“Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it,” Linda asked, beginning to sob. “I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home.”
In that moment of “Death of a Salesman” by playwright Arthur Miller, senior Rebecca Carlson recalls playing the role of wife and mother, Linda Loman, who had finally paid off the family’s mortgage, but only with funds from her husband’s life insurance, secured because of his suicide. At that moment, Carlson said she felt like her husband committed suicide in real life.
“I know more about what marriage is and what it’s like to be married,” she said, commenting on how the role affected her personal life. “I know something about what it means to be married that I couldn’t get by reading about it.”
Drama first intrigued Carlson when she was three years old, after watching “Beauty and the Beast,” though she said she felt discouraged when her teacher cast her as narrator in her first performance. “I ended up enjoying it. Narrating is acting,” she said.
Carlson, a philosophy major and theatre minor, said her performance as Linda is part of what inspired a Collegiate Scholars thesis focused on metaphysics and theater. The thesis counters Plato’s age-old critique of theater — that it was a lesser form of art because it relied on “imitation.”
“I’m arguing that, in an important sense, good theater can be more real than real life,” Carlson explained. “I know, it sounds paradoxical, so I have to equivocate somewhat.”
Plato conceives of an ideal form for every object, Assistant Professor of Theatre Chris Matsos explained.
“The ideal form is superior, and anything we create that’s a material representation of that object or idea is inferior,” Matsos said. He explained that Plato considered theater even further inferior to the material, or “an imitation of an imitation.”
While Plato scorned theater’s imitative qualities, Carlson said she believes drama can actually approach the essence of something.
“Sometimes you can look at a person and they’ll be staring off into space or have this weird expression on their face and you’ll think, ‘That doesn’t look like him at all,’” Carlson said. “You’re comparing this person sitting next to you to a standard that the person can somehow behave in a way that’s not like himself. Clearly, this person just did that thing.”
Carlson said her thesis posits something similar to, though not quite the same as, the Platonic form of a person. Expected behavior and language compose an image of a person, and theater reveals that image in a dramatic form.
“Acting can be more like the person than this guy who is actually that person walking around and talking to you,” she said.
In this way, according to Carlson, an actor absorbs the consciousness of the desired character and spits it out in a dramatic presentation. Any way the actor can occupy a character’s mind will lend to a more accurate performance.
Actors employ a wide range of tactics when they try to “get into character.” Matsos described one show he performed in which every actor created a Twitter account from the perspective of their character. “It worked wonders,” he said.
Carlson said she likes to journal as her character. “I noticed afterward I had gotten so into this person that my handwriting changes,” she said. “It’s a really cool experience.”
Matsos described theater as “one of the ultimate consciousness technologies” for contributing to human experience.
“It’s about getting the truth of human experience, so even when the story is artificial, the truth of what’s being expressed is real,” he said. “Even if it’s not happening to the actors on the stage at the moment, it has happened and is happening and will happen.” Matsos said he tries to teach his students not to pretend, but rather to be “truthful in imaginary circumstances.”
Carlson pointed to a quote from author and performance coach Donna Soto-Morettini: “The ideal actor ‘pretends he is not pretending and forgets that he is not forgetting.’”
Carlson characterized portraying a character as empathy.
“Sympathy is, ‘I know what you’re feeling.’ Empathy is, ‘I feel what you’re feeling with you,’” she said. “It’s helped me understand some other real-life people better because I have empathized so thoroughly with somebody like Linda.”
Carlson plans to attend University of Southern California to continue studying philosophy, particularly ethics. She confirmed that she would like to continue acting as well.
“To me theater is like a vehicle for exploring the human experience,” Matsos said. “The overall purpose is that we’re trying to explore what makes us human.”