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On Imagination - Laurette Taylor : The Qualities That Are Most Important

From Bill Esper’s The Actor’s Guide to Creating a Character:



‘“Laurette Taylor was widely considered one of the greatest actors of the early twentieth century,” Bill says. “Sandy thought she was brilliant. Uta Hagen said she was her idol. Even Stanislavsky agreed; Laurette Taylor was so talented, she was the only American actor he ever invited to perform at the Moscow Art Theatre. If you’ve never done so, I recommend that you read her essay ‘The Quality Most Needed.’ She writes about how important imagination is to an actor, about the importance of staying true to your instincts. Taylor affirms everything you’re learning to do here at the Studio. That essay is something every actor should read.”...talented? I never saw her act myself, she was a bit before my time, but I recall something Martin Landau once said about her.He said that watching her act was ‘almost like this woman had found her way into the theatre through the stage door and was sort of wandering around in the kitchen.’ Another fine actor, Charles Durning, agreed. He saw Taylor perform once and said he thought someone had pulled her in off the street, she was that natural. But how did she do it? “Maybe this is a clue: People say that Laurette Taylor never learned her lines until just before the show opened. During rehearsals, she carried a script and put her entire attention on the other actors. She would get so fascinated by what they were doing that whenever somebody tossed her a cue, it seemed to startle her. She went to her script like she’d forgotten it was there. For all we know, she probably had. She would take a moment to find her line, deliver it, then go back to being fascinated by what everyone else was doing. Odd, right? “Now let’s talk about another great American actor, Paul Muni. He operated a bit differently than Laurette Taylor did. Whenever Muni did a play, he came to the first rehearsal with his lines all memorised.” “The way we learned last year,” says Adam. Bill nods. “I once read an interview where Muni was asked how he prepared for a role. Was it true that he learned his lines by rote before rehearsals started? Yes, Muni said. I do, that’s true. This way, when rehearsal begins, I can look at the other actor and let myself get interested in something about them, their sweater or maybe the brooch they’re wearing, or the highlights in their hair from the glow of the stage lights. And that’s where the work begins, he said. Right there, in that connection.”


“I disagree,” says Vanessa. “Their approaches look different at first blush, but I think they’re the same.” “Tell me why,” Bill says. “Their means might have been different, but the end was the same. Both actors were trying to get the text out of the way so they could listen to and work off the other actor.” Bill grins. “Exactly.” He turns to the class. “Remember what we learned last year? Acting comes alive only when you invest in the contact between you and your partner, then work from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. You play a game of ping-pong with your impulses while the words of the script just ride on top like a boat traveling down a river. The boat’s not in charge, the river is. Your job is to jump on the river and get carried along by the flow.”’



Esper, William; Dimarco, Damon. The Actor's Guide to Creating a Character (p. 96). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Performing in a scene from the play The Glass Menagerie.

(Photo by George Karger)


Laurette Taylor’s essay:



‘I have been asked to discuss, for the benefit of those who may go on the stage, the qualities which are most important as elements of success. If merely the financial or popular success of a woman star is meant, I should say that beauty is more essential than magnetism. But if by success you mean all that is implied by the magical word Art – success in the sense of Bernhardt, Duse and Ellen Terry are successes – I should say most emphatically the reverse. And I should add that imagination is more important than either.


Mere beauty is unimportant; in many cases it proves a genuine handicap. Beautiful women seldom want to act. They are afraid of emotion and they do not try to extract anything from a character that they are portraying, because in expressing emotion they may encourage crow’s feet and laughing wrinkles. They avoid anything that will disturb their placidity of countenance, for placidity of countenance insures a smooth skin.


Beauty is not all-important as an asset, even when the star is not anxious to achieve true greatness. Many of our most charming comediennes are not pretty women. Rather, they are women of great charm and personality. I cannot for the moment recall a single great actress who is a beauty. At least not in the popularly accepted idea of what constitutes beauty.


Personality is more important than beauty, but imagination is more important than both of them.


Beauty as I understand it does not mean simple prettiness, but stands for something allusive and subtle. The obvious seldom charms after one has had to live close to it for any length of time. Being all on the surface, there is nothing left to exhilarate, once the surface has been explored. On the other hand, the beauty which emanates from within becomes more enchanting upon close acquaintance. It is constantly revealing itself in some new guise and becomes a continual source of joy to the fortunate persons who have the privilege of meeting it frequently.


That is beauty of the imagination, and that beauty all the really great actresses have.


The case of [Sarah] Bernhardt is as good an example as one would wish. In her youth, especially, she was the very apotheosis of ugliness; still, through the power of her rich imagination that glorified her every thought and act, she held her audiences in the hollow of her hand. It is the strength and richness of her wonderful creative mind that makes it possible for her to present the amazing illusion of youth which she does even today.


It isn’t beauty or personality or magnetism that makes a really great actress. It is imagination, though these other qualities are useful.


You see a queer little child sitting in the middle of a mud puddle. She attracts you and holds your interest. You even smile in sympathy. Why? Simply because that child is exercising her creative imagination. She is attributing to mud pies the delicious qualities of the pies which mother makes in the kitchen. You may not stop to realise that this is what is going on in the child’s mind, but unconsciously it is communicated to you. It is the quality of imagination that has held your attention …


We create in the imagination the character we wish to express. If it is real and vital to us in imagination we will be able to express it with freedom and surety. But we must conceive it as a whole before we begin to express it.


There will be those who will disagree with me and say that magnetism presupposes imagination. This is a mistake. Many magnetic actresses are wholly lacking in imagination, their hold upon the public resting chiefly upon personality and charm and beauty. Have you ever gone to a tea party where you met some very magnetic woman who radiated charm, who not only held your attention but exhilarated you until you became impatient to see this scintillating creature on the stage, where you might realise the fullness of her wonder? And have you not felt, when your opportunity came and you saw her on the stage at last, the disappointment of realising a wooden lady with a beautiful mask for a face, speaking faultlessly articulated lines – an actress who rose desperately to the big moments of her part, and who never for a moment let you forget that it was she, that actress, whom you saw, not the character whom she was portraying? There may have been splendid acting but you were conscious of the fact that it was acting. There was no illusion. She was conscious at the big climax that she was acting this part and that she must reach this climax. She was acting as much to herself as to you.


That is not the art of the great actress.


The imaginative actress builds a picture, using all her heart and soul and brain. She builds this picture not alone for the people out in front but for herself. She believes in it and she makes the people across the footlights believe in it. Unless she has done this she has failed. She must stimulate the imagination of the audience. An actress should not only be able to play a part; she should be able to play with it. Above all, she should not allow anything to stand between her and the thing she is expressing.


How often does an actress play a part so as to leave you with the feeling that you have so intimate a knowledge of the character that you could imagine its conduct in any position, aside from the situations involved in the action of the play? Unless this happens, you feel that after all you have seen a limited portrayal of the character and you realize that though the acting was practically flawless there was something missing. And, in nine cases out of ten, that is because the woman playing the part did not use any imagination. She was entirely bound by the tradition of the theatre. She did everything just as it would have been done by anyone else on the stage. This is fatal.


You feel untouched by the play because it was not made real to you.


The artist looks for the unusual. She watches everyone, always searching for the unusual in clothes, in manner, in gesture. The imaginative actress will even remember that the French have characteristics other than the shrug!


...



The most interesting thing to me in acting is the working out of the character itself, the finding of that which is uncommon and the small, seemingly insignificant trait which will unconsciously make an appeal to the audience and establish the human appeal. Too much importance is laid on clothes. In the main, I think that all clothes hamper unless they express the character. Personally, I detest ‘straight’ parts for that reason. They necessitate the clothes that make me self-conscious – or, rather “clothes conscious”.


I want to get right inside the character and act from the heart as well as from the head. That is impossible unless one is free from outside interference.



I think actresses pay too much attention to the tradition of acting. That is a great mistake. It cramps creative instinct. I received a good deal of criticism for my walk in The Bird of Paradise. Some of the critics said I should be taught how to walk across the stage. Of course I paid no attention to that. My walk was the walk of the barefoot Italians who carry loads on their heads, and I had learned it from them. It was certainly not the traditional stage walk, but we are living in a time when simplicity and truth are the watchwords of the theatre. The traditional stage walk would not have fitted the character I played.



The stage has come to a period of simplicity. A few years ago the direct attitude adopted by the younger actresses of today toward their roles would have been considered ridiculous. The changes have been positive but subtle, and the actress without concentration has been unable to discern them. They are the ones who are still sparring for time in their emotional scenes, using the traditional tricks to express grief, joy, surprise, chagrin; and they wonder why they are sitting at home without engagements. They cannot comprehend that the very little basket of tricks which made them the idols of a few years ago fails utterly to get results today …



The time has come when we may as well realise that we can no longer give a filmy portrayal of emotion and pad it out with stereotyped pieces of “business”. The younger actresses of today express the elemental emotions as the elemental person would express them in real life. There is no such thing as a compromise in the logical development of a character in order to make a theatrical effect …



Too few actresses follow their instinct. I think instinct is the direct connection with truth.



It is not enough to know just what you are to do yourself in the action of a piece; you must know also the exact relation you must bear to every other character in the play.


For instance, take the business of dying. You must in your imagination realise not only the fact that you are dying but the effect which your death will have on every character related to your part. You know that you are not dying and the audience knows it, but in your imagination you must really believe you are. The business of dying becomes actual to you; also, you compel the audience to believe in you by the very sincerity of your attitude.


This trait is really remarkable in Maude Adams. Recall her work in Chantecler. Without her tremendous imagination to gild her impersonation, this frail little woman would have been hopeless in the part. Yet through her marvellous richness of imagination she produced the illusion of bigness that many women better fitted physically could not have done.



One would never say that Maude Adams is beautiful, in the sense that she is pretty or has a beautiful physique; but she has charm, magnetism and imagination. These three make a beauty that transcends mere beauty.


Beauty, personality, and magnetism are not important in the equipment of a star, when compared to the creative faculty of imagination. The first three qualities are valuable adjuncts, and no one should sneeze at them. But you might get along without the slightest beauty and little or no personal magnetism if you were generously endowed with the imaginative mind.'


Laurette Taylor, from a 1921 publication. Photograph by Ray Huff, Chicago.


These are fine words and ideals - and you can actualise them in your work through diligent training!


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