Theatre Information

I’ll Slap You Around

By • Dec 1st, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

A fellow local actor told me the story of his daughter being in a production of The Miracle Worker, playing the role of Anne Sullivan. The play of course involves more than one fight sequence, as Anne works tirelessly to subdue the blind and deaf Helen Keller into civility. One such sequence required that the actress playing Helen slap the actress playing Anne across the face.

There are any number of stage tricks and slights of hand that can be used to make such a slap appear real when it is in fact most harmless. And such tactics were utilized in this production. Until one certain night, when “Helen’s” former acting professor was in the audience. It seems that in an ill advised attempt to show her “best” to her mentor, “Helen” slapped “Anne” in real time with her full hand in the middle of the scene. Right across the face. The sound reverberated across the house, which by then was filled with stunned silence followed by gasps of disbelief from the audience. As well as a lot of pain on the part of “Anne” who later admitted she saw stars, literally, and took a moment to adjust to where she was.

Aside from the fact this act was disrespectful to the actress playing Anne, it was highly dangerous. Rehearsals of such events are in place for a reason; to learn the tricks well enough to prevent injury. The action may have taken place in the heat of the moment, but part of acting is not letting such moments occur at the expense of the other performers on stage. (In this case, the actress being caught totally unawares.)

But even had the use of a real slap across the face been discussed before hand, such a thing should not ever happen on stage, whether planned or unplanned. And that goes for the one being slapped as well as the one doing the slapping.

The foolishness of being the one who slaps on stage at full strength is rather obvious. But what about someone who “asks for it” to help the scene? You hear many stories of people who tell their co-stars to actually slap, punch, kick them, etc during the scene. For “realism.” Or in an extreme loyalty to “The Method.” But just because someone famous does it doesn’t mean you should.

To begin with there is no way to truly prepare for the pain of a full attack. It really is quite painful. And with that pain comes reaction within one’s body and “reptilian brain” if you will that no amount of foreknowledge can override. Anger. Fear. A desire to retaliate, even from peace loving people. All of those emotions and more are common side effects from suffering such pain at the direct hands of another person. And while not everybody feels each of these things, almost everybody with a central nervous system is bound to feel at least some of them.

Which is why you should never asked to be truly slapped. It removes a great deal of control from us when it happens. We may not become a lunatic, and we may not actually slap someone back on stage, but we do have all sorts of extra things to fight down when it happens. Things that may or may not be consistent with our character at the moment. Things we cannot control. And you should be in 100% control of yourself every moment you are on stage. Not only because it is the key to a solid performance, but also because one’s own self is the only thing over which one has any great degree of control over in live theatre.

Commitment to a role and a scene is admirable. Placing one’s total trust in the hands of another accomplished and dedicated actor can be an exhilarating experience. However, certain boundaries need to be maintained in order to keep one’s head about them while on stage, and to keep everyone happy and safe. Especially when, as I mentioned, there are plenty of ways that violence can very realistically be represented on stage. People make a living teaching only that very thing.

And if you feel you cannot react realistically on stage without actually getting throttled? You have a long way to go in regards to your acting ability, I am afraid. That is why it is called a “performance” after all.

I hope I have slapped some sense into you.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.