The actor is the message.
There's a fantastic interview with German actor Sophie Rois - on the occasion of the announcement that she'll be joining the ensemble at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. In amongst her hilariously frank pronouncements (she says she didn't leave the Volksbühne ensemble straightaway because she wanted a bouquet of flowers and a 350 Euro bonus - which, she says, is probably just 116 Euros after taxes), she says some really important things about acting, actors and theatre.
There's one point where the interviewer suggests that she had indeed put herself at the disposal of different directors and different styles at the Volksbühne. Rois immediately counters this by saying that 'I'm not sure the other actors would say that I did that', hinting at her stubbornness and single-mindedness. She says, in a way, that if she had indeed just made herself available to what other people wanted her to do, then the performances would not have been nearly as good. She is so good, so unique, because she creates in a way that no-one else could create - on stage, she writes her own performance, and the artistic voice is as unique as any playwright, director, designer or any creative role to whom we feel more comfortable ascribing an artistic voice.
This is complete anathema to the standard drama teaching in the UK today, which encourages actors to become blank canvases (there are, possibly, exceptions). Actually, the truth of the matter is that a character, a speech, a sequence performed by one actor becomes a completely different (performance) text when it is performed by another actor. Their individualities should be preserved rather than demolished. If I ran a drama school, we would spend less time listening to directors and more time being ourselves to the point of driving everyone else mad.
Then, later, Rois describes the theatrical approach of the Volksbühne as "materialistic", and saying "the actor isn't the medium for the director's message, the actor is the message." This is a profound shift of approach for those of us used to talking about fulfilling a playwright's vision or, more recently in the UK, a director's vision. That never-ending debate between 'director's theatre' and 'playwright's theatre' obscured the truth all along - the director and the playwright aren't on stage, the theatre belongs to, and has always belonged to, actors. It is their play, in the room, in front of an audience, in that building and at that time, which creates meaning. If we ask them fulfil someone else's vision, or to represent something else, their play, in that room, in front of that audience, in that building and at that time, is still creating meaning. It's just creating, in my view, a diminished meaning because everyone's focus is on a written text or a drawn vision that isn't present in the room.
The thing I've found myself telling actors recently is "I dunno what you should do". It drives some people mad, and they think I'm a shit director. Truth is, I probably could (and do) give them a suggestion of what to do in a particular scene or at a particular moment. But I live with my head all the time, and I'm not in love with myself enough to just want to see the inside of my head in front of me.
I want to see what an actor wants to do - how they would act and react in a strange or extreme situation - I want them to take responsibility for their performance, to take control of their performance. I don't want them to be a facsimile copy of something else, trying their hardest to fulfil someone else's vision (and, inevitably, feeling bad about themselves for not quite reaching it). I
I want them to interpret and to go for it in each performance. Mainly to go for it. And meaning be damned. Because it is their theatre, after all.