Ham Acting

by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog

The phrase ‘ham’ acting has rather intriguing origins, and whether these origins are mythical or indeed candid does not make them any less humorous.

One theory proposes that ‘ham’ is a mere shortening of the bard’s famed play, ‘Hamlet’, which might be apt considering that the term is used pejoratively to suggest overacting or excessive theatricality, which was a feature of many actors’ approach to playing the maddened, grieving prince. Another theory, propounded in an article by The Hindu, suggests that the dubbing of actors as ‘ham’, or, rather brilliantly, ‘hamfatters’, purportedly arose from the need for poorer actors to use pig lard or fat to remove their make-up, as creams were too expensive.

I had not encountered the term ‘ham’ in an acting context prior to picking up a copy of Stanislavski’s tome ‘An Actor Prepares’, which is the fictionalized ‘journal’ (of sorts) of an amateur acting student beginning training at a Russian acting school teaching by way of the Stanislavski system. This form of training focuses on the ‘art of experiencing’, or, more commonly, ‘method’ acting, though there may be some slight difference between the two terms, as the latter came later. Rather than toying with my own definition of the ‘art of experiencing’, read this here description of the art by Stanislavski himself in ‘An Actor Prepares’:

‘When you begin to study each role you should first gather all the materials that have any bearing on it, and supplement them with more and more imagination, until you have achieved such a similarity to life that it is easy to believe in what you are doing. In the beginning, forget about your feelings. When the inner conditions are prepared, and right, feelings will come to the surface of their own accord.’

What Stanislavski dubs as ‘ham’, hence, goes like this:

‘The mistake most actors make is that they think not about the action but the result. They bypass the action and go straight for the result. What you get then is ham, playing the result, forcing, stock-in-trade.’ (An Actor Prepares).

Carl Kruse Blog - Stanislavski image
Konstantin Stanislavski

I must admit that I was quite humored when Stanislavski began elaborating on so-called ‘amateur’ ham, ‘engrained’ or ‘professional’ ham, and the like. In his book, Stanislavski claims that ‘amateur’ ham is rather easy to take care of; it can be remedied by ‘proper’ acting training and by being called out, rather than being allowed to fester and grow. The real tragedy is when ham is permitted to develop and expand, like a tumor, into something all the more terrifying and irretrievable. This ‘professional’ or ‘engrained’ ham is what we see in many of our theaters today. Brecht discusses this form of prolific ham in some of the pages of ‘Brecht on Theatre’, a collection of discussions and musings of the dramaturge himself. Brecht contemplates, in his ‘Emphasis on Sport’, published in the Berliner Borsen-Courier in 1926, whether ‘there has ever been such an overworked, misused, panic-driven, artificially-whipped up band of actors as ours.’ Though Brecht does not explicitly use the word ‘ham’ when describing the worsening state of the acting world, it seems probable that his ‘artificially-whipped up band of actors’ is much the same as Stanislavski’s ‘ham’. Brecht furthers his discontent with how actors are treated and how they act in this statement:

‘[T]here are not enough rehearsals and he [the young actor] is continually in demand; as a result he is forced to give a more or less stereotyped performance. A promising actress, flung too soon into major plays, gets given the part of Elizabeth or Magdalen, and has to take refuge in superficialities in order to make up for lack of experience; all it can teach her is the art of getting out a jam. These people are being over-exploited.’ (‘A Reckoning’ – published in Sinn und Form in 1957)

I must sadly declare that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of Brecht and Stanislavski. Even decades after they both warned against the rise of the ‘ham’ actor in all his various forms, we still see the proliferation of such acting in many arenas of theater, film, and television. Peter Brook, writing in his renowned book of lectures ‘The Empty Space’ (1968), has a term which describes what theater becomes when ‘ham’ and ‘artificially-whipped’ actors develop as the center of it: Deadly Theater. I know that I’m quoting an awful lot in this article, but this section of Brook’s book is worth a moment of your time before I elaborate on my own experience with ‘ham’ and its derivatives in Deadly Theater:

‘The Deadly Theatre can at first sight be taken for granted, because it means bad theatre.

As this is the form of theatre we see most often, and as it is most closely linked to the despised, much-attacked commercial theatre it might seem a waste of time to criticize it further. But it is only if we see that deadliness is deceptive and can appear anywhere, that we will become aware of the size of the problem […] as a whole, the theatre not only fails to elevate or instruct, it hardly even entertains.

[…] we do not need the ticket agents to tell us that the theatre has become a deadly business […] the Deadly Theatre finds its deadly way into grand opera and tragedy, into the plays of Moliere and the plays of Brecht.

Of course, nowhere does the Deadly Theatre install itself so securely, so comfortably and so slyly as in the works of William Shakespeare. The Deadly Theatre takes easily to Shakespeare. We see his plays done by good actors in what seems like the proper way—they look lively and colourful, there is music and everyone is all dressed up, just as they are supposed to be in the best of classical theatres. Yet secretly we find it excruciatingly boring—and in our hearts we either blame Shakespeare, or theatre as such, or even ourselves. To make matters worse there is always a deadly spectator, who for special reasons enjoys a lack of intensity and even a lack of entertainment, such as the scholar who emerges from routine performances of the classics smiling because nothing has distracted him from trying over and confirming his pet theories to himself, whilst reciting his favourite lines under his breath. In his heart he sincerely wants a theatre that is nobler-than-life and he confuses a sort of intellectual satisfaction with the true experience for which he craves. Unfortunately, he lends the weight of his authority to dullness and so the Deadly Theatre goes on its way.’ (Brook, pp. 7-9, 1968)

You can perhaps now reason with the sheer breadth of the problem. Deadly Theatre has infiltrated not only the doors of the theater itself, but also the lives of its audiences and critics. The public does not know what it desires because it thinks that it desires ham, or deadliness, because these things clothe themselves in garish costumes and bright makeup and try to make us believe that this is what theater is; brash and bawdy entertainment which leaves us with nothing but a steep popcorn bill at the end of it all. Theater, at present (and as a whole, though of course there are some theatres attempting to reverse this entrenched issue), does not make us think, nor asks us to interact with it or take it home with us to our beds and to our work desks and into our very real lives. Theater has been encased in a charade of deadliness which we take for granted to indeed be ‘theater’. But it does not have to be this way. We have always looked to theater when we need to explain and reason with our changing times. Ritual theater, religious theater, in fact all theatrical traditions – these are present in every single community around the world and have been since the start of time. Theater should not be seen as separate from life; it is a part of life. We are all acting, all the time. We act to find love, we act to find and keep work, we take on different roles to sate the requirements for every social interaction that we encounter in our lives. The theater as an establishment should not just be passive entertainment; it should ask us questions that we must decipher late at night, staring up at our ceilings, and it should ask us to continue the work that it began on the stage by implementing the lessons we have learned into our own theater of life.

I recently went to a show in London with my twin sister. That show was ‘The Prince of Egypt’, a stage-version of the DreamWorks animated film. This was not the sort of theater that I would normally put my money towards, but the original film which the musical was built off of is rather dear in the hearts of my sister and I. We have many a childhood memory of the film, and though we quote it and refer to it ironically for the most part, the songs and images from the film are quite nostalgic to us both. Thus, when I came across an advert for the show on YouTube, we decided to buy tickets to the show.

The theater was packed. We found our seats easily and sat waiting excitedly for the action to begin. The first song, ‘Deliver Us’ was performed rather well; the dancers and singers and orchestra united in a fervent call for deliverance from their slavehood, and the whole thing was quite affecting, what with the simulated whipping of slaves and the convulsing bodies of the suffering performers. But the singing of the soloists did not bode well for the rest of the show. The voice of Jochebed, mother of Moses, was almost annoyingly excessive in its misery, while the voice of Moses’ sister, Miriam, was false and overly sweet in tone. I do not deny the talent or skill of either singer – I probably could not project my voice as powerfully or as tunefully as they – but this does not take from the fact that I could smell the ham the minute they had respectively sung their first words.  

Ham followed, and ham continued. Every single acting scene in the musical was tainted by my knowledge of the Deadly Theatre, with actors grovelling to such an excess that I found hilarity in their apparently sincere performances. Some of the lines were spoken so haughtily and falsely that I found myself switching between snickering and cringing throughout the three hours of the performance. The stage itself was just as gaudy as the actors upon it. Constantly shifting colors and imaging and lights and props attempted to make the play into something real, something concrete, yet all they seemed to do in my eyes was falsify and deplete the musical even more than the actors did. This was ham in the flesh.

Yes, I had fun, and yes, I sung along to some of the songs. I enjoyed being with my sister, sitting in a big theater watching a show. However, I cannot condone what I saw that night, and I cannot dismiss the disgust I felt when I realized that ham was very real, and not likely to disappear anytime soon.

I do not have a remedy for ham, except that, when I begin my acting studies next year, I will try to reject ham with all my might. I should probably also acknowledge that I have, regrettably, partaken in ham during my time in the acting world. When playing Isabella in Measure for Measure, I must admit that, due primarily to nerves, I resorted to cliches of acting that I knew to be ham in practice. Examples of my personal ham in this instance were: unnecessary straining of the voice, as though clambering to be heard; embarrassingly repetitive vocal toning when sad/angry/challenged; ridiculously excessive and monotonous pacing over the stage (particularly when in rage); and induced weeping. I will add, though, that I don’t believe I acted especially badly, as I think that I did indeed genuinely ‘experience’ some moments in the play.

On one particular instance, I remember feeling so in tune with my Isabella that I forgot where I was, and truly forgot that I was acting at all. At the end of the second act of Measure for Measure, there is a moment where Angelo becomes so overcome in his infatuation for Isabella that he strikes up a deal; he will spare her brother’s life (Claudio, who had impregnated his fiancée Juliet prior to their marriage, thus was condemned to death) in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. Isabella then proceeds to tell Angelo that she will expose him publicly for his lascivious ‘deal’. At this point in our production, I was sat smugly in Angelo’s own office chair. Angelo was facing the front of the stage. He was momentarily silent. Then, he asked that dreadful question: ‘Who will believe thee, Isabel?’ Once this line had been uttered, Angelo waltzed over to me. He started to touch and fondle me and, finally, tugged on my hair as he expressed his most odious intentions. I was terrified in that moment. Angelo pulled so very hard on my hair and spoke his words so vehemently that I felt his spittle land onto my quivering cheek. He then left the stage. I was alone, gazing at the lights, my eyes brimming. I waited. I did not know what to say. Then, it came to me:

To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,

Who would believe me? O perilous mouths,

That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,

Either of condemnation or approof;

Bidding the law make court’sy to their will:

Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,

To follow as it draws! I’ll to my brother:

Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,

Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour.

That, had he twenty heads to tender down

On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,

Before his sister should her body stoop

To such abhorr’d pollution.

Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:

More than our brother is our chastity.

I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,

And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.

The lights went dark, and I choked as my tears began to flow. A slow clap resounded throughout the hall. There was no ham anywhere to be seen. The deadliness of my own theater had fallen away, and I could not breath so incessantly my tears did fall.

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This Carl Kruse Blog Homepage.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
The blog’s last posts were on the SETI Talks, the Art of Atari and Retrofitting Old Cars With Electricity. Also check out the article on Artificial Intelligence and Theater over on the Carl Kruse Tech Blog.
Find Carl Kruse over at Stage 32. And also on Carl Kruse Vator.

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