Critical Incidents in Acting

The idea for the using the term “Critical Incident” came to me during a performance of Re-Inventing the Cheese, our sketch show based on the world of work.

I was working on a monologue with one of our actors, Augustine Flint-Hartle. The monologue was all about a well-intentioned but misguided manager who tries to get everyone “involved” in a work based conference only to discover that all of her plans have come to nothing, and nobody has turned up!

The way Augustine played the part obviously struck a chord with one or two members of the audience who admitted that, in their own organisations, lack of participation and commitment from staff was often down to the patronising and over-simplistic way that some “managers” tend to “manage” other people. Augustine’s portrayal of Ella, the central character in the piece, had “struck a chord” with those audience members who would carry the memory back into their own organisations and perhaps even challenge the behaviour of managers, or even themselves!

What Augustine’s performance, along with the writing had created, potentially, was a Critical Incident – an artistic event that had become significant enough for some, to lead to a real change or a tangible reaction that would be looked back on as significant and memorable. Augustine was in a longer piece with fellow Actor, Alastair Kerr, called “Cemetery”. This was a short dialogue, set in a graveyard, all about “seeing the signs” in life. In the piece, both characters ignored the signs of decline in their own personal lives by focusing on being too reactive in their working lives. In the end both experienced both business and personal demise, ending up as ghosts in their own graveyard – the personal and organisational graveyard!

Once again, the gritty and real performances from Al and Augustine created reactions in some audience members that were significant or “critical” enough to lead to a restlessness to change something. Over the last year I have received a lot of feedback about that sketch creating a “critical incident” in the lives of some of our audience members, particularly those who see danger signs in their own lives after watching and experiencing the piece. Interestingly enough, though I wrote “Cemetery”, I feel it was the quality of the performances that really made the difference. Both Augustine and Al played the piece to perfection, with a calm naturalism that allowed the dramatic quality of the scene’s content to really have impact and expression.

A lot of actors find this hard to do and will underplay a piece to the point where its naturalism is too strong and dampens down the drama of the piece. Many others overplay such a piece and the acting tends to stifle the drama, almost suffocating it. Both Al and Augustine, (who have some pretty interesting life stories of their own to tell), tap into that life experience, combined with their excellent performing skills, and “find the right level” for it, ensuring that it has enough power and impact to create a “critical incident” in some audience members. After a critical incident, you are never quite the same again.

To achieve that in a short theatre piece is a real tribute to Al and Augustine, but also underlines how theatre, when it creates “critical incidents” can be life changing. It leads to the interesting conclusion that being too “loud” or “over the top” in these noisy days, in which we live, can be self-defeating for some forms and styles of art.

If we wish to create art that is a critical incident for our audiences, and even for ourselves as artists, then we should find a level, a balance that draws both on the human condition as we experience and have experienced it, and also reaches into the realm of Ideas and Ideals where we find imagination and vision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s