Acting, a mystery
by Charles Shaughnessy
I have often been asked why I gave up a serious, sensible and smart career in the law for the insecure, irresponsible and immature ambitions of “acting.” My first answer is that I discovered very early on that lawyers were simply not “my tribe.” Nice enough people, intelligent, humorous, personable . . . but just not the people with whom I would want to share a deserted island or even a late-night drink.
I felt more “at home” with actors, directors, writers: show-folk. My next rationale was that, of course, acting was the “thing” I wanted to do with my life. It was simply what gave me joy, ambition and direction. But recently I have had more time to reflect on a deeper why and, at the risk of sounding preposterously pompous, here is how I might answer that same question now.
At its best, and we all strive for the best in any profession, (if we don’t we should seriously question our career choice), acting provides us with a unique opportunity to make a living out of what, for most people, is a rare and almost sacred state of consciousness. Okay, let me explain.
In ancient Greece the actor was a priest, and the play a form of religious ceremony. In Medieval Europe, the earliest form of “acted” entertainment were the mystery plays, of which the original was the “Quem Quaeritis?”: a liturgical dialogue between an angel and the women at the empty tomb of Christ. Gradually the dialogue became more colloquial and the content expanded outside of religious stories to include the more secular and popular folk tales of the day.
Even now the stage and altar are close if not adjacent. To witness my old parish priest in Suffolk, Father Horton, intone the Eucharist with the mellifluous gravity of Gielgud, or captivate his congregation with a sermon that moved even the front row of nuns to tears and laughter, was to witness as good a “performance” as one could see on any stage. This ancient synergy between priest and actor is no coincidence.
There is something deeply spiritual and magical about that moment an actor walks onto a stage and begins his dialogue. It delineates a transition from one reality to another. In the conspiracy between actor and audience, congregant and priest, the observers are asked to suspend their disbelief and accept as real what they recognize as ritual or artifice.
The celebrant, on the other hand, enters a meditative state where personal ego is set aside, and service to the text and its deeper meaning is paramount. Bathed in the warm glow of the lights and surrounded by his co-conspirators on the stage, the personality of the actor and all that that means, disappears. In its place is this “other” who inhabits an imagined realm energized, focused, belonging and present.
The word religion comes from the Latin words: “ligo, ligere” – “to tie”, and “re” the preposition meaning “back.” It describes mankind’s pre-historical desire to “tie back” to his natural surroundings. Alienated by his self-consciousness and desperate to feel “at one” with his overwhelming Universe, he creates a mythology to help him escape a profound loneliness and isolation. Alternatively, the Existentialists answered the helplessness of a “meaningless” existence with a call to action in the “moment by moment” of life.
Human existence is defined by the individual’s willingness to live each moment fully and passionately, making choices and living by those choices. Well, what does an actor do onstage other than describe the human condition through mythology or fable (even a contemporary fable), while operating in pure “action,” stripped of personal ego, inhabiting some shaman-like alter-ego and living moment by moment, making “true” choices and suffering the consequences?
Those two hours on the stage are about as existential as you can get and, when the actor is “in the zone” there is a zen-like quietude that energizes and invigorates in a way that is hard to describe. That is why I traded up from law to acting and that is why I feel privileged and fortunate to call this my career.Tags: Acted entertainment, Acting onstage, Actor, Ancient Greece, Charles Shaughnessy, Entertainment industry, Existentialists, Film and TV business, Finding one's calling, Hollywood, Living in the moment, Medieval Europe, Mystery plays, Parish priest, Performance, Quem Quaeritis?, Religious ceremony, Theater