When meeting their full casts for the first time, some directors strongly encourage actors not to view videos and DVDs or listen to CDs of movies based on the play they will perform in a few weeks’ time. And if a director doesn’t say it explicitly, there are actors who take it upon themselves not to watch other actors’ portrayals of the same character. These actors want to "own" their roles and make them their own creations, and their directors encourage them to do so.
There are ample opportunities for actors to borrow from or be influenced by another performer’s work. In the midst of this Age of Information, a few keystrokes on the Internet can provide a video of an amateur performance of a play, suggestions on how to play a character and even a DVD order form that sets in motion a chain of events to send out a movie within a business day. Additionally, many productions mounted at Civic are of shows that are well known and probably have more than a few permanent records. The only wholly original play in this year’s season is Steve Gooch’s In the Weeds, which is part of the Staged Reading Series. I imagine that almost every performer in a Mainstage production has access to a YouTube clip, a CD or something else that has recorded a performance of the show they are in. The same may be true of Civic Under the Stars and Civic Youth Theatre productions.
When they request that actors not watch a movie or listen to a CD of another person’s performance, directors aren’t doing it to limit an actor’s creative choices but to expand them. Sometimes the memories of a beautifully portrayed character show up in a different actor’s portrayal. Unfortunately, actors can only mimic another's performance and they don’t actually connect with the character – they connect instead with the façade presented by the previous performer. If an actor doesn’t examine a character’s wants and desires, if an actor cannot understand and empathize with the actions of the character they portray from that character’s point of view – and this goes for antagonists as well as protagonists – and if an actor attempts to provide only what they perceive as characterization by another actor, the performance falls flat.
And for an audience member … well, I’d rather see an original interpretation of a character than a pale imitation of a more well known performance. If an actor is playing King Lear exactly how Ian Holm played King Lear, why shouldn’t I stay home with a DVD rental of that performance?
Finally, a director asks actors not to be influenced by other performers’ portrayals because those portrayals may not mesh with the director’s vision of the show. Excellent scripts allow for multiple interpretations of the characters. Perhaps the director has conceived a production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which she sees Stanley as the protagonist and Blanche as the antagonist. Perhaps he wants to satirize American apathy and agrarian society rather than turn-of-the-century Russian landowners in a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Perhaps Snow White is a shrew and Prince Charming a buffoon in the director’s mind. The actors who comprised the original 1950s cast of Guys and Dolls portrayed their characters realistically because of the director’s vision. Those actors in the cast of the 1990s revival played them slightly different because director Jerry Zaks’ concept of the show was that of a Sunday newspaper comic strip – bright and broad. It was the first production in which the comedic couple of Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit received equal prominence of the "romantic" leads. And those actors in the cast of the newest revival set to open on March 1 will portray their roles differently as Des McAnuff helms the production.
Actors must own their roles; they cannot borrow “this” from one characterization and “that” from another. To do so creates a muddy portrait of a character that an audience may not be able to understand at all. And if there is no understanding or no recognition, the production suffers.