Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ON ACTING: Contradiction

Walt Whitman, in his poem “Leaves of Grass”, states it thus: “Do I contradict myself? Oh, well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.”

All life—all great art--and therefore all great acting--is unavoidably rooted in contradiction. Life is a product of simultaneously created oppositional forces: matter and anti-matter, being and nothingness, yin and yang.

A human being wants go left; the other part of her him simultaneously wants to go right. We say hello; at the same time worrying about eventually saying goodbye. We ask him to stay while wondering when he is going to go.

Half-truths are dangerous (and potent) because they are half-true.

The complexity of contradiction is built into the very construct of living; and acting. And a real performance that attracts and excites audiences will necessarily engage the actor in a state of contradiction.

I had an Asian student once who was very shy. At the age of thirty he had never kissed a woman. (His mother was taking him to Korea soon to arrange a marriage for him.)

But before they left, he took his last acting class with me. I gave him a scene in class where he had to kiss a girl. He frowned, said adamantly that that was impossible for him to do, especially in public. So I asked him to at least hug her. After considering a long moment, he said yes, he would. The scene began.

He stared at her. The moment to hug her arrived. His whole body leaned toward her. One could feel the dynamic tension in his body. It was compelling. The whole audience/class was on the edge of our seats. We were caught up in his drama.

But he couldn't do it. When the scene was over, I asked him what happened. He said: “My body say ‘yes’; my mind say ‘no’.”

He had enacted a perfect state of dramatic (and compelling) contradiction...to the class' utter amusement.


Blogger Constance Kitatake said...


I remember one teacher (perhaps it was you) talking about tolerance for ambiguity. Life is not linear or black and white...our experiences are an inconvenient mix of "colors" and directions. Having been married to a Japanese man, I found your example poignant.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Cliff Osmond said...

I hope I said it. And I hope your marriage has been ambiguously wonderful.

4:32 PM  

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