Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hold That Thought

For the second time in just under a month, I had occasion to listen to three actors I much admire, being on one way or another interviewed. The first actor was Idris Elba, who did such a layered portrayal of the Baltimore drug underlord, Stringer Bell, in the HBO novel-as-TV-series, The Wire. Not long after, in another setting, I heard Dominic West, who portrayed a Type-A-personality Baltimore cop, Jimmy McNulty, on the same show. Just yesterday, I heard Hugh Laurie, star of the long-running TV series, House, in which he is the eponymous near-genius M.D. with a board certification in infectious disease and street cred for his diagnosis abilities. House also gobbles pain killers by the handful to alleviate chronic pain. His venue is a teaching hospital near Princeton, N.J. I don't know his cv, but I believe he is supposed to be a product of American schools.

This is important to me because all three actors, when not in character, speak with their native English accents and cadences as opposed to their character's native American English accents and cadences. A ham at heart, I am always on the lookout for an accent to grab onto, twist around a finger or two, perhaps even work into a story. The importance of language and its effects had its conscious effect on me back in the day when, watching another splendid actor, Derek Jacobi, portray the Roman Emperor Claudius, I became aware that his guards all had a deliberatly British accent but were said to be from German-speaking backgrounds, an effect that "allowed" or "caused" me to hear their dialogue as the Latin spoken at the time.

Actors have numerous ways of absorbing a regional dialect, including tapes and CDs of speech samples, living among their desired target group, consulting vocal coaches, even consulting books, and the always satisfying all-the-above choices. Actors have also the options of some of the more popular acting school techniques, including but not limited to that of Sanford Meisner, a staunch advocate of "being there," being the character while sending the real self to the principal's office or some other such exile.

Works the same for the writer; being the characters allows them to speak and be heard or, appropriately, not heard. Like an iron-on transfer for a t-shirt, being the character brings another presence to the front, often a presence at some odds from the reality of the actor. Being infused with the reality of the character allows the actor to experience the potential for the character's responses, sponteneity, and yes, even language. True enough, each actor brings his toolkit of the character's sponteneity. (I have often in recent years pondered what I, for instance, could bring to Lear, things that would nevertheless allow me to project a plausible Lear instead of a Shelly at a party doing a parody of Lear.)

At every moment in a story, the writer copes with the multifarious question of what a given character would do in such a situation, then copes with the techniques to bring that character's response to plausible life. Thus has the writer taken on all the parts in a play, making it at once more daunting a task to "be" so many characters. This multifarious quality has the blessing of distracting the writer from being herself or himself, allowing said generic writer to concentrate entirely on "being there," of "being in the moment."

The key to all of this starts with listening to the characters, listening as the particular point of view character of the moment, then responding via the instinctive response of that character, based on what the goals of the story are.

Whether it's the first draft, the tenth, or the last, the antagonist--your antagonist--is thought. The moment you start thinking is the moment your antennae are out searching for signals from other readers, literary agents, editors, the reading public, rlatives who will be horrified by your portrayal of them, various exes in your life who will see your work as an elaborate revenge fantasy.

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