When I was eight years old, my mother found me in front of her make-up mirror, my forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands covered with large swatches of her green eye shadow and brown eyeliner.
I was trying to look like Vic Morrow in the World War ll television series Combat! Tough guys had green and brown mud on their faces. Anyone who watched Vic knew that.
Fast forward to this February. I had stumbled into acting a small part in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan. There were a bunch of young actors who had worked together before, and several of them were quite proficient in armed and unarmed stage combat. We were a modern dress production, so we had knife fights along with the usual slaps, kicks, and punches.
I was enchanted watching them work the fights. It was everything I loved about the theater; that part of the theater which overlaps stage magic. We were creating an illusion and the illusion looked so real, there was real doubt as to whether the violence was genuine or not.
The magician and the actor work at different purposes with regard to “suspension of disbelief.” The actor asks us to accept that the cardboard trees in the set function as if they were real. No one thinks a play is unworthy if the interior of a house is indicated with a few blocks of wood. We expect emotional truth, but not necessarily physical truth. The audience is expected to play along.
But the magician has a different task. S/he doesn’t care about “suspension of disbelief.” In fact the magician challenges the audience not to suspend its disbelief. Even if you remain skeptical, I will still fool you says the magician. It doesn’t matter whether you want to play along or not, you will be forced to confront the fact of the woman who has just been cut into two–and your eyes will not be able to disprove it.
So stage combat and special effects make-up belong to that specific realm of theater which seems to duplicate physical reality and hence fools the spectator whether s/he wants to be fooled or not. This has always been a delightful aspect of the theatre for me. I loved the stories of the teen-age Paul Muni dressing up as an old man in make-up and character so convincing, that when he rang the front door of his house, his own mother didn’t recognize who he was. There were leading men, and then there were character actors who could do the transformation. I always most admired the transformers.
Which brings me to this past week. I found a place where I could take a class in stage combat. I had my first class. I’ll tell you more about it later this week in Part II.