How Do Actors Act?

A review of Peter Brook’s documentary film "The Tightrope."

Posted Mar 01, 2014

 How Do Actors Act?

 A review of Peter Brook’s documentary film The Tightrope

 Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

How do they do it? How do (good) actors get us, the audience, to suspend belief – even recognition – of the person behind the actor’s mask so we can enter the different reality they have created?

You can have a rare look behind the curtains and the masks by watching Peter Brook conduct a master class, filmed by his son Simon using five hidden cameras to capture the experience without intruding. Brook was born in Britain in 1925 and launched his famous directorial career when a student at Oxford; he then joined The Royal Shakespeare Company (where he directed Olivier, Gielgud, Scofield and Kingsley) and a prolific list of plays and films. His career has spanned two nations, which have honored him with both The Order of the British Empire (1965) and Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (2013). He is a living legend and going strong as he nears ninety.

In this documentary, Brook works with eight students of all nations and various ages in a large Persian carpeted room with little to draw attention away from the task at hand, which in his words is “…making theatre that is real, alive, that touches one…and does not let one go.” The class focuses especially on having the students walk an imaginary tightrope on the carpet. They do so in progressive stages of complexity: alone; with music (improvised with a hand drum or Asian string instrument, or with piano excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute); with words; as pairs, triples and as a group in relation to each other; and with the license to follow their body’s imagination. Every second and every silence count. A group of actors, an ensemble of two or more, can only succeed when they become one, when energy and improvisation flow through all the participants.

We have moments with Brook, facing the camera off center but full visage, when he offers viewers a philosophy as much about life as it is about acting. We can go from “here to here” with élan but only by being completely alive - when we act (sic) as if we are on a tightrope escaping the chasm below only by utter attention yet at ease enough to allow inspiration to enter. He distinguishes the actor from the nonactor by the former’s capacity to imagine through the body (not the head). His notions of a play, for example, playing on words, go well beyond theatre and reminded me of the innocence of a child who delights in enacting what comes to mind unbounded by reality or convention – otherwise known as play.

The closing of a performed play, or our transitory existence for that matter, is not about it being the end, he remarks. What keeps the light burning is when an ending leaves a person or a group having a shared mind (even more than a shared experience). When actors achieve this they feel joy. Brook says we can witness success in theatre if just before the applause there is a moment of silence: that signifies that the actors and audience have touched one another, and want to go further. It is the endless trajectory of a mounting scale of “quality” that Brook believes delivers the gratifying experience of a play well done or a life well lived. 

I had the opportunity to ask Glenn Close about her Oscar nominated role as the cross-dressing Dublin butler in the film Albert Nobbs (2011). You conveyed so much emotion and turmoil yet were so still in the role, how did you do it, I asked? She replied, genuinely, that “It was hard.” I had asked her a question that in many ways is ineffable, not unlike if someone asked me after decades of clinical practice how I did something quite right.

On another occasion, I asked Denzel Washington if Ruby Dee, who stole the show playing his mother in American Gangster (2005), was like his own mother as I tried to understand the electric and authentic intensity of their scenes together. With his million dollar smile, and I fear a tad of impatience with my innocence, he said, "Hey man, I was just acting."

Ha! Just acting.

Where are the master classes, led by living forces the likes of Sir Peter Brook, for my profession (and many other callings)? Where does the tightrope lesson exist that demands (and guides) a keen balance between the science and art of medicine, navigating distance from and proximity to the troubles of others, attending both to what is objective and what is intuitive, and fostering the right blend of attentive listening and speaking out? Sign me up. I can still learn.


Dr. Sederer’s new book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close).

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

Copyright Dr. Lloyd Sederer