Thursday, March 9, 2017

Is Performing an Art Form?

Are actors, singers and musicians performing other people's creations actually artists? What do they create? This week I dive into the specifics of performing arts.

When performers enjoy themselves they pass this joy on to the audience.

Nowadays we have quite a culture of idolizing actors, musicians and singers. But being a writer, I kept wondering:
Art is about creating. Writers create stories. Composers create music. Artists create drawings and paintings. Architects create buildings. Sculptors create sculptures. Game developers create games. But what do actors, musicians and singers do other than perform what other people have created?
As long as a singer doesn't perform his or her own songs he or she doesn't really create anything tangible. The words coming out of their mouth, the melody ... Nothing really belongs to them. - Or does it?

How to Waste Talent: Actors vs. Writers

I have to admit that it does sadden me when the names written on movie or theater posters are only those of the director and the main actors. After all, both film and theater are art forms that can't exist without team work. And the person playing the core role in the project the whole team works on is actually the scenarist. Even if you are the most talented director and have excellent actors it's really hard make a good movie or play if you don't have a good script to work with.

There are many movies and plays that are just "meh" at best despite being performed by great actors. And sometimes good actors are even accused of playing badly while the real problem is actually that their role was written poorly. It's my personal opinion, but I think this is what actually happened to Robert Pattinson in the Twilight saga. If you ask me, it's just a very bad movie series and I found Pattinson's acting just weird. Yet since I liked his acting in other movies I concluded that the problem may actually lie in how his character was written. For me, it's a typical case of a waste of talent.

Musicians and Singers vs. Composers and Poets

There are many people out there with good voices and high singing skills. There are many people with great musical talent. And yet ... Let me explain by using an example:

Eurovision is so bad that I genuinely enjoy watching it. And you're welcome to hate me for saying this, but I find that most contestants actually can sing. The problem with Eurovision is: Most of them sing about crap. They sing songs that are mere collections of clichés, not able to really touch the audience anymore. There is a severe lack of originality then it comes to composing as well. Almost every song sounds like you've already heard it somewhere. The only good thing about Eurovision is actually the show: It gets crazier with every year. After all, it's called Eurovision. It's generally more about visuals than music.

Even outside of Eurovision I've noticed an interesting thing: Give a mediocre-seeming singer a good song for a change and they might actually blow you away, showing their full potential for the first time. I see it quite regularly on Russian TV: I hate Russian pop music, but there are many TV shows in which Russian pop singers perform legendary songs. And this is when those mediocre singers actually amaze me, proving that they can sing divinely. It seems all they need are good songs.

What Makes a Truly Ingenious Performer

So do performing artists entirely depend on writers and composers while getting all the fame? Is their art just empty without someone to fill the shell? Well, not really.

There are also reverse cases when performers managed to turn a mediocre piece into something ingenious. If you ever found a cover version of a song much better than the original, then you know what I'm talking about. Even in the world of literature I've been in quite a few situations when a reader adored something about a story that not even the author had noticed yet.

Truly great actors, singers and musicians don't just perform what other people have created. They put an additional meaning into it. No performance is like another. Just compare all the different actors who had had the privilege to play Sherlock Holmes. The source material is the same, but every Holmes is unique. It has much to do with script and directing, of course, but also with the way the actors move, with their faces, their voices ... Every Sherlock actor has added something of himself to the character.

Some movies and plays can't even work without great acting performances. This is especially true for comedy. While you can make an action movie still enjoyable with explosions and phenomenal CGI you can't make your audience laugh when your actors are boring. The play Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig, for example, is a cross-dressing farce that picks up many clichés and reminds of many other comedies, such like Some Like It Hot. Last month I've seen this play performed by actors of the Moscow Art Theater, the crème de la crème of dramatic arts in Russia. Throughout the whole play I knew what would happen next, but I still laughed like mad. This play isn't cliché-ridden because the writer couldn't do better, but because he apparently consciously embraced them. And so did the actors. Everyone knew it were clichés, and the actors played with them, delivering a hilarious, almost cartoony performance. It was obvious they were genuinely enjoying themselves, and they passed this joy on to the audience.

So What Do Performing Artists Create?

Performing arts are more than an empty shell. They create a perspective. A unique, artistic perspective on another artist's work. And then they create an illusion. They take the words and musical scores created by others and make them come alive. Yes, you can't touch great acting or great music like you can touch a book or a painting, but this is not what is important here. Because art is not about being touched. It is art that is supposed to touch. And a great performance can touch just as deeply as a great story or a great painting.

Do you agree with me? Have you ever doubted the status of music and theater as art? Please leave a comment below.

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