For most theater and movie goers, the job of the actors on the stage and screen, respectively, is simply to entertain by embodying a particular character. And certainly, this is what actors attempt to do. But in Jeff Zinn’s new book The Existential Actor, the author takes us through the deeper significance of acting by examining how actors use their craft to tap into our unconscious fears and desires through the culturally persistent medium of the story.
Zinn, who is the former artistic director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT), where he worked for over 20 years, combines many schools of acting into his own theory of performance, one which posits that despite major differences between these schools, (for example, classical acting vs. The Method), they all essentially point the actor in the same direction. His mélange of acting theories allows for the performer to pull techniques from a range of possibilities to find the best avenue for embodying and conveying their characters in any given role.
Although this book, (which I reviewed in an audiobook version read by Zinn himself), was likely written for professional actors and students, I have to say it gave me, a non-actor, a lot to think about and will likely do the same for others engaged in any artistic practice. Zinn focuses in on the concept of causa sui, which he explains as the project of constructing our identities to match our own perceived purpose in life. He sees the actor’s job as one of figuring out their character’s causa sui and then using that as the “motivation” for just about everything in the ensuing performance.
While it may seem The Existential Actor is a pretty esoteric work, given its highly specific subject, because the need for storytelling is so strong (not only in our culture, but in every culture that exists or has ever existed) that the ideas behind at least some of those engaged in its practice are worthwhile subjects to examine for us all.
Zinn is not afraid to mix and match the thoughts of philosophers, comedians, actors, and avant-garde theorists in his efforts to present a unifying theory of the actor as the ultimate communicator of existential angst in any given society. Quotes from people as diverse as Tina Fey, André Gregory, Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Laurence Olivier intermingle, helping us to see connections that would not otherwise be evident.
The book succeeds in offering both a primer on different schools of acting for those of us who are not terribly familiar with performance studies, and a new way of looking at acting that doesn’t pit one theory against another, but soaks up the best points from each. Ultimately, The Existential Actor is both a helpful guidebook for those actively pursuing acting as their vocation and a fascinating study of why acting and storytelling matter so much for the rest of us.
Jeff Zinn’s The Existential Actor: Life and Death, Onstage and Off (2015, Smith and Kraus Publishers) is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com, and as an audiobook from Audible.com.