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Theatre and the #MeToo Movement

| Opinion | October 31, 2019

by Eric Goldin

One of the greatest acting performances of all time was Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the monstrous Nazi SS officer Amon Goth in Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece, “Schindler’s List.” Amon Goth was the Commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp, where he tortured and killed countless people. Goth was given the nickname, “The Butcher of Plaszow” because of his ruthless disregard for human life. The man was a brutally sick individual. Fiennes’ performance was so real and chilling that even the Holocaust survivors who were brought onto the set to help Spielberg make the most authentic film possible were spooked. For a brief moment they believed that Goth had come back to life. Fiennes went all in for his part in order to help tell the real story about what happened during this dark time in history. He didn’t hold himself back and he didn’t change the part to make it lighter. Instead, Fiennes faithfully immersed himself as the character. No matter how difficult it may have been to play this horrible individual, Ralph Fiennes did it. This performance helped modern audiences realize how truly evil the Nazis were, and how their actions caused some of the worst suffering in the history of the world.

But what if Fiennes had been too skittish to play the role? What would have happened if Ralph Fiennes hadn’t wanted to fully commit to the character? What if Fiennes had gone up to Spielberg and said that he felt very uncomfortable playing the part of a racist, violent sociopath? What if Fiennes had said that he didn’t want to utter the antisemitic slurs in the script? What if Fiennes had said he didn’t want to portray the violence? And what if Spielberg had agreed? If any of this had happened, it would’ve turned one of the greatest films ever made into dreck. It wouldn’t have told the real story of what happened during the Holocaust. An actor can’t hold himself back for a role like this, and a good director won’t let him. “Schindler’s List” wouldn’t be known as a masterpiece if Fiennes had been afraid of diving into the deep end, or if he had become self-conscious. At best, it would be known as just a mediocre film.

I’m currently taking a theatre appreciation class taught by Susan Hinshaw. She’s an excellent acting teacher who is beloved by the students. A few weeks ago, we got to see the final dress rehearsal of a play she’s directing called “Boys’ Life.” There’s one sequence in the play where a guy sexually forces himself onto a girl. Hinshaw explained that this part was difficult to do. In fact, they had to bring in an “intimacy coach” to help choregraph it because they didn’t want any of the actors to feel uncomfortable. When I watched it live, it seemed that the male actor, who gave an otherwise excellent performance, felt hesitant and self-conscious. For me, this put a stop to the play. The illusion of his character was broken, and all that was left was an anxious performer afraid of doing the scene. His feebleness in the moment undid that particular section of the play.

Hinshaw explained that the #MeToo movement has made the public more conscientious of the numerous sexual assaults that take place. According to activists, even in a performance consisting of fictional characters, the actors might feel like they are literally being sexually assaulted or committing sexual assault if they go all in. This is a tragedy! If we continue to accept this mindset, there won’t be any great plays or films. Cinema and theatrical shows will lose the realism that makes people want to view them and appreciate them as works of art. The #MeToo movement has done a lot of good in exposing many real-life sexual assaults, and a lot of rapists have been exposed and brought to justice. The #MeToo movement has had a tremendously positive impact on our society. However, the performance I witnessed provides an example of the unintended negative consequences that the movement can have when it is allowed to overstep its bounds. This one scene almost made the whole play fail. I understand that these performers were college students, not professionals, but they were still adults, and they shouldn’t be handled with kid gloves.

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Actors shouldn’t be put on a leash, and they definitely shouldn’t restrict themselves during performances. If a play has a scene where sexual assault takes place, they should go all in. If one of the performers feels uncomfortable doing it and can’t get over it, the director should immediately let them go and bring in somebody who is willing to do it. If a script calls for an actor to do X, Y and Z, they have an obligation to follow it, or otherwise not participate in the production. A great play or film can be ruined if actors are scared of being authentic. Even one scene with an actor hesitating to do their job can be disastrous. A performance can never be great if actors are confined because of arbitrary and unnecessary constraints. “Schindler’s List” reminds us that a great performance can be a powerful force for good in a world with plenty of evil to combat.

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