- by Jacob Coakley
“The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” —George Burns
I’m in the preliminary phases of a new writing project—the point where if I read something interesting online I clip it into a notebook for inspiration, where most of my writing is being done off prompts that help me flesh out the characters. And it was those exercises that reminded me of the George Burns quote at the top of this article.
I first heard that quote from an acting teacher in college. He thought it was hysterical; I thought it was heretical. At that point I was every inch a callow youth of 19 years. Everything was measured in how authentic it was, how real, how vital, how emotional. And I had an overabundance of emotion—I wanted to be an actor, for goodness’ sake. Why would you need to fake sincerity? I thought. If you have it, you have it. If you don’t—get off the stage.
But as I’ve moved through the years, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in that phrase. Anyone who’s been in a show that’s run for more than two weekends (opening and closing) knows that a show can become a slog. It can become repetitive. It can become work. And no one has the emotional stamina to truly feel all the emotions in Oedipus Rex night after night after night. It’ll make you go a little crazy. After all, there’s a reason it’s called acting, and not being. You need the skill to act, you need the skill to represent a very convincing simulacrum of emotion, without actually falling prey to the same despair that causes people to stab out their eyes.
The important part is that the audience feel it. If a play—the actors, set, lights, all of it—does a good job of representing the worst of us, the audience will happily feel the most wrenching of emotions and thank us for the opportunity. That catharsis is why people go to the theatre.
Which is why I was really happy this morning when in my writing exercises I suddenly flipped from writing about my characters in third person (“He has a dark brown hair, shockingly blue eyes…”) to first person (“A morning’s not a morning unless I’m yelling at someone.”). I realized I had gotten that much closer to character’s emotions, and, in turn, my own. Eventually someone will have to act this, and convince others they do feel it—but I still feel that the emotion at the core of each play has to be real. It has to start from an emotionally true place, a place I recognize emotionally, so that others will, too. So I’m glad that my writing is leading me there, leading me to a place of true emotions. (Even if it is a little mean right now.) Later on I’ll fake it. For now, I just want to explore it.