All The World’s A Stage
22nd April 2017
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts….
Like many things, the craft of acting has probably become overshadowed by things which originally had little do with its practice (fame and fortune by and large). Professionalisation and commercialisation have part-removed the play and the practice of acting from its roots.
Many think acting is something that actors do. But it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, storytelling in this way was something accessible to all. I often have the feeling that it would be beneficial to a greater number of people were it to become more freely and widely practiced once again.
Acting reveals to us that however small our part, what we do does have an impact, however small that might be. Everything counts because we are all connected. And if we take that insight back into our everyday lives, we change the world – not in the grandiose, sloganeering sense, so commonly barked at us these days – just simply that we affect the people around us, and that they then affect the people around them.
We not only learn of our impact on those around us from the craft of acting, we can also come to understand things about oursleves. Things previously hidden in plain sight within our ordinary daily lives. This is something the great teacher Keith Johnstone intuitively understood and worked on with his students when accessing and playing within the imagination and the unconscious of those who studied with him.
Johnstone’s work on improvisation was ground-breaking. With his actors he began to explore how to make them more spontaneous, responsive and alive in their work. Beginning from the realisation that rather than children being immature adults, adults were atrophied children, he began to question his own poor schooling experiences.
Johnstone felt that the education system repeatedly blunted creativity, his own and others before and since, and compiled a list of rules of ‘things teachers stopped me from doing’. He then encouraged his students to do the opposite. His unorthodox technique was a success and led to his position as the master of improvisation techniques.
It is a pity that his wonderful techniques do not find the wider audience they deserve. They have a tremendous worth beyond the acting world. We are – regardless of the presence of a stage – acting all the time. Though we might not know it, we play many parts. Johnstone would probably be in agreement that the idea that there is a unified, coherent or true self residing doesn’t make sense, even though it may be a consolatory thought to many.
We are each a collection of selves – one man in his time plays many parts. All of us are different people in different contexts; we are changed by our experiences; we move according to our audience; we take on and let go of roles throughout our lives. We are masterful at pretending – we have to be.
Even if it can be hard to achieve, we have the capacity to change character to play a different part. One way of accessing such possibilities is through the medium of acting. Not by reading about acting, nor by understanding it – but by doing it. And Johnstone’s techniques furnish us with some of the tools.
Johnstone was of the opinion that sanity is a pretence, just a way we learn to behave. We keep up this pretence because we don’t want to be rejected or shut out by others. Privately, most people think they are a little crazier than others and understand from an early age how to shield our personal madness from the world.
But the social expectation to suppress ourselves hampers our spontaneity and originality. We see these things discouraged in schools all the time and the discouragement tends to stick. As we develop into young adults, instead of being allowed to freely voice our innermost thoughts to ourselves or others without fear of judgement, we learn quickly what is or isn’t acceptable to others.
This is often part of the reason people find that therapy can be a liberating experience, and it is also why I think widening acting and improvisation classes could also liberate people to communicate in different ways – spontaneously, creatively, responsively, more truthfully.
In rediscovering the imaginative world of childhood through the vehicle of acting and improvisation, we re-discover the elements that make for more creative communication. The play of theatre extended out into the transactions of everyday life can potentially make all the world a stage for all of the people, rather than the sole domain of the actors we love to watch.