Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"An Answer To A Recent Question"

A commenter named, or at least acronymed, Jed, wrote:

“Does it help your writing that you’ve been an actor?”

First off, thank you, Jed. Not for asking a question, though that’s gratefully appreciated. Thank you for saying that I’ve been an actor. I’ve never been an actor. But I like the sound of hearing that I was.

(Actually, that may not be technically accurate. If “being an actor” means I got paid for being an actor, I was an actor. Once. I appeared in a movie called Cannibal Girls, made in Canada, and directed by an ultimately successful director named Ivan Reitman.

The actors on Cannibal Girls were paid…wait! We were paid, not a salary, but a percentage of the film’s profits. Of which there were none. So we were paid nothing. So, in fact, no. I have never been an actor.)

I did, however, attend acting school. Once, at UCLA, at The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, and a year at the Actors’ Workshop in London, where I studied the Stanislavki Method.

It was during this second foray into thespianic training that I learned something that – in answer to Jed’s query – served me very well forever after as a writer.

For those of you who are too busy to read beyond this paragraph, I will summarize what I learned in a nutshell. It is all about intention. In a scene – whether you’re playing it or writing it – optimal success will result from the actor or writer’s having a simple, articulatable intention going in, in other words,

“At this moment, what exactly does the character want to achieve?”

An actor’s precise understanding of the character’s motivation narrows the choices appropriate to the moment, in gesture, tone and inflection, informing their approach, and energizing their “attack.”

It’s the same with the writer. A writer’s crystal clarity concerning a character’s motivation illuminates which words to use and shapes the spinal structure of the scene.

I apologize for those last two paragraphs. Word soup. I’m really better with examples. So let me pull one from my Actors’ Workshop Memory Box.

We were asked to learn a speech from a play, and perform it in class. I chose a speech from, maybe my favorite play of all time, A Thousand Clowns (1962), by Herb Gardner.

I first saw A Thousand Clowns on Broadway when I was seventeen years old. I was blown away by how funny it was, and how insightful it was, and how skillfully a writer could blend those two essential elements together.

The protagonist in A Thousand Clowns is social misfit named Murray Burns, a television comedy writer, who had worked on a children’s series called the Chuckles The Chipmunk Show, but had abruptly quit, because the job was eating away at his soul.

At some earlier point, Murray’s sister and her six year-old son were staying with Murray, when the sister went out to buy a package of cigarettes, and never came back, abandoning the child with Murray.

Murray and his nephew’s relationship flowered – the whimsical Murray, as an example of their free and easy relationship, allowing the boy to pick his own name, and to change it as many times as he wanted until he was twelve, at which point, he had to choose a permanent name.

The problem was that , the New York Child Welfare Department is concerned about…well, now, Nick’s welfare, and they’re were coming over to assess the living arrangement, to determine whether, in the “best interest of the child”, Nick should remain in his uncle’s custody – and at the moment, Murray doesn’t have a job.

Nick, agonizing over the possibility of his imminent removal, urges Murray to look for work. In the speech I chose to perform, Murray confesses, that one afternoon the week before, when Murray had ostensibly been looking for a job, he had actually gone to the movies instead.

I performed the speech, I think, pretty well. It was not that hard. The speech was exquisitely written. All I had to do, as I’ve said many times to actors performing my work, was to “deliver the mail.”

Don’t “act.” Don’t get in the way. The words and feelings are there. Just communicate them truthfully. (I know there’s an arrogance in that, but I really believe, if the writing is good, the actors can be more helpful by not working so hard.)

Anyway, here we go. From A Thousand Clowns.

“I was going to check with Uncle Arnie and some of the other agents about writing for some for the new TV shows. I was on the subway, on my way there and I got off at Forty-Second Street and went to the movies.”

Simple and direct. No frills, no excuses.

“Speaking as the character, what is your motivation for making this speech?” I was asked.

"I want to confess about not looking for a job.”

“Go deeper,” I was told.

I think about the evocative manner in which Murray describes the experience of going to the movies in the middle of the afternoon.

“Now, there is the big question as you approach the box office, with the sun shining right down the middle of a working day, whether everybody going in is as embarrassed as you are. But once you are past the awkward stage, and have gotten your ticket torn by the old man inside, all doubts just go away. Because it is dark. And inside it is such a scene as to fracture even a nut like yourself, Nick, because inside it is lovely and a little damp and nobody can see you, and the dialogue is falling like rain on a roof and you are sitting deep in front of a roaring, color, Cinemascope, stereophonic, nerve cooling, heart warming, spine softening perfect happy ending picture show, and it is Peacefulville, U.S.A.”

“What is the character’s motivation?”

“I want to distract Nick with a mesmerizing story.”

“Go deeper.”

As the speech goes on, I consider its subtle shift in tone, from warmly elegiac to encroachingly melancholy.

“There are men there with neat mustaches who have shaved, and shined their shoes and put on a tie even to come and sit alone in the movies. And there are nearsighted cute pink ladies who eat secret caramels; and very old men who sleep; and the ushers; buddy, you are not kidding these boys. They know you are not there because you’re waiting for a train, or you are on a vacation, or you work a night job. They know you are there to see the movie. It is the business and purpose of your day, and these boys give you their sneaky smile to show you that they know. (Depressed by his own words, quietly, almost to himself.) Now the moral question for me here is this: When one is faced with life in the bare-assed, job-hunting raw on the one hand, and eleven fifty-cent double-features on the other, what is the mature, sensible, and mentally healthy step to take?” (He is slumped in his chair now.)

“What is your motivation?”

“I want to get Nick to forgive me for not looking for a job.”


“I want Nick to love me.”

“Also true, but too general.”

“I want Nick to forgive me.”

“Yes. And that’s how you have to play it, from the first moment of the speech.”

It’s also how you have to write it.


Max Clarke said...

About your advice, "Deliver the mail."

I was listening to the newly-released audiobook by Patti LuPone, her memoir about Broadway. She mentions often the importance of letting the words speak for themselves.

Patti wrote that some of her best performances came when she was tired. In her state of fatigue, all she could do was deliver the lines. Her personality didn't get in the way, and the audience loved the result.

She also mentioned this in her chapter about David Mamet.

Alan said...

"Bases loaded, bottom of the first."
"It's also how you have to write it."
You have earned your nap.

JED said...

Hi Earl,

Thank you for this post. I am the Jed that asked the question. My real name is Jim Dodd but when I started my blog a few years ago and needed a Google ID to put with it, I was paranoid about using my real name. So, I thought I'd fool everyone and just use my initials. That's why my comments on your blog just show JED.

I am fascinated by your stories of your development as a writer. As you reveal more things about your past, it's almost like we get to watch someone painting a picture or sculpting a statue. Each little dab of paint or chip of the stone may seem random if viewed by itself but when you look at the complete progression, you see how all the little pieces contribute.

This blog acts almost as a time machine to let us watch how things like your taking acting lessons or going to summer camp or cheering for the Maple Leafs worked together to make you the writer you are.

Thank you for these insights. As an engineer, I enjoy seeing how ideas develop and how things are made. As a lover of stories, I enjoy seeing the background of the shows you've written. They make the shows I've enjoyed even richer.

Jim Dodd