The Age of Imitation

It was 2010. I was taking my first ever college-prescribed acting course. I had joined the course thinking that it would be a lot of “doing” and in being so, the course load would be light. You can imagine the disappointment that washed over 19 year old me when I was sent home the first day with a book in hand. The book was Uta Hagen’s “Respect for Acting” — I remember cracking it open & being greeted with its dryness (no offense, Uta — it was probably just where I was in life) — its very requirement for being read feeling like a small form of punishment. I suffered through every minute of it — desperate to be out of the book and onto the stage where I believed I belonged. Naive and impatient and thinking I knew better than dear Uta. It all seems silly now years later. In having lived a bit longer, long enough to see the patterns of life — I find myself laughing at how life’s punishments— or those we perceive as such — end up often times being life’s greatest teachers. Book or not.

I don’t remember much from the text. As we know, I was hardly a willing participant. In the spirit of full disclosure, to be completely honest, I only remember one single Uta-given concept. Lucky for me its also my favorite Uta-given concept because you guessed it — its the only one I know. Page 11 (I’m not joking): the two kinds of acting representational & presentational. Uta describes these two kinds as follows: representational acting is “flamboyant, external & formalistic” in illustrating the characters behavior. To put it clearly, it is mere imitation of a characters emotion. The appearance of tears without the accompaniment of sadness. Presentational acting is the outcome of an actor who builds the required inner life needed for said character & lives the emotions that the scenes require. This actor cries because he/she actually feels sadness. Long 7-page story short — Uta is in favor of the latter. Presentational acting is the mark of a true actor.

We’ve probably gotten to the point where you’re wondering — “sorry, Uta — but why do I need to know this?” Which to be honest was probably what I too asked myself back in 2010. I now imagine Uta sitting in a rocking chair, Russian accent, grey center parted low bun (this is my Uta, you can imagine your own) saying, “Cheyanne, this isn’t just an acting lesson this is a life lesson.” Do you hear her? I really here the Russian accent on the word “life.” And boy, is Uta — swinging in her rocking chair — right. The concept is a life lesson; Uta said acting but she was talking about living. There are two kinds of living — representational and presentational. Let’s all sigh “ahhhh” together.

I’ve noticed this duality much more in recent years. I’m sure you have too. It is most obviously seen & spoken about within social media. The story of the appearance of a happy sought-after life without the emotional experience of said happy life is widely told & offered up. A modern take on the age old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The text used to be better than the cover, now we have pretty covers that are lacking within! The same can be said for so many other entities — I’m sure you’ve already thought of many more yourself. Though there are many — there is one form in particular that I find to dwarf the rest. It’s the whole reason we’re here folks — the rise of the representational inspirational figure.

Can we take a second & remember back in the early 2000s when young people in the public eye would say, “I’m not a role model.” They would be wearing one of those amazing Ed Hardy hats & a great Christian Audigier dragon tee and in addition to missing this iconic look, what I really miss is that honesty. We’re all so fixated on being inspirational now. But being inspirational we’ve realized often requires struggle and sacrifice, perseverance and a fight — things that seem really time consuming, don’t look great and are well, hard — so we’ve decided to cheapen the word & redefine it so that everyone can be it & reap the same benefit of being well regarded. Being inspirational is now representational not presentational. It is the appearance of a war won without a single battle fought.

Today, everyone wants to inspire others with their words — I think we used to say this was the definition of being “encouraging” — but gone are the days of silent mouths and loud lives. The goal used to be “to do the right thing” — Martin Luther King, George Washington, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the list goes on & on, were not trying to be inspirational they were speaking their truth, fighting their fight & the byproduct of that sheer tenacity was a legacy that would live on & breathe inspiration into generations to come. But I would argue it was never the goal. These inspirational figures were met with disgust & today, we seek to skip A thorough Y and get to Z for the part where everyone loves us & thinks we’re great & wants to be us. A part of the story that some of these individuals never even lived to see themselves. Do you see the difference here? It’s the difference between self serving and selflessness. Its bled into politicians, millions of blogs, influencers, strangers, ourselves. The list is endless.

Why is this a bad thing? To be concise — none of the work gets done. Are we showing up to the marches for the Instagram photo — safe from water boarding & beatings — or are we really trying to create change? Are we making the calls? Are we raising the money? Would we be here if we were being treated poorly? If we were harmed? Are we acting more than we’re talking about acting? It’s okay if we’re not — but we need to get out of the way and let the attention find those that are actually doing the damn thang (Fabolous — with an intentional double O — shout out). Which goes to my second point — the noise of pretenders buries those that are truly inspirational. Why is this harmful? Because truly inspirational lives teach us so much about strength and the world and right and wrong. They inspire us to dig deep and think that maybe we too can be brave and meet our reckoning with that same powerful will. The mere imitation of an inspirational figure lowers the bar that pushes all of us to fight for the best in ourselves and the best, more importantly, that we can give to others.

Acting is the imitation of life. It is not surprising that in describing the art of acting, Uta would be simultaneously describing the very art of living. In both there is a superior way. It is the harder, longer, less photogenic way. Sometimes the less acknowledged way. But I promise you it is valuable and changes lives and breathes life into those who witness it. It’s not always applauded — my Mom & Dad are two of the most inspirational people I know & they’re not going around telling their story; me seeing it was enough. It’s content centric. We’re back to the ratty book cover and life changing story within ya’ll! We’re back to the way its always been meant to be. If only we demand it of both ourselves and others, we’re back to what we should all be focusing on — others. And wouldn’t that be truly inspirational?

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