The Fourth Wall is Down!

One of the things I’ve struggled with over the years as an actor is the concept of the “Fourth Wall”. In the theater, the Fourth Wall is supposed to be the invisible wall between the audience and the traditional “box” stage. The challenge to the actor was presented as “be the character — but be heard in the back row” ; “ don’t show any artifice; pretend the audience is not there, etc” Very often I felt I had to fight against artifice creeping into my performance as I tried to fulfill a director’s technical requirements. I remember being rebuked by Herbert Berghof, as I struggled with a bit of business where I was trying to hide my actions from other characters but not from the audience. “IS THAT THE WAY YOU ARE GOING TO DO IT, – FOR YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY WHEN THEY SHOW UP!” — Sweat inducing for a young actor for sure.

This concept of the Fourth Wall I found to be alienating for me. Even in film, the camera lens is the audience. It’s interesting how many comedies like “The Office” now routinely and deliberately break the fourth wall by looking directly into lens.  Now that technique of course does not work for every format, but the principle it reveals is that you can and should make the audience your ally somehow. How do you do that? In my book I go into detail about how characters always have some goal of influence that they are trying to achieve, no matter how subtle–even if they are onstage by themselves, the actor has to know what his “intent” is.

One of the principles of LIFE ACTING is that all of life is a performance. When you are in an argument and there is a party observing, watch how your argument changes! Not only are you trying to “win” the argument, but you are also trying to make an ally of the observer– to get him on your side! When you think about it, there is an element of this in every real life encounter.

In my opinion, the doctrine of the “fourth wall” has made us afraid of the audience. The audience has become our adversary. Our excuse is that we must not let the audience see any artifice. We must fool them. We must be “real”, so we ignore them. The “fourth wall” has alienated us from the camera and from our audiences. That is why I think it must be done away with as a concept.

In its place, LIFE ACTING embraces the audience and the camera as an ALLY. It neither pretends the audience does not exist, nor is intimidated by its judgments. LIFE ACTING accepts that there is always an audience to be wooed, to be convinced, and to be made an ally. For example, if I am Romeo trying to convince Juliet of my love, I will have no problem “being heard in the back row”, if I accept that the guy in the back row is watching and needs to be on my side!

It seems silly to say this. Every actor is obviously aware that there is an audience when he is on stage, or that there is a camera and make up artist five feet away from him as he performs a poignant scene. But many of us are told to ignore these things, or to try to relax in spite of their presence. LIFE ACTING does neither, but says to embrace them, use them, and win them over. The Fourth wall is down! Long Live the Revolution! When we embrace the audience, we eliminate a whole source of tension, anxiety, and conflict within the actor.

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