The house lights go down. The chatter in the audience slows to a murmur. Music erupts from the orchestral pit, and the sounds of the overture sweep across the room dispensing foretastes of melodies to come. As actors and actresses fill the stage, the drama begins, and the audience is beckoned to participate, if just for a few moments, in the life of a world both foreign and familiar. It is familiar because the stories are fueled by human emotion and experience, but it is foreign because the things which signify these experiences are dramatic and bold: costumes, music, and dance. And yet as the story progresses, each musical crescendo, each carefully articulated line, and each precise step of dance picks at the edges of the audience’s usual perception of existence and offers them a glimpse behind the layers of mundane daily life. Yes, the average life is not accompanied by an orchestra or spontaneous song and dance, but perhaps there is genuinely a richness to that life that can only be fully expressed in dramatic ways.
Therefore, it is the actors’ and actresses’ responsibility to present this illustration of reality to the audience. A good performer will go far beyond memorizing her lines. She will research and develop her character’s backstory; practice her dances, songs, and blocking [a word for an actor’s planned physical actions on stage] until they are committed to muscle memory; and become intimately familiar with entirety of the script. Good acting is ultimately characterized by the internalization of a character. It is not merely a depiction of a life, but a participation in the life of someone else.
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is notorious for taking extreme measures to reach this sort of participatory solidarity with his characters. An article in the New York Times details some of his methods:
Mr. Day-Lewis is even fussier about what he calls “the work”: his process of preparing and then inhabiting a part. For “The Last of the Mohicans” he taught himself to build a canoe, shoot a flintlock and trap and skin animals. For the opening scene of “My Left Foot,” about Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy, he taught himself to put a record on a turntable with his toes; he also insisted on remaining in a wheelchair between takes and being fed by the crew.
He learned to box, naturally, for “The Boxer,” in which he played a prizefighter and former member of the Irish Republican Army and in the process broke his nose and damaged his back. To play the gang leader Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York,” he took butchering lessons, and to play Abraham Lincoln he half-convinced himself that he was Abraham Lincoln.
There is a correlation between the performing arts and liturgical worship. In worship we are all actors in God’s drama, and we retell the story of redemption. However, in the performing arts we are merely given a re-articulation of the complex joys and sadnesses of life. In contrast, in the liturgy, our lives are actually recapitulated and rectified and brought into the fullness life that is only found in communion with God in the Church. We participate in God’s salvific story in a much more profound and real way than Daniel Day-Lewis ever participated in the life of any of his characters. When we receive Christ’s body and blood at the Lord’s table we are further conformed into the likeness of Christ. Over time this becomes more and more natural as we internalize the liturgical prayers, movements, and psalms. When the liturgy becomes second-nature, worship has the opportunity to become something that defines us rather than something that we occasionally do.