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  • The Actor's Nature in Mise-en-scène: Chekhovian Kinesthesia and Cinematic PerformanceVolume 75, No. 3, November 2013
  • Ian Dixon

What is the nature of cinema? What is it about what has been called the "actor's nature" that makes such a vital contribution to the art of film? And what opportunities, otherwise discouraged, does the actor's nature offer for filmic expression, for the enrichment of its mise-en-scène?1

In this talk, I will not so much give answers to such questions as suggest ideas and approaches, which are at times speculative and creative and at other times experiential and inter-disciplinary. I will cross-pollinate theories from acting gurus, screenwriting experts, filmmakers, and cinema theorists alike. I will also consider the nature of the actor propelled into the territory of the writer-director through the discoveries of theatre and film. Overall, my project challenges a great deal about divisive academic disciplinarity, instead concentrating on connectivity. To work toward that end, I shall concentrate on two truly gifted actors who have already bridged this gap from interpretive to primary artist, from actor to writer to director. For a principal source, I turn to Russian theatre practitioner, Michael Chekhov (1891–1955); to a lesser extent, I turn for illustration to a man whom Raymond Carney calls the "spiritual father of American independent film-making" himself, John Cassavetes (1929–1989) (On Cassavetes 527).

Before going much further, allow me to frame a series of questions for our consideration today:

  1. 1. What is the actor's nature?

  2. 2. How does the actor's nature express itself?

  3. 3. What opportunities does the expression of the actor's nature offer the director?

  4. 4. What imperatives underlie the commercial screenplay?

  5. 5. How is Chekhov's approach to writing based on the actor's nature?

  6. 6. What five points best constitute Chekhov's acting theory?

  7. 7. How are the screenwriter and director affected by the actor's nature?

  8. 8. What conclusions may we draw? [End Page 338]

1. What is the actor's nature?

To begin, how do we define the nature of this beast known as cinema, which is already prismatic and draws from interdisciplinary art-forms—this cinema, which is so mechanised and manipulated it could hardly be said to have a nature all? Does it come down to the nature of individual artists in a structuralist, auteurist, or even solipsistic argument? Or is there a methodology for assessing the core of the filmmaking experience in the qualitative terms of action research? Perhaps we might discover it by musing on what it could be.

Let us say we start with the actor's nature as a fundamental creative link in the chain of filmmaking. To the industry outsider, it might seem that actors are respected members of filmmaking teams. However, the practical reality is that actors are not necessarily trusted by directors or even writers, and directors don't necessarily know what to do with actors, often unwittingly damaging the actor's process. Yet, if actors were not only trusted but viewed as vital tools within the mise-en-scène, the result could enhance not only the on-screen performances of actors but the quality of films overall.

For a definition of nature, I reach, somewhat laterally, to the profound illuminations of Chekhov's actual theatre. Chekhov believes that genuine actors possess a nature that allows them to inhabit the internal process of performance regardless of their ability to articulate it. According to Morris Carnovsky of the Group Theatre, Chekhov knew the actor's nature better than any other theorist, including his teacher and mentor, Constantin Stanislavsky (Byckling). Chekhov suggests that brilliant actors draw on their "soul" in performance. By contrast, the ungifted actor "has no 'how' in his soul" (Lessons 140), meaning that ungifted actors are unable to perform truthfully and that their articulations about the craft are, therefore, useless. For Chekhov, himself a brilliant actor—you might remember him from such films as Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) or Ben Hecht's Spectre of the Rose (1946)—gifted performers achieve access to a "higher-level."1 This concept is an amalgam of actor and character that, when...


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