Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Writer as Actor, Part I of an Ongoing Investigation

A major moment arrives early in Uta Hagen's transformative Respect for Acting. She cites the example of the nineteenth-century French actor Coquelin. "One night," Hagen writes, "after having received accolades for his performance from the audience...Coquelin called his fellow actors together backstage and said: 'I cried real tears on stage tonight. I apologize. It will never happen again.' His approach to acting was obviously Representational. For him, a genuine experience on stage was rejected in the belief that it would muddy or blur the acting."

Hagen describes the two types of acting as Representational, wherein the actor finds a form based on objective result for the character, which he then carefully watches as he executes it. The Presentational actor trusts that a form will result from the identification with the character and the discovery of his character's actions. Said Presentational actor works on stage for a moment-to-moment subjective experience, which is presented as it were from the interior.

What grand advice for the writer, who after all is creating characters from the depth of his or her own experiences. Anything else seems mannered, perhaps even over-the-top, indeed nineteenth-century because of the remoteness of the creator from the character.

One way to digest and use this in-the-moment approach is to recall that the writer's task is made more original and genuine by using the movements and words of character to evoke rather than describe. Think of it this way: the best outer description has already been done in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Time now for the inner description that comes when the writer puts the character through each relevant moment in the story, allowing the character's gestures or lack, words or lack to stand as the response to the moment. This is not merely to remove adjectives or adverbs, which are, after all, valuable tools of the language. This approach is to remove the author's stage directions, the author's judgement, allowing all to come forth from the character.

Put another way, the shout, the loud voice, even the exclamation point are the tracer bullets of defensiveness, they light the way to the target which needs no lighting in the first place.


Kate Lord Brown said...

Great post as always Shelly - I'm fascinated by this whole question, and more aware of it now in the early stages of book three. I think there is a tipping point, a moment when you cross over from observing to inhabiting your character - that's when the writing hits its groove and begins to come right.

Rowena said...

I think this is the way I write, if I understand correctly. I feel my characters and allow their feelings to develop in the situations of the story, sometimes surprising myself. Who they are creates the story, really, as they interact with my own intentions.

It's very odd that I know it's all me doing the story telling and the feeling and the creating, but then it's something outside of myself... or is it INside of myself?

Anonymous said...

Some days this feels easy. Other days...not so much.

lowenkopf said...

KLB--I like your concept about the tipping point. At some juncture, the research kicks into overdrive and the authorial instinct takes over. Then the character's behavior is owned by the character.

Rowena--you've got it, I think, because the sensation of being surprised is the give-away. Don't we write with an eye to being surprised, the better to surprise the reader?

Marta--it feels good because you're in sync with "them." Days when it doesn't feel so good, you're a bit out of sync. But another rehearsal could well do the trick.