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The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How intelligent are actors? Thespian genius

Thespian genius. It is probably not a term you have seen before. I have just written it for the first time and I don't recall seeing it anywhere else, either. We don't normally associate acting with high intelligence. This may be because some actors, in interview, don't appear all that smart. However, how smart an actor needs to be depends on the kind of role they play, the kind of acting they do: in particular the divide between film/tv and theatre. Theatre actors need to be a whole lot smarter than film actors.

Let us look at what a theatre actor has to do. They have to learn a lot of lines. This may be many indeed: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is about 1600 lines of poetic writing to learn, if you are playing the lead role. There are not just lines to learn. You must learn your movements, your reactions, the appropriate tone and pitch, volume and delivery of each and every line. You may have to learn an accent, or a new style of walking. You not only need to know your lines: you need to know what other people's lines are - what your "cues" are, that is what you expect them to do and say before you react. Acting requires each actor to learn the contents of a couple of hours of life. This demands a powerful memory, as a minimum requirement. It also demands powers of concentration and focus: you must always be aware of what is going on - is it as you expect? Is your cue approaching? Is everyone in the right position? All of this observation must go on without it showing in your face or movements: you must always be "in character" - that is, you must always seem to be someone other than yourself. Your way of speaking may not be your own, your rhythm, your phrasing, your style, may all differ from your real voice. Your reactions and emotions are likely not to be your own, but those of a character who may respond in ways you do not. It is a true trial of the mind.

Yet actors are often not thought of as thinkers. Why is this? It is because the most famous actors in the world are film stars - and the demands of a film star are much less than those of a theatre actor, as detailed above. Or at least different. You don't need to be "in character" as a film star, for hours at a time. You don't need to concentrate for more than a few minutes, before the end of the take. You don't need to get it right every time, like a theatre actor does: if you make a mistake, you can shoot again. A theatre actor doesn't have that luxury. In short, a film actor can get away with being a lot less competent than a theatre actor. That is why many film actors who try the stage dissappoint audiences. Audiences expect the slickness that a good film editor and director get out of a film star's performance - but the film star often doesn't have the skills to deliver in that way, on the stage, where there is nothing but him or her and the character to hand.

Then again, a stage actor has to project his voice, to reach the back of the audience. Some stage actors react larger than life so that people will see their reactions. A film actor is more subtle. There is no need to project, the microphone will pick it all up; the actor should never be other than lifelike in his reactions and responses, because the camera sees all. So just as film actors don't do stage, sometimes stage actors don't travel well to the silver screen.

Both kinds of actors need an emotional memory: the ability to recall their emotional states on cue, and, if not feel them again, as some do, at least show them. That is not easy, for most people.

When the average person tries to act, they usually fail badly. Acting is not as easy as it looks. An actor's performance may look as easy as being yourself and having an ordinary conversation, but there is great skill involved, in that.

Why do I write this post? Well, when I was much younger, I was an actor. My family didn't understand this pursuit and thought it beneath me: that I was better than that, in their eyes. They thought that acting didn't make good use of my mind. I don't think they understood the true demands of acting. Most of my work was theatre - and so required a high level of mental commitment from me, as it does from all actors. I believe I learnt a lot through acting - about myself, about others - and about not being afraid. Actors need courage. In particular theatre actors need courage. The stage can be a very threatening place. There is an expectant audience out there - and they will witness every mistake or slip up you make. I never made one in all my acting career, such was my focus and attention. However, I did become involved in someone else's mistake.

I was playing the 10th Juror (if I recall correctly), in the late 80s, in Reginald Penrose's Twelve Angry Men (which you may recall was made into a film with Henry Fonda), at Cambridge University. We were playing in the round, with the audience in front of us, and behind us. We were on stage the whole time, with no respite in the wings. There were no wings. It was the most exposed piece of theatre I ever did.

Anyway, we were sharing the stage with a very confident young actor. A man who had been a star of the National Youth Theatre, in England. He seemed to feel that he was truly great. I won't name him...but just characterize him. No-one else on stage had his pedigree - but we all had something else which he lacked - enough humility to focus on our work and do our best. This key difference showed its worth one night. You see, this cocky actor just wasn't paying attention and, in one scene, he gave the wrong reply to a cue - and skipped the play forward several pages of script in one response. Suddenly, everyone was in the wrong position, doing and saying the wrong thing - and a key element of plot had been left out. It took an instant for it to dawn on me and one of my fellow actors what had happened. He looked at me, with eyes that said: "Let's handle this" - and we did. We both proceeded to improvise a scene to fill the gap that had been created. We threw lines at each other and caught them and responded in a suitable way so that all the missing information and plot elements were filled in - and then we passed seamlessly back into the body of the play, where everything should have been. It took a few minutes, but they were the longest minutes I had ever spent on stage.

Do you know what the best part of this was? No-one in the audience even noticed. We had repaired the scene without anyone doubting, for a moment, the truthfulness of what was occurring.

Theatre actors have to be able to handle that kind of thing. It is not something that can be done without high intelligence.

So, the next time you hear that some young man or woman is acting, don't think that they are "wasting their gifts". Acting is a gift all of its own - and a challenge for any mind, if you take on a large role, in a complex production, on the stage.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, my scientific child prodigy son, aged six, and his gifted brothers, as well as genius, prodigy, savant and giftedness in general go to:
http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:17 PM 

13 Comments:

Blogger Cher Mere said...

I never really thought of actors as not being intelligent. Maybe because I was one too. (Although I only acted professionally as a teen.) My husband who is also PG acted as well, though his main focus was singing.

But it is true that you don't have to be all that smart to be an actor. Being a good actor takes talent but not necessarily intelligence.

I have read of other PG children who have tried child acting, both stage and film. I am not sure how it turned out for them. I have one adult PG friend who was a child actor and I don't think she would recommend it.

I am still not sure if I think Z acting is a good thing. But we are trying it for now.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your post, Cher Mere

I would say that 'talent' is a special kind of intelligence. It is that which allows you to understand the character, and portray the character, using your body, voice and emotions. Not many people do it well. It is a distinct form of intelligence, which may or may not be accompanied by other forms of intelligence, too.

As long as your daughter Z enjoys acting I see no harm in it, for it can teach her a lot - and she may even hit home and become a little star. That last part, however, is, as you know, statistically unlikely. There are simply too many actors, competing for too few good roles. It is largely chance whether or not a particular actor becomes one of the lucky ones who makes a big success of it.

If nothing else is gained from it, she will never have a fear of public speaking and will be confident socially.

However, few roles will stretch the capacities of someone who is PG. Such a person may, ultimately, become bored of it.

I wish you and Z well.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Cher Mere said...

I totally agree with what you are saying Valentine.

There are so many good actors and actresses out there. The competition is so high and luck it is big part of it. That is a big reason why I would rather Z pursue and "safer" career when she is older.

She has only had one or two opportunities so far that have real "acting" in it. Since she is just started out she mostly goes on commercial auditions which don't require much acting talent.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is a pity that acting is the way it is. From my observations in London, many casting directors don't go to see the shows that they are invited to. They just keep on casting the same small set of people that they know - often personally. Some families that have built up contacts over generations dominate the London acting scene. Are they more talented than those who are the first in their family to try acting? Most definitely not. However, their connections make it much easier for them to build a career. Consequently, we get the actors we see on screen, again and again. They are not the best available, as anyone who has worked with many actors could tell you. There are many very talented people out there who never become widely known. This is sad not only for them, but for audiences, who never get to know of the best performers.

I had the experience of being in a show in which everyone was inviting the casting directors they knew, etc and in an entire run only one of them showed up. Who was it? The landlady of the lead actor. Pathetic really.

What all of this means is that acting is a very hard profession to make a big impression in. The people who you need to see you, often won't make the effort. Those who are already well connected in the business have a very strong advantage - the result is that we get the same small pool of people grabbing the best roles, excluding everyone else.

For any young actor of talent, it can be a heartbreaking profession - and that, perhaps, is the disadvantage all parents should be aware of. It might be too discouraging for some children to be able to take the whole process. Unless your child is psychologically strong, the endless round of auditions and rejections, with the occasional acceptance, and consequent role, can be too much to bear.

I have seen young actors enter the profession filled with enthusiasm and life, and within a year they are dull, unconfident and lifeless...from all that rejection. So, be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of the situation.

Kind regards

7:19 AM  
Blogger Cher Mere said...

Hello Valentine

So far the idea of rejection hasn't entered Z's mind yet. She is excited just to get called in for auditions.

There are many reasons why I am uncomfortable with Z acting. For the reasons you mentioned and others.

Z is an attractive girl and I worry that the emphasis Hollywood puts on looks and weight and youth could lead to her developing an unhealthy body imagine.

I also worry about her doing well in that industry and being adversely effected by fame and the search for it.

I did resist getting her an agent for a long time. But finally I was convinced that she could try it and she didn't like it our it started to be a negative in her life we would end it.

In our case Z has a lot of other interests and talents so it is fine if this doesn't work out.

Thanks again for the post!

-Cher Mere

10:45 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are right to be concerned about the pressures of Hollywood...but, to some extent, that pressure is now felt by all women everywhere - the pressure to be slim, to be beautiful, to be perfect. It is ridiculous really. I live in Singapore where most of the women adhere to this ideal of slimness. Frankly they are generally too slim. In many cases, I am left unsure if the girl is a boy, or the boy is a girl: they have lost their femininity by becoming too thin.

So, that pressure for physical perfection will be felt by her whether or not she is an actor. In other words: there is no need to worry too much, because it will happen whatever she does!

As for fame...you know some people really enjoy fame, it fills them with joy. Others rather wish they hadn't become famous. The only problem, and it is an insoluble one, is that no-one can really know what fame feels like until it has already happened to you.

Is Z the sort to enjoy recognition in the street, interviews, paparazzi, free clothes and jewelry, sponsorships, money, travel, parties...and a lack of privacy?

Julia Roberts observed once, that her high salary was compensation for not having a private life.

I may address the issue of fame in a post, since many people miss comments.

Best of luck to Z and yourself.

Kind regards

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am grinning now. That was a very good story. I havent heard a story like that since back when I was hanging out with my profoundly gifted punk friend :)

- Kathy

5:03 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Kathy...I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it.

The funny thing is, at the time I was rather cool about it...meaning it didn't stress me unduly, though I at once perceived the mess we were in. I think acting teaches that kind of courage.

Best wishes to you.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm... Maybe you were just so good at it that it didnt bother you? There are a lot of things that just dont phaze me because I have the confidence to handle them and the ability to back that confidence up.

Or do you really think there is something to learning acting?

- Kathy

11:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think acting, on stage, makes a lot of demands on one's attention, and memory - as well as physical control of one's body, voice and emotions. Most people can't do it well at all - they look wooden and or fake.

I don't acting is readily learnt: some people in are good at it, others aren't. The ones who are good just keep getting better (with experience), the ones who are not good, never really will be, whatever their experience. I think it applies to most gifts.

Yes, I was very good at it...and it was and is a natural gift of mine: it could have gone much farther than it did, had I had better opportunities, I think...

Best wishes

9:04 PM  
Blogger Ishy said...

Bravo. Acting is emotionally and mentally draining.
I did it in middle and high school, then decided it wasn't what I wanted to do.

In my second play, the same type of thing happened. The "star" of the show forgot her lines (she had been "too good" to attend the final practices and dress rehearsals).
Between the rest of us we improvised until she remembered her lines again.
After the play was over I was sick from nerves.

Neeever again do I wish to be on stage, even though I long for it every time I pass one.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Jethro Dykes said...

I can think of many actors who were indeed geniuses:
Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Henry Irving.
And what about Shakespeare? He was also an actor.
Acting is life. It caters for all.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree Jethro. However, too many people thinking of airheaded starlets as examples of what actors are...and so underestimate the breed.

3:06 PM  

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