I always loved Halloween as a kid. I remember hearing other kids saying they liked Christmas the best because you got presents (we had already eliminated the option of one’s own birthday as that was a given.) Yeah, presents. Fine. But would you rather get a new pair of Levi’s or some lame new board game…or would you like to dress up in the craziest costume you could imagine, including, and of course preferably, with fake blood? And then go out into the world in character acquiring as much candy as possible? What’s it gonna be…candy canes or serial killer? I mean, c’mon. Let’s be real. You can get that other stuff anytime (okay, maybe not the candy canes but no one really likes candy canes anyway and they can’t hold a candle to mini-Snicker bars!). You can’t really show up dressed as a swashbuckling pirate or craven witch on Thanksgiving. At least you can’t if you live anywhere else but Manhattan.
So, I have to say that I throughly enjoyed a trip through a really great haunted house here in NYC that just opened called Nightmare: Superstitions. The production team there has been doing it for years and knows how to do it right. Over two dozen separate “rooms” that you weave your way through, some in absolute darkness, as ghouls and scary creatures leap out at you from from time to time. It’s theater of the macabre but theater none the less!
But for the actors working as murderous lunatic, suicidal patient or agitated ax murderer, it’s got to be a kick-ass experience. To get paid to run around in nothing but a large diaper-like loincloth is tougher to do than you’d think. (I’m not kidding about that either as I once took a role as a Greek messenger whose only costume was a loincloth and a stick. And the stick was little!) I was really impressed with the actors as they were so committed to their characters, be it a ghoulish psychiatric nurse or a maniacal circus clown. The never broke from character once. Awesome.
Costumes aside, breaking the fourth wall to connect and speak directly to the audience for short periods of time when acting in a play is a not an easy thing to pull off well. You lose that safety mechanism of forgetting about the audience and you become very aware that they are all staring at you. You know this of course because when you break the fourth wall you are now looking at them. Suddenly, they’re not “over there” past the edge of the stage. Now they’re in the scene with you. And that feels dangerous. It’s unpredictable and you can’t rehearse it. It’s like rehearsing a space shuttle launch…you can practice all you want but it just ain’t gonna be the same as when you light the rocket fuel! That audience didn’t go through rehearsal with you so you don’t know what they may do. There’s always the chance there will be someone who fancies himself an actor in the crowd and who will inevitably determine that those three pre-show drinks were a good idea after all and having that guy on stage start talking to him makes this a perfect time for his theatrical debut.
I think there are two key things in breaking the fourth wall. The first is the ability to absolutely stay connected to your character and to have a good understanding of how your character reacts to being seen in the way that they are by the audience. The second is to have a clear idea of the character that the audience represents. They could be a jury to which a lawyer is speaking. They could be God. Or they could be an actual audience at the theater. In any event, you need to know how your character feels about being seen and heard and why they are doing so with this “other” character.
The deranged, psychotic mental patient had done the work when he screamed to me as I was leaving the room where he was lashed in a straitjacket, “I know you can see me! Don’t leave me! Help me! Help me to get out before I kill again…!”