Monday, August 19, 2013


(Posting has gotten out of order.  Maybe I'll go back to the old rhythm later.)

Discussion of the old lady writer stories:

First of all, I add the “old lady” context to remind the reader that this is fiction.  I’m sitting here making it all up.   The task of writing is interwoven with my little household duties (which I neglect because I like the writing better) which are banal but sometimes echo or prompt what I’m writing.  So the cup of coffee on my desk becomes a cup of coffee in the hands of the acting coach and also the cup of coffee in the hands of the writer and also the echo:  “wake up and smell the coffee”. 

Using a frame anchors this as writing, not a script or an image, though it wouldn’t be very hard to make this into a video.  We’ve all become used to “framing” through edits, so actually I’m taking a film technique back into written fiction.  The “frame” of the old lady would be an excuse to gather the stories (when there are enough of them) into an anthology.  But more than that, much writing at the moment is autobiographical, unfiltered, as much diary as anything else.  That’s not what I’m doing, so I’m being ironic about it.

Hopefully, it reminds the reader that the writer in the story is one-level removed from me, myself, the real old woman sitting here at her keyboard.  Modern readers seem to entirely forget that the narrator is as much a character as any of the inventions in the story.  If they are reminded, they get upset.  Of course, ALL of the characters, plus the setting, must come out of the experience of the real life person.  In this case, I’m drawing on experiences that go back to high school and then a little later than that at Northwestern where I took acting classes from Alvina Krause.  I was not a good actor because access to emotion was sealed off, just like this character, but I wasn’t a cutter.  I was just confused, ignorant, and insensitive.  (The big citrine ring is from Melba Day Sparks, not AK.  And the rest is also just the reverse of AK -- tall, hook-nose, dark, etc.  Louise Nevelson.)

Perhaps the difference between an acting coach and a therapist is that the latter is more likely to explain, persuade and remember material until it is sorted and understood.  But an effective acting coach is more “Gestalt” and might try to design a small metaphorical experience that will evoke the emotional content of whatever the original hook was.  Sometimes in therapy a phrase or memory will trip open the gates.   I’ve described how a counselor in a group said to me, after I’d made a long explanation of something about myself,  “You’re taking up too much space.”  That threw me into such a torrent of emotion -- because it was the key family accusation against me -- that it alarmed us all -- even me.  But I was forty, not twenty.

An actor risks that all the time.  The really amazing ones are brave enough to use it by sublimation.  Some abuse it and end up in the madhouse or addicted to something compensatory.  Theatre attracts those who have some problem to solve, and then burdens the problem further by prying at it, sometimes without the justification of real insight and growth.  An audience can get off on just the spectacle of it, a porn.

I sit here and imagine a strategy that I have no intention of actually imposing on anyone, so this is much safer.  I am wrapped in the gray quilted packing quilt of print, so to speak.  Yet my voice is sneaking out to you on this computer screen.  Whether or not it connects depends more on you than on me.

The sort of acting that is “Method” is professional level, not for high school kids or local civic theatre, and even inside that context it is the work of a kind of elite, who know it and are proud of it, which is why people who should leave it alone will be tempted to meddle with their version of sense memory and emotional recall.

Today theatre is often about wire-walking or fire-breathing.  But there’s no reason the Method and other strategies can’t go together.  Naturalistic acting is an element, but not one that has to be pure throughout a production. I’ve been watching and re-watching Julie Taymor’s version of “The Tempest” with Helen Mirren and other extraordinary actors.  I’m recalling “Prospero’s Books” which is a Peter Greenaway interpretation with John Gielgud as the sorcerer, very grandiose and Shakespearean.  Both use all sorts of special effects, amazing spectacle, and yet the acting is grounded in the emotional truth (admittedly delivered with effortless technical expertise -- they hit their marks, speak the speech).  On the “special features” that accompanies the film on DVD, Taymor explains to her actors over and over the emotional empathic structure of the scenes.  Laird Williamson, my classmate and now consummate actor and director, begins his rehearsals by presenting a collage he has created and explaining how it illustrates the way he sees the play.  Acting and directing combine strict artistic focus with the evocation of intense human issues.

So much of modern society is based on surface, selling, categorizing, algorithm formulas.  It is partly a way of reconciling very different cultural origins among immigrants, and partly a way of getting past identities shaped by chaos in families, and partly a kind of suppression of revolt.  Creon’s purpose.  He just doesn’t want trouble.  At the end of this story I could have used another play than “Antigone.”  Maybe “Joan of Arc” or some modern play about the Middle East or the Appalachians.  But “Antigone,” strangely, is a standard American text many people study in high school.  It’s often acted.  And yet it’s thousands of years old.  The single subject among my posts that gets the most hits is oppositional defiance disorder: exactly what Creon sees in Antigone instead of the high moral principle she obeys.

An actor is an instrument.  Their bodies, their lives, are subject to scrutiny and obsession that can rise to the level of rape (deranged stalkers) or even murder (remember the woman who shot George Montgomery because she was in love with him).  The only way to keep a grip on the line between the part and the real life is discipline, focus.  The only way for the director to keep the line between what is genuine testimony and greedy exploitation is to stay in touch with the largest human issues, not by using ticket sales.  But that doesn’t mean any movie should be an orgy of excess.  I’ve seen enough burned and dismembered bodies.  (Surely the BBC must have a warehouse full of fiberglas replicas of cadavers, right next to the shelves of porcelain tea sets typical of every social class.) 

The acting and the actor are elements of a concept -- THAT’s what’s big and meaningful.  THAT’s why an actor can be just too small, too confined to their own personal issues.  Same goes for a writer.  Not that a personal issue can’t be the starting point, the point of connection, what Taymor calls the “idiograph.”  The idiograph of this story is the packing quilt that stands for safety in hiding, which must be abandoned in order to act.  It could be expressed in a story, on a stage, or in a painting.  It is the spine of the narrative.  It is a sensory version (remember this is how neurons work) of an abstract idea.

 Here’s a link to Julie Taymor explaining.

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