Humour is one of the characteristics that makes us human. In fact, physiologically (by ancient definition), humour is our fluid or juice – our very essence. And as the art of theatre is to capture, in a stage character, the elements of what it is to be human, humour is a vital ingredient in an actor’s craft. Michael Shurtleff, in his book, Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part, includes humour as one of the twelve essential acting guideposts. This book by the famed Broadway and Hollywood casting director is considered by many to be a bible for actors. Shurtleff writes, “There is humor in every scene just as there is in every situation in life”.
Humour is a relief valve that we activate instinctively when situations become too heavy for us. It serves the same purpose in life as comic relief does on stage. It is not a structured joke; it is our innate ability to recognize life’s ironies and absurdities as they come along. From our conception, which when you think about it is a pretty absurd act, through the rest of our lives we need our sense of humour as surely as our bodies need breath.
Humour is a natural aspect of our being because we have a built-in need of it. Actors, when asked to find the humour in a scene, will often complain that the scene is far too dramatic or serious to contain humour. Humour may not be evident in the words of the script but the actor must find it or the scene will be artificial and therefore unbelievable.
It would be unnatural not to recall some humourous moments from the life of a loved one at his/her funeral and as theatre mirrors life, this same momentary lift is even (or especially) necessary for the death scene in Romeo and Juliet or the rape scene in Clockwork Orange. Humour rescues the moment in a large or small crisis. It provides strength and healing for the mind in the way that food and rest do for the body.
Through life experiences that trivialize anything that seems impractical some people almost lose their ability to uncover those saving moments of humour. Those moments can be as simple as a look, a wry smile, a gesture or well-placed word or phrase. In the desire to be taken seriously and the fear of appearing frivolous some will quash the humour when it could be the very thing needed to relieve a tense moment. I remember finding myself in a heated and absurd argument at a meeting once. The Chair caught my eye and his look was not one of judgement but bemusement. The look said, do you really want to continue this argument? And I realized I didn’t..
Humour is our way of coping with our fears and anxieties – the things we cannot control. As our bodies are profoundly affected by our emotions, a glimpse of the absurd can provide perspective for us by allowing our humour or juices to flow freely.
At the heart of our fears, of course, is the realization of our mortality. Science is working toward discovering the means for an indefinite life span which some authorities predict will happen within 20 to 30 years. To know that we may not have to die could be the greatest test of our sense of humour. How truly tragic if when natural death is no longer inevitable and we think we have only taxes to worry about we walk in front of a bus!
If intuition is our 6th sense then humour is our 7th. May we remain open to it – on and off the stage.