What does Nathan Fielder want? Or should we perhaps ask what, exactly, does “Nathan Fielder,” the character portrayed by Nathan Fielder, the comedian and creator of HBO’s The Rehearsal, actually want? By The Rehearsal’s fourth episode, which aired this week, it’s become blindingly clear that the answer isn’t as simple as to help people navigate difficult transitions in their lives through spending a hilarious amount of HBO’s money to simulate every permutation of how those transitions could possibly go. This mission is painstakingly set up in the show’s first episode, where Nathan helps a man named Kor practice revealing a difficult secret to a friend with the help of a microscopically accurate recreation of the bar where the conversation is to take place. It shifts in the second, as Fielder sets up a rehearsal for Angela, a woman trying to decide whether she wants to be a mother, by having her pretend to parent a succession of child actors, and then swiftly becomes a fake co-parent alongside her. And by the end of the fourth, Nathan seems to have all but given up on the show’s supposed purpose, and has instead launched an inquiry into the nature of acting itself, hijacked Angela’s rehearsal for his own purposes, kicked someone out of their home, and staged an elaborate ritual in which an actor playing his teenaged son is magically reincarnated as a six-year-old.
So what is Fielder after? As with any good mystery, it helps to look back at the first chapter for clues. “I’m not good at meeting people for the first time,” he intones in the series’ first voiceover. “I’ve been told my personality makes people uncomfortable.” Later on, as he struggles to help the improbably named Kor Skeete confess to his trivia teammate Tricia that he has lied about having a master’s degree, Fielder declares that, “when you reveal your true self, people don’t always like what they see.” This anxiety over self-revelation leads Fielder to create a simulation of reality controlled down to the tiniest detail, which he characterizes is “the one place on Earth you couldn’t fail.”
That environment—a space where anything can be tried, and what the real world might consider “failure” is simply an opportunity to learn a new approach—is the rehearsal hall. Even though the word theater comes from the Greek word for “viewing space,” and even though “rehearsal” has the word “hear” in the middle of it, the root of the word actually comes from gardening. To rehearse means to re-harrow, to dig up the roots and soil so that the thing you have planted can continue to grow. In the fourth episode, Fielder re-harrows again and again and again. Dissatisfied with the results of an acting class he creates to train people in the “Fielder Method,” he re-creates the class with new actors standing in for most of his students and plays the role of one student, Thomas, himself, with another actor taking on the role of Nathan. Fielder then attempts Thomas’s homework from the class he is running, moves into Thomas’s house under false pretenses, and has the actor playing Nathan Fielder—or playing “Nathan Fielder,” the character played by Nathan Fielder—use false pretenses to coax Fielder’s Thomas to move out of his house so that fake-Nathan can occupy it instead. The episode turns into a hall of mirrors from which it seems we might never escape, all in service of answering the question “how do you ever know you truly understand someone?” Finally, Fielder gives up. His inquiry ends in a shrug, an acknowledgment that the “last step in understanding someone is always just a guess.”
Humans are mysterious, both to each other and to ourselves. Despite hundreds of years of inquiry, we still do not understand consciousness, the fundamental thing that makes us who we are. Our self-awareness outpaces our self-knowledge, and if we can’t even understand ourselves, how are we meant to understand others? Part of what gives great acting its power, and its importance as an art form, is the way in which actors transcend the self by entering the imagined reality of their characters. Witnessing this transcendence, we spectators can find ourselves transported, the hard borders between us and the people around us eroded just a bit, for a while. We can gain an experience outside of our own, and hold onto it. We can, through artifice—through lying—get at something like the truth.
But if we are all mysterious beings, how can you understand someone well enough to speak to them? Or relate to them? Or portray them? This is the real struggle Fielder faces, not what do other people think of me but rather what is a human being. This is also the question to which any serious inquiry into the art of acting will inevitably lead. Our various methods of acting all hold tacit answers. The Fielder Method, which requires actors to learn every minute detail about an unsuspecting stranger (in the class’s argot, a “primary”), is premised on the idea that we are what we do. Learn someone’s behavior—what Konstantin Stanislavski called their physical actions—and the psychology will reveal itself. At its core, Fielder’s method is neither particularly original nor particularly strange. Actors often research roles by meeting real life analogues of their characters, interviewing them, shadowing them at their jobs, and so on. Mastering a character’s behavior through repetition was a key part of how Stella Adler taught actors. What makes it different is that the primaries do not know they are being studied.
Much has been made recently about the ethical shortcomings of Fielder and his ways of working, in part because The Rehearsal constantly forces us to ask ourselves about the ethics of what we are watching. The show seems deliberately edited to make Nathan look as bad as possible. When he adopts the life of Thomas, we see him get spied on, lied to, and harangued into signing a release he hasn’t read. In the second half of the episode, he takes the core trauma of Angela’s past—her father leaving her mother when she was young, which lead directly to substance abuse issues in her teen years—and forces her to reenact it from the mother’s perspective for his edification and benefit. But the ethical controversies also stem from Fielder’s secrecy, the way in which he manipulates unsuspecting marks to ends that are, if not nefarious, then at least definitely not benevolent. He’s hardly the first filmmaker to do this, but as incidents like kidney-gate show, we live in an age with a particularly fraught relationship to the interplay between art and real life experience, particularly when that experience does not fully belong to the artist crafting the work.
Our anxieties about the show stem, I suspect, in part from our own conflicted feelings about how much of our lives we are putting out in the super-public of the internet for all to see. The first episode of The Rehearsal seems tailor-made to trigger this anxiety, as Nathan and his team trick Tricia into revealing enough about herself that a stand-in can portray her in Nathan’s pre-enactment of Kor’s confession. Now that our major social networks have been around long enough that they could vote in the next Presidential election, most of us have left an astonishing trail of online evidence about ourselves, our habits, our views, our jobs, and our family members. As events like Gamergate show, malefactors have proven remarkably adept at weaponizing that information. Fielder isn’t leading harassment campaigns, but he is reminding us of how easy it can be to get drafted into someone else’s attempt to shape reality.
The controversies surrounding The Rehearsal are based on the fallacy that there are “performers” and “real people,” artists and civilians. But as our anxieties about the show demonstrate, we “real people” perform all the time. This was one of the great insights of the acting teacher Richard Boleslavsky, who taught many of the most important American acting teachers of the 20th century: Everyone acts, all the time. The purpose of acting instruction, he believed, was to teach the actor how to harness what they already do unconsciously and use it for the creation of a role. Fielder, who seems unable to do anything unconsciously, wishes to harness the power of acting to create a new self—a self who understands other people, and is capable of empathy, and no longer has a personality that makes people uncomfortable. Yet he can only do this through elaborate fakery, through trick mirrors that show him aged a decade or more, through asking a teenager to pretend to overdose so he can fake cry over his comatose body, by pretending to be a husband, a father, or his own student. It’s as if, having carefully crafted a deadpan, hyper-alienated persona over the course of Nathan for You, he now yearns to find a new role to play.
But his efforts to do so only isolate him more, and doom him to less and less understanding. This core tragedy underlies The Rehearsal’s comedy, and it cannot be solved, because the kind of person capable of the empathy Fielder says he desires is the kind of person who would be incapable of making the show in the first place. Or as he puts it himself as he leaves his school to tend to his ersatz life with Angela, “It’s hard to know what exactly is hidden beneath the smile of an actor, but once in a while it’s nice to just pretend that’s everything’s okay.”