The Value of the Untrained Performer

Photo: Jakub Hrab

Who is an untrained performer? Is he/she a random person you meet on the street to whom you offer a role on stage? In the field of cinema, it is quite common for a director to assign a role to a person who has no previous acting experience. Miloš Forman, a Czech director who became famous for working with untrained people says: “I think that if we look closely, ordinary behaviour involves a lot of drama.” (Miloš Forman and Jan Novák, 1994. Co já vím? p. 43) 

But how about theatre? In theatre, what is expected from such a person is completely different. Unlike filming, this person must be able to repeat the action on stage many times. He must bring back the same emotional experience expressed through his body and words many times. This what is taught to students of theatre academies with the help of various techniques. So why do we invite “untrained performers” to such a complicated situation that requires the use of various technical skills? I believe it is because of an authenticity that no professional is capable of. 

I remember my very first experience watching a production including an untrained performer. Together with Ondřej Hrab (the artistic director of the Archa Theatre), we saw a production in the barn of the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Glover, Vermont in 1988. In this show, a very sick woman in a wheelchair was at the centre of the stage surrounded by angels painted on cardboards. The group of performers was pulling the cardboard images across the stage. The woman was just watching, moving her head slightly, as much as her health allowed her to. Director Peter Schuman told her to do just what was essential. Memories of this performance often come back to me. What created the absolute beauty contained in this simple scene? I keep asking myself this question again and again when working with people who are just “people”, when I ask them to be in a place they have never experienced before, giving them the chance to tell their own story.