Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Animation and Theatre
(June 19, 2008)

I'm visiting family in New York and last night I had the pleasure of seeing The Bully Pulpit, a play based on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, written and performed by Michael O. Smith. In animation, as our work appears on screens, it seems natural to look to movies for inspiration. However, there's a lot to be said for learning from performers on a stage. Let's not forget that the first animated hit, Gertie the Dinosaur, was based on vaudeville animal acts.

Smith's play has a single set and he is the only performer in it. Roosevelt, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, relates the story of his life to the audience. Along the way, he evokes his parents, wives, children, friends and political contemporaries.

The play has a 10 minute intermission, but for roughly 45 minutes in each act, Smith has to hold the audience's attention for the play to succeed. The vast majority of animated shots are less than 15 seconds long. Imagine the challenge of maintaining a character for 45 minutes without the benefit of camera placement, cutting or editing. How can this possibly work?

It works because of shared experiences. We don't live in Roosevelt's time and the specifics of the bric-a-brac that surrounds him are increasingly alien to us. However, we all have family, we all fall in love, we all have ambition, successes, failures, friends and enemies. By concentrating on Roosevelt's emotional responses to these things, we are able to understand him. We might not respond as Roosevelt does, but his responses are believable based on our own experience of the world.

This emotional arc is what we respond to. It's the difference between drama and a dull recitation of facts (and one reason why students often find history boring). A performance, live or animated, needs to arise from a character's emotional responses. Character consistency comes from the responses expressing a particular point of view, which adds up to what we call "personality."

A one-performer, one-set play is about as stripped down as you can get, forcing the performer to rely on the foundation of what storytelling is all about: people. We have a fundamental need to share our thoughts and experiences and are curious to compare them to the thoughts and experiences of others. It's why we're social animals. An isolated person (a prisoner, a shut-in) is doubly isolated because whatever the person experiences can't be shared.

Movies often confuse genre with subject. Movies think they're about adventure or suspense or romance. Within animation, we're bombarded with the mantra "story, story, story." Yet all genres and stories are about one thing - people - and we often allow ourselves as creators and audience members to be distracted from the only thing that really matters.

A camera and editing are tools to dress things up, but the one-performer play proves that they're not necessary. An actor on a stage is all that's needed to hold an audience's attention. If you can, see a one-performer play live and marvel at what an actor is capable of in the most austere circumstances. Then ask yourself how many animated performances live up to what you've just witnessed.