She: "I don't like the scene you asked me to do."
Me: "What's wrong with it?"
She: "I find it corny."
Me: "What does that mean?"
She pondered a bit. We agreed it meant cliche, transparent, sentimental and obvious. (I've always felt the word derived from an Eastern-born attitude--bias-- against the Midwest, the "Cornfield States", the land of simple people and simplistic--or so Easterners thought--ideas, values and lifestyles.)
I said I agreed with her estimate of the writing. The scene--about a call-girl-mother and long-lost daughter conflict--was not in and of itself a great writing example of subtlety, complexity and profundity. But...it was about a mother-daughter, which always had the potential of being profound, dependent on the involvement of the "players" (translate: actors). After all, all daughters derive from mothers; all mothers obtain evolutionary immortality through daughters. Very basic stuff, that!
Moreover, I said, a professional actor's job is to enact a character that could be in lesser actor's, hands a mediocre, banal endeavor, and turn it into a thing of deep beauty. After, we can't get Shakespeare or Moliere or Arther Miller or Neil Simon to write all our scripts.
And speaking of Shakespeare: what is considered his greatest play, "Hamlet",
is on the plot level a really a melodramatic story--one might even say, "corny." After an opening scene, a college kid named Hamlet
come home on vacation and is confronted by a ghost! The ghost says he is the kid's recently expired father who tells the kid his mother had been sleeping with his uncle for a while and together they had killed the father by pouring poison in his ear!. And the father wants the kid to execute revenge on the mother and uncle.
A bit obvious and melodramatic, no? One could even say, "corny?" In lesser writer hands, of course, the resulting script could sound like a horror flick, the Elizabethan "Blair Witch Project"...but in Shakespeare's hands, it become probably the greatest play in the English canon.
So I argued to the student that performance profundity--like Shakespeare's Hamlet--
can result from the execution of a seemingly corny character by a great actor. The great actor is great because he/she has the ability to turn even corn into a gourmet delicacy, lead into gold, shit (pardon the crudity) into Swiss chocolate. That's precisely why great actors get paid so much. They are great chefs, and alchemists, and taste-bud enhancers.
Postscript: Being class, a place for experimentation, the student, being a brave and good student, decided to overcome her attitude toward the corny script and accept the challenge: to create a performance that rises above--or penetrates below--the surface obviousness and possible banality of the material to become a profound, complex and subtle performance of one of life's basic relationships, and tensions.