Today our quote, or rather quotes, comes from Minnie Maddern Fiske. Who you ask? Mrs Fiske was an actor and playwright in the late 1800’s and early 20th century. Though her career started when she was quite young, (she first appeared on stage at 2 years old) she was mostly known for her performances in Ibsen’s work, and I have to say, reading this quote about Ibsen not only makes me want to run out and re-read all his work, it makes me want to write like a “black forest…”

“Many a play is like a painted backdrop, something to be looked at from the front. An Ibsen play is like a black forest, something you can enter, something you can walk about in. There you can lose yourself: you can lose yourself. And once inside, you find such wonderful glades, such beautiful, sunlit places.”

Mrs Fiske did not mince words. I also imagine she did not suffer fools gladly. Here are her thoughts on how Ibsen is better for actors than Shakespeare:

“Ibsen is of interest to the actor because properly to understand a role you must study the character from its earliest childhood. Most Ibsen men and women have lived their lives before the curtain rises. Shakespeare has often been pronounced tedious by actors because his characters require a great deal of study. But even Shakespeare seems easy when compared with the thought that must be bestowed upon Ibsen. The beautiful verse, the wonderful character drawing of Shakespeare furnish solutions of perplexing problems, but Ibsen is so elusive. He fascinates by his aloofness. He is the Wagner of the drama. Wagner struggled for understanding just as Ibsen has struggled.”

As you can imagine, Mrs Fiske had a lot to say about the craft of theatre. A lot.

“…I have never known a “movement” in the theater that did not work direct and serious harm. Indeed, I have sometimes felt that the very people associated with various “uplifting” activities in the theater are people who are astoundingly lacking in idealism.”

“It is in the irony of things that the theatre should be the most dangerous place for the actor. But, then, after all, the world is the worst possible place, the most corrupting place, for the human soul. And just as there is no escape from the world, which follows us into the very heart of the desert, so the actor cannot escape the theatre. And the actor who is a dreamer need not. All of us can only strive to remain uncontaminated. In the world we must be unworldly, in the theatre the actor must be untheatrical.”

“The essence of acting is the conveyance of truth through the medium of the actor’s mind and person. The science of acting deals with the perfecting of that medium.”

Let’s look at that last quote in particular. Do you think of acting as science in the conveyance of truth? What do you believe is the actor’s prime directive is on the stage? Is acting a science? Can it be broken down into a formula?

About the author

Lindsay Price


  • I was talking to my students the other day about these very questions. In a script, there are lines and author intention that an actor should be true to in creating a character. If your characterization is contrary to the text, then you are not doing your job (if your intent is to portray the script as written, that is). So in that way, acting is kind of scientific: you search through the evidence left to you by the playwright in crafting a character. You then apply your preferred acting techniques to bring this research to life on the stage. However, what is very un-scientific is the “you” that an actor also brings to the role, from their appearance and voice to their understanding and experience. We filter our research through ourselves and what results is hopefully a very engaging character that is both the written character and an artistic expression springing from the unique actor. The actor’s prime directive, therefore, is to bring the playwright’s character to life in their own unique way. If they are effective in this task, then the audience members will be lost in the life of the character that they see before them.

  • She certainly knew her craft! She knew the differences between an ‘actor’ and a celebrity.