeck, University of London on Performance. If you prefer, you can read the full version here.

Orson Welles said that the difference between professionals and amateurs is that professionals do it when they don’t feel like it.

For example, you go out and pretend to be someone else, say Hamlet, for a few hours, eight times a week: even if he is starting to bore you and the last thing you want to do is get into a fight with Laertes yet again. I hope to persuade you that we are all professionals, adopting guises as the occasion demands, whether we feel like it or not.

I was an actor in the theatre and on screen for ten years. I then moved behind the camera and spent decades trying to understand the dynamics of performance. I wanted to create performances which an audience would not categorise as performances – would just assume they were “real” or “true”, not acting at all. Rather what everyone has spent their lives doing with themselves, trying to convince the world. Including you.

If an infant tells what is known as a “tall story”, we smile indulgently and say, “Is that so?” A little later, we still smile, but say “I think your imagination has run away with you”. After that it is discouraged. The child is accused of fibbing, then lying and there are unpleasant consequences. So she either stops, or becomes more sophisticated and devious. But when a similar use of the imagination later results in a tall story set between the two covers of a novel, a Booker prize is awarded.

And if the writer is called Dickens, or especially Tolstoy, he is celebrated for offering insights into the human condition – just for making up a story. And the ones valued for telling truths are called fiction. Facts have no meaning until we contextualise them, which means constructing a narrative, telling a story. Your story. History.
What is going on?

If I pretend to be someone I am not I might be caught out and told I am two faced. If I deceive in this way for personal gain, I might end up in prison. But if I do it openly for personal gain, I might be awarded an Oscar. Ken Tynan used to say that actors should not be accused of being two faced because they should be two hundred faced.
But aren’t we all two hundred faced? Why are some, then, thought of as false personalities and others as sympathetically authentic?

Performance implies an audience and an arena. Both are ever present in our lives, from the day we are born. We are socially constructed. The psychoanalyst’s room, for instance, is a theatre. The client, the actor, improvising a drama, his own history. The psychoanalyst is the audience, always present, always attentive. Even when on the couch, with the analyst out of sight, the client knows when the analyst’s attention strays, or if, in an after lunch session, the analyst drifts off into a surreptitious nap; in many theatres the lights cut the actors on stage off from the audience, but they still assess, from the subtlest clues, the attention level of the audience. R D Laing tells of a client who suddenly said, “You’ve disappeared, I’ve lost you”. He tried to reassure, but in vain. Then he realised that this was not a symptom, the client was not offering clues to his problem: Laing had just absented himself, stopped listening, had actually disappeared – into his own thoughts. His attention had lapsed.

The professional actor is self-conscious. In the analytic setting the client wishes consciously to reveal self, to be conscious of self – but determined unconsciously to avoid revealing self, at all costs. It is a fight to the death. Or rather to the re-birth. In the theatre the actor plays a game of “as if”. If I were this person, which I am not, in this situation, which I am not, how would I be? Who would I be? The only clues are in the text, if there is a text. Difficult. This Hamlet, bit highly strung, isn’t he? Why doesn’t he do something or just get over it?
Can’t imagine being as dumb as that King Lear. Giving it all away like that to those pillocks. Deserves what’s coming to him, unless it’s early onset Alzheimer’s.

And what about playing a murderer? Or a vicious sadist in a camp, in a Holocaust film?
Would that be possible? Yes. I am of all men and all men are of me. Given the personal history and the circumstances an actor could play any of these roles – or you be any of these people in real life. But it’s not automatic. The actor must subsume his own self and imagine this new self, then be him. The civilian merely has to rationalise his behaviour: we are all masters of that. Or obey orders, giving up responsibility.
It’s all rather like the contortions we engage in as children, most of us, pretending we are who we are not, that we feel this when we actually feel that, in order to escape punishment or disapproval, to be “good” and therefore accepted. After a while it is effortless, not just the easy way out, just natural, just us. Not a performance at all. Automatic.

I have spent most of my life, with colleagues, thinking about this word “performance”: what is it?; what kind do we want?; how do we create and capture it?; and why?

All theatrical or film performances exist within a convention. When a new style erupts it destroys the old because it seems natural, more true, less mannered and artificial. Not like a performance at all. When the actor Henry Irving first came to London and conquered it, he profoundly impressed with his natural, unforced delivery, without mannerisms. We have no film, but a modern listener is amused by his artificial, theatrical ham acting. When I was young the most admired film actor was James Dean. He had arrived in the fifties to acclaim for his emotional truth. He seemed not to be acting, just being; without mannerism or pretension. But if you see, say, Rebel Without a Cause now, you are struck and mildly embarrassed by his exaggerated actorly mannerisms.

In order to enjoy a performance, to enter into the world of the performance, we are required to accept the artificiality of the convention. For instance, I cannot watch opera – I get the giggles – it is my loss. Some operas are beautiful and profound, I am told. Unavailable to me. Similarly, in what I will call civilian life, if one of your performances or guises or selves is to be believed, trusted, taken seriously, you had better be convincing, that is thought to be truthful, that is not acting, even if you are actually being false and lying through your teeth. “Does my bum look big in this?” The answer to that sorts out the men from the boys. If anyone here has a good answer to that question, I would like to hear it.

Do you remember the self consciousness of adolescence, feeling one is just a bundle of uncoordinated awkwardness? Being told by helpful adults to just be yourself, and wanting to scream back, “I would if I had the slightest idea who I was?” Maybe the key is consciousness. Awareness is the enemy of self, but awareness is essential for deception. If I am aware, if my antennae sense, who you want me to be, then I can dig down into my repertoire and arrange my presentation accordingly.

If you are thinking about your performance, you are lying, people can see through you. There is a risk that the gap between you and the performance will show. Unless, of course you have perfected “sincere” acting. That is difficult: we get practiced in sniffing out those who look innocent and say “honestly” or “on my life”. Among actors, though, if you show great skill, this gap is praised. Meryl Streep, for instance, is a consummate performer. But you can always see the wheels going round because she impersonates; she is playing a role, not being a person. She has numerous awards. For her “acting”. But if you are a civilian and you are caught, you are just a con artist, a slippery character.

If the performance, the acting, is unconscious, not calculated because not passing through the filter of thought, it seems to be you, or an aspect of you, and therefore is authentic, is true. The worst that can be said is, “I didn’t know you were like that”; or “I didn’t know you had it in you”.
In you and so a part of you.

I spent a working life telling lies myself and encouraging others, actors, to pretend to be who they are not, and then creating a style of presentation which encourages people to think they are watching a camera observing the real world, a documentary, a document. Even that is a lie, because a documentary is fiction pretending to be observed fact. So lie within lie within lie. The motive has always been to seek and then tell the truth. My truth, of course. What other truth could I possibly tell? But it seems, on the face of it, a rum way of going about it.

Tricks we used for performance

Room for play

If you give little children a few props, create a safe space and get out of the way, within minutes they will create a fantastical world, enter it and become in total conviction a myriad new characters; totally absorbed in this world, having lost all consciousness of self, in the here and now.

That is the atmosphere actors need. Safety, love, acceptance, encouragement. Approval. Belief. If no one believes in you, how can you believe in yourself? And room to play. They must be childlike: which is not the same as childish.

Of course, all this within a framework of tight professional discipline. A child too needs a framework, within which she can feel safe; constrained but protected by the big, strong adults. This allows her to securely enjoy the freedom within the framework. In play, one discovers stuff about oneself, one’s “character”, one didn’t know. Just as you do playing in the safety of psychoanalysis.


We cast as close as possible to the fictional character, so the journey the actor has to make is reduced. Film about dockers on strike? Cast real dockers who have been on strike. Find acting talent by just saying, “Please walk across the room”. Most will “act” walking across the room. You cast the one who just walks across the room. You play a fictional character best by being un-self-conscious.

On Set

On set get rid of the paraphernalia of film making. A film crew is large and not a subtle a presence. Get most of them out of the way. Use long lenses and be at a discreet distance, so as not to contaminate the location or crowd the actors.

  • Throw a googly into each new take by asking one of the actors to do something unexpected: make sure each take is fresh and spontaneous. In Stanislavsky’s terms, recreated, not repeated.
  • The camera must accommodate to the actor, not the actor to the camera.
  • Use the clapper board at the end, not the start of the take.
  • Lay down no marks for the actors: give them freedom to move about, telling the camera to find them. You will notice Spencer Tracy often looking down at the floor. This is not an actor’s gimmick, nor a trait of the character he is playing. He is looking for his mark.
  • Shoot, shoot, shoot – especially when no one knows you’re shooting – then you may capture gold.

Everything is designed to help the actors to be in the moment. We want to respectfully observe a lived reality. What is happening on the screen must be unaware that it is on a screen.

For me the mystery of performance persists. It begins as soon as a baby vaguely perceives and experiments with stimulus and response. The guile, the acting skills, become more sophisticated, even if the mechanism is still obvious; the parent is charmed to see the wheels going round. The pained complaint, the charming smile.
Performing is so pervasive throughout our lives I ask if there is anything else? Are we defined and described by the roles we play and how convincingly we play them?

In the work I have done trying to conjure up believable performances, where in Spencer Tracey’s phrase about acting, “they don’t catch you doing it”, our best results have come from those who could empathetically, imaginatively enter into the moment, really believe – make believe. That work produces what the audience takes to be truth, credibility, authenticity. Everything else is impersonation, clever, false, phoney as a nine bob note, as someone said to me.

But we also know that the best liars are the ones who, in the moment of telling, actually believe the lies, believe that they are actually telling the truth. Aren’t we all like that, telling the truth about the lies we tell ourselves, having absorbed the lies others, say parents, have told us about ourselves? So, I ask again, in another way, where is this truth? What is core, basic, irreducible gold standard truthfulness? Does it exist? Or are all our personalities fictions after all?

Consider the sudden rush of panic, rage, desire or amusement, that wells up so torrentially it is unstoppable, pouring past the censor, on public display before it can be suppressed? We have all experienced this. We are then, mortified by its inappropriateness, are either stuck with embarrassment or we say, “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me” or “That’s not like me” or “I’m not like that”. “Out of character”: a phrase often heard from the defence in court. How odd, we deny our authentic selves, and we wish to project a number of false selves as truly who we are.

Maybe at the start of our lives we experiment with roles assigned to us, try others to see the response, observe and copy other people, who become, literally, role models. Gradually this artifice becomes second nature, we don’t think about it. Its unconscious expression, in all its guises, becomes “the person”. Some people are more flexible than others, some more rigid. The acting, the role play, becomes absorbed and is lost to consciousness. We decide that is us. For the key to the real me is mysteriously unconscious. When it becomes conscious it feels like an act.