Presentational acting and related representational acting are opposing ways of maintaining an actor-audience relationship. The actor acknowledges the audience with the presentational act. With representational acting, the audience is carefully ignored and treated as voyeurs.
In the sense of the actor-character relationship, the type of theater that uses ‘presentational acting’ in the actor-audience relationship is often associated with the performer using ‘representational acting’ in their actor-character methodology. Conversely, the type of theater that uses ‘representational acting’ in the first sense is often associated with the performer using ‘presentational acting’ methodology.
In each theater performance, the way in which each individual actor treats the audience establishes, maintains or varies the relationship between the actor and the audience.
In some plays, all actors may have the same attitude towards the audience (for example, the entire production of a Chekhovian drama usually ignores the audience until the curtain call); in other plays, performers create a range of different relationships with the audience (for example, most Shakespearean dramas have certain characters who often adopt a downstage ‘platea” playing position that is in direct contact with the audience, while other characters behave as if unaware of the audience’s presence.
‘Presentational acting‘ refers, in this sense, to a relationship that recognizes the audience, whether directly or indirectly through a general attitude or a specific use of language, appearances, gestures or other signs that indicate that the character or actor is aware of the presence of the audience. (For example, Shakespeare’s use of punning and wordplay often has this function of indirect contact.)
In this sense, ‘representational acting’ refers to a relationship in which the audience is carefully ignored and treated as ‘peeping tom’ voyeurs by an actor who remains in-character and absorbed in dramatic action. The actor behaves as if there was a fourth wall, which maintains the absolute autonomy of the dramatic fiction from the reality of the theater.
The use of these critical terms (almost directly opposed to the critical mainstream usage detailed above) to describe two different forms of actor-character relationship within the actor methodology originates from the American actor and teacher Uta Hagen. In chapter two of its acting manual An Actor’s Work, the seminal Russian theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski developed this use from a much more ambiguous wording (1938).
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