Sandy Meisner was a famous acting coach and not-so-famous actor. Some of his students were Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Jon Voight, Kim Basinger, Sandra Bullock, Syndey Pollack and Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is a famous tale (at least, a tale famous in the acting & film community) of Sandy playing a minor role on stage, crouching upstage painting a wall while two other characters are standing, having dialog downstage. In this tale as it is told, all audience eyes are on Meisner, not on the actors who are talking.
This story raises the question, “When is it okay to ‘steal the scene’?” What if you are a stronger actor–how much do you flatten your work to compensate for the rest of the cast being too fake, phony and generally bad?
A couple years ago I was the Matchseller in Pinter’s play of the same name. For those who don’t know, there is a married couple and this weird Matchseller. The Matchseller does not speak throughout the play. When the couple is arguing downstage, I am left alone in a chair upstage. I arrange my matches in their precisely correct positions, for they are very important to me.
After the opening night, the director told me to quit being so involved in my task, as I was pulling focus from the other 2 actors.
“Hell, I say, if they want focus, let them be better actors, then.”
This, I said to myself, not to the director. But, really, should I be a crummy actor and just sit there in a chair because I have no lines and because other actors can’t act?