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The Working Actor

The Power of Belief in Performance

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The Power of Belief in Performance
Photo Source: Clay Rodery

I got into a mild dustup at our son’s preschool a few eons ago. One of the moms was working as a teacher’s helper and was explaining weather to the children. She was not a scientist, but she was a mom—which makes her close to being an expert on everything that matters. One of the little dears raised her hand and asked, “Where does thunder come from?” The mother looked her straight in the eye with a huge smile and said, “Don’t you know? It’s when two clouds bump into one another.”

I was not amused. I asked her afterward, “Why did you say that? They are kids. They were listening. Why not tell them the truth? Thunder happens when lightning heats up the air. The rapid expansion of the air creates sound, which we hear as thunder. Since sound travels slower than light, we hear thunder after we see lightning. That is why we have evolved the complex metric of counting ‘one chim-pan-zee, two chim-pan-zee’ after seeing lightning, to calculate how far away the storm is.”

The mom stared at me and said, “I thought that would be a bit much.”

I said, “Of course it is a bit much, but so is telling them something completely untrue that they now will have to unlearn someday.”

I often think about that conversation. Who was right? The lens of time has taught me that confrontation uncovered a deeper truth. It is a truth that applies to all human nature in general and acting in specific. Belief is easy.

People can believe in anything. We experience much of what we see in the world the same way those schoolchildren believed thunder was caused by clouds bumping into one another.

I taught drama to children when I was 19. One of my students got cast as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” I was there opening night like a proud papa. She was very good, especially in the tantrum scene where she ruins the family’s dinner by throwing food. Opening night, the food props for the dinner were perfection. They had real ham, steaming vegetables, mashed potatoes, pickles, and lemonade. The audience was salivating.

I came back twice over the course of the run. Seems like the financial aspects of providing a real Sunday dinner became too much for the production to handle. They cut back. My next visit, the ham and the loaf of bread were made of papier-mâché. My last trip, all of the food was fake except for the pickles—and there was a sign backstage that said, “Please don’t eat the pickles.”

The amazing thing was, it didn’t matter. All of the audiences believed in the dinner. They believed because the actors believed.

Perhaps “real” is not necessary to find “true.” And in a belated apology to that dear mother, you showed me something profound, something Plato commented on in “The Republic”: that “real” is a matter of opinion.

Belief is the lens that can make anything true.

Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor, author of "The Dangerous Animals Club," and teaches improvisation for Kalmenson and Kalmenson.

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