Logging Hours on the Stage

The problem in this country is that beginning actors who have only just now completed school and been given their wings want to take part in piloting large passenger planes.

In A.B. Yehoshua's book "Open Heart," the protagonist Benjamin (Benjy) Rubin is forced to specialize in the field of anesthesiology, despite his ambition to be a surgeon. A senior anesthesiologist who supervises his training tells him something to the effect of: "Think of yourself as pilot of the soul, who has to ensure that it hovers painlessly in the space of sleep, floating peacefully, without falling and without getting hit. But also to gauge that it does not soar too high and sneak mistakenly into the next world."

Regrettably, newspapers sometimes report about how anesthesiologists collapse under the burden of their work and, themselves fall asleep on the job. "Because who are doctors? It's all a myth," says Elisha to Nina in Hanoch Levin's "Packing Suitcases," before he marries her and takes her to Vienna. And Ninas' sister Bella, who will later go to London (which is not waiting for her) tells Nina: "One day one goes to Europe with a smile, the next day one returns to Asia with tears."

Here in "Asia," pilots have also been a myth, and the slogan was "the best men fly" until a certain pilot was appointed chief of staff and we went to war. But beyond our bitter experience with myths, being a pilot is still a profession in which experience is chalked up and measured in flight hours logged on various types of aircraft. A flight log is what makes it possible to help evaluate a pilot's skill.

It seems to me that logging hours is a concept worth borrowing for the field of acting in the theater. Acting on the stage is indeed a glamorous dream, a talent or a gift, and a path to glory (paved with suffering, to be sure), but above all, it is a craft. To excel, talent, a proclivity or desire are not enough. It is also necessary to acquire skills involving control over one's body, voice and soul, in an artistic field where the actor is both the instrument and the work of art. In addition to the phase of acquiring the skills and developing the talent ("Art is 10 percent talent and 90 percent perspiration"), however, there is also an equally necessary phase of developing practical experience, in which the skills that have been acquired are put to use - not in a simulator, but rather "for real." Graduates of acting schools who go to auditions and are waiting tables in the meantime are actors only in theory.

This is one of the reasons local universities have found it difficult to accommodate theater departments. Theater exists in Israel's academic institutions as a field of established theoretical research, of course, and many researchers have indeed expanded our knowledge of the nature of this amazing art, and have also done creative work in related areas. But acting is learned mainly through acting. It is true that it is important to develop the actors' personalities, expand their horizons and allow them to express themselves, but it is in fact even more important to allow them the experience, again and again, of being on stage, with partners, in front of an audience. Even more important than that is taking part in a genuine dramatic work of art, not in a "project" that has been created by actors fresh out of drama school with materials from their lives, under the guidance of someone who has a lot of inspiration and a creative idea - but rather in a performance of one of the thousands of plays that have been written during the thousands of years of the existence of the art of the theater, have been tried successfully, have won recognition and are now waiting to have new life breathed into them.

In fact, the most important experience, which rookie actors manage to acquire only very rarely, is similar to that absorbed during the hours a pilot flies on instruments or in formation: that is to say, experience in appearing before a large audience in maximal coordination with other actors, each of whose personality and acting capabilities are slightly different, with each one of them on his own and all of them together flying according to a set flight plan (i.e., involving both the individual part and the play as a whole). The important thing is that the flight plan be determined in advance - based on the play as it has been written and the staging as it has been crafted by the director and designers. But the path itself is "piloted" by the actors. They are responsible for the play taking off, not getting lost in space, arriving safely and landing softly with all its passengers in tow, at its destination.

The problem, at least in this country, is that beginning actors who have only just now completed school and been given their wings, want to take the controls of a large passenger plane. They therefore flock to the doorsteps of established theaters, where some of them spend many years as junior flight attendants on flights packed with demanding passengers, without logging any real stage hours. Others immediately accumulate many hours of "solo flights" via stand-up evenings, non-theatrical performances and television programs - sometimes with genuine success. This, of course, develops their self-confidence, but very often later interferes with their ability to find the right place in a formation that demands precision, humility and coordination with others.

I have seen many talented and promising actors, who have invested many efforts and have succeeded (luck also helps), accumulating hours of stage time over a number of years, after being the stars of their class in school. I have seen clearly what experience gives to an actor. This is not something that can be learned or taught. This is something that has to be gained firsthand.

Most of these actors, if they have not succeeded in breaking through in the establishment theater or in the entertainment field, turn to writing plays or creating theatrical projects about their lives or about Israeli reality. It does not occur to them that one can gather a group of colleagues and log stage hours by producing and acting in one of the thousands of plays from various eras and cultures that are at their disposal and waiting in the wings.

No one offers stage hours; they are there for the taking. And without them no one can be an actor. Veteran actors, with thousands of hours of stage time under their belts, have learned it the hard way, personally. They know that that is the situation, far better than the youngsters brimming with talent, youth and hope.