Some thoughts on Realism

Gall looking up

Brendan Gall during rehearsals for Galileo.

thanks to Sky Gilbert for prompting me to write this by thinking I had written it before. It is something I’ve been thinking about performing again in Perhaps in a Hundred Years.


“Realism” in theatre is often used to mean “realistic portrayal” – a style of acting in which the actor really seems like this other person. This style is dominant in film and TV and as such tends to dominate acting training. This is the “realism” that might be almost interchangeable with “naturalism.”

Another style of realism might be “dealing with the reality of the situation” – where in the situation is being in a room, performing for others who are watching. The performing that is being done could even include the “realistic portrayal style” of acting – but with an added realism of acknowledging the basic event going on.

It is this second style that I’m most interested in these days, though I am much less dismissive or judgemental of the first kind than I used to be.

The second kind of realism is NOT more authentic. The kind of the appearing-casual, appearing non-performing performance that I am often involved in shouldn’t make “authenticity” claims. I am not in the position to judge anyone elses authenticity, especially in trying to turn that judgement into a power play. I am, in being casual in front of a bunch of people, very much performing. If I were being authentic in that situation, I would run and hide. Or try desperately to tap dance in order to at least be doing something. This performing isn’t a bad thing. It’s what people might have come to see.

There is an honesty I appreciate in admitting we are in a room together, doing this funny thing called performing. I like that it doesn’t ignore or deny the audience performer relationship – but I don’t think this equals “authenticity.”

My understanding of this second realism is strongly related to the influences on me of Brecht, The Wooster Group, Jacob Wren, Nadia Ross, Darren O’Donnell, Forced Entertainment, relational art and “postdramatic theatre” . As well as the work I’ve done in collaboration with Dustin Harvey, Ame Henderson and Chad Dembski. All of us make different choices around these realisms but I feel like there are shared questions. Viewpoints and Clown-through-mask are also training strategies that have shaped the way I understand the doing of this – even though the work I do is distant from those practices.

The second realism, in my understanding, is also very present in more entertainment/commercial performing styles – vaudeville, stand up, sketch, musical. These are also clear and significant influences on my work and I am ever trying to run back and forth between these two paragraphs of influences.

I’m not sure what the question or even the polemic is here.
Maybe I am trying to clarify my thinking – move it along, past assumptions of what my position should be.

Not sure I’m there yet. Better questions – always looking for better questions.

Loose thoughts at the end.

Even the most spectical vocal-track pop superstar concert has a moment of turning out to say “thanks for coming out.” This acknowledgement is a form of realism.

It’s also part of what I like about readings. The realism of reading aloud and music stands is undeniable.

This realism is the realism of task-based performance.
Performing a “realistic portrayal” is also a task.

This realism has less to do with “naturalism” (a term that can only make me think of Brechts’ prologue to The Exception and the Rule:

We ask you expressly to discover
That what happens all the time is not natural.
For to say something is natural
In such times of bloody confusion
Of ordained disorder, of systematic arbitrariness
Of inhuman humanity is to
Regard it as unchangeable.

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