This acting technique originated in the theater long ago, and today, it remains an excellent way for the actor or character to intimately connect to the audience. When you think about the theater and how it is designed, there are physically three walls between a stage and its audience: not so fast, however.
Wait, there is a Fourth?
Wall number four also exists, and it is the “imaginary division” between the audience and what’s happening on stage. Generally, the actor is performing as if they are the only one in the room. They do not “see” the audience.
Sometimes, the actor speaks directly into or towards the viewers, and this is known as breaking the fourth wall. It is performed when an actor or character acknowledges that they’re being watched and speaks directly to the audience.
In other words, the actor is breaking that boundary, and it’s usually inserted for effects during a dramatic or comic moment in a scene. The great William Shakespeare often used the fourth wall technique in a number of his plays. A fine example of this would be when Hamlet implored the audience for help against his uncle Claudius.
It’s Used in Movies and TV
The theater isn’t the only acting place where you may observe breaks in the fourth wall. In fact, television and film also take advantage of the technique, and maybe you can recall seeing this clever moment during one of your favorite shows or flicks.
For instance, The Office was a popular TV sitcom that often broke the fourth wall to boost the comic tone of the show. During interview sequences, The Office characters would be removed from the rest of the cast and would speak directly to the viewers and reflect on their experiences.
Woody Allen’s iconic movie Annie Hall was filled with breaks in the fourth wall and hilarious to watch and become “involved” with the characters. The actor would interrupt the romantic-comedy screen story by looking directly into the camera and sharing what he was thinking.
Allen’s Alvy Singer did a lot of boundary-breaking in the film, where he explains the details of his relationship with Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall character. Here’s a scene from the movie that displays a break in the fourth wall. The movie took home four Oscars, so the acting technique was indeed a wise choice to include by the director and star Allen.
The Method Doesn’t Always Work
Most directors want their audience to follow a story invisibly and allow the action to naturally unfold in front of them. Those directors who decide to involve the audience can also mess up their final product. Breaks in the fourth wall don’t always translate perfectly, and there are a number of risks the technique can face.
For example, the character may come across as goofy or crazy. Not only that, breaking the fourth wall can ruin the fantasy of a movie and interrupt the viewers’ concentration.
Comedy is one of the best vehicles for breaking this boundary because in other genres, speaking directly to the audience or into the camera can come across as awkward or even laughable. In other instances, the technique can destroy the pacing of a theatrical performance or film.
Should Actors Stay Fictionalized?
Many viewers would argue that the theater, movies, and television should all remain in a fictionalized world. The audience enjoys being totally immersed in the story being told in front of them. They want fantasy and do not want the interruption of a technique that signals to them that “this isn’t real.”
Some in the audience seek entertainment as a form of escape and like having that imaginary boundary or barrier in front of them and the actor.
Today, more and more theatrical performances, films, television, and even novels are including breaks in the fourth wall and hoping this clever tweaking can elevate their show to the ultimate level.
The fourth wall has been around for many, many generations, and the ancient Greeks were believed to be the first to introduce the acting technique to their audiences in the outdoor theater. Today’s many technological advances can make creative use of this imaginary barrier for optimal effects.
Planning on a starting a career in the entertainment industry? Check out: 7 Career Tips for Breaking into the Entertainment Industry
Author: Hannah Boothe
Hannah Boothe is a freelance writer native to Northern California who spends her free time developing herself. Hannah enjoys the outdoors, she goes hiking whenever the weather permits and enjoys practicing yoga. She carves out time to journal and read whenever she can. She loves adventure and connecting with those around her.