Monday, January 6, 2014

Dare to Be Your Inner King Lear

There are moments when you are seized by an idea that appears to have arrived in your brain pan as though it were some purchase from Amazon.com, delivered to the wrong address.

The idea radiates intrigue well enough for you to resolve to give yourself over to it, investigate some of its implications to see if they are of any use to you now or down the road in that glorious future.

Trouble is, for you, however much intrigue seems to leak from the idea, your curiosity about its origin hops on for a free ride.  There is an analogy here.  You grew up in a time and culture where hitching rides was a way of life.  Until you got firm command of your first car, hitching rides always took priority of a bus.  Now, the process is so remote from contemporary culture that you feel the necessity to explain it.  

On a recent auto trip from SB to Santa Fe, you saw signs advising against it, and on one notable Facebook posting, you saw a city with a prison or some large detention facility in its midst, advising passers-through not to give rides to individuals wearing orange jump suits or striped pants.

The analogy is to stop spending too much time questioning the origin of ideas, as though you were suspecting their provenance.  The idea is the thing.  

The idea is wound about your growing conviction that the characters who appear in your stories have to be aware of every movement in the story, which is, in your vision, a finite number of beats, movements, reactions, thoughts,effects, and other dramatic devices, arranged in optimal order.  If you add too many unnecessary beats to a story, you introduce that literary equivalent of genetically modified seeds, anticlimax.  If you take out too many beats, you are left with an incomplete story.

The idea continues with the next booklength project you have in mind, which can begin as soon as you finish with the remaining few edits necessary on your forthcoming collection of short stories.  This new idea relates the preparation of an actor , or player, as they were once called, for a role in a filmed or staged story with the use by writers of narrative fiction of techniques used by actors to produce dimensional and plausible characters.

Many of the more effective actors use techniques taken from Constantin Stanislavsky, the noted Russian director and teacher.  These techniques have been modified in significant ways by subsequent generations of acting coaches and directors since the Stanislavsky tenure.

With that basic relationship established in a scant paragraph, your own research and observations in this area have led you to believe the more expressive and accomplished actors inform their own approach to the interpretation of a role by compiling their own internal list of images to accompany each beat they are responsible for performing.

In addition to learning the lines, then developing in rehearsal a suitable chemistry for each other character with whom they will interact, the accomplished actor must have a series of images which will then cause a response consistent with the condition of that character at a specific moment in the drama.

The more you think of this, the more you realize how, well before you even began to consider such things, you judged actors by their ability to leave most traces of their own self behind while adopting a simulacrum of the character they are portraying.  

The more you read books focusing on acting techniques, you began to appreciate the triggers the individual actor would pull from personal history to portray a desired response or state of being.  No matter that the audience has no clue what those triggers were; the matter at hand is the audience believing the character at that moment in time and, as an additional consequence, for the entire arc of the story.

Small matter for you what Philip Seymour Hoffman, a large, chunky man, had to set up as his triggers to portray the small, elfin Truman Capote.  The larger matter was Hoffman's portrayal which, since you'd met Capote in person, was right on target, even to the point where Hoffman managed somehow to shrink himself to Capote's size--or cause you to accept without hesitation that you were seeing Capote rather than the actor, Hoffman.

Why not, the idea prompted you, turn the process around, imagining the senses and inner conflicts of a character, as you set that character in motion within a story?  Since you were in the midst of revising a collection of your own stories and had editorial notes to consider as well, why not see where this idea took you?

How does a character prepare to be in a story?  You've already addressed that some years back.  Nothing has caused you to change that vision of the ante the character must put in the pot before being allowed to be dealt a hand.  The character cannot enter the game without some identity.  Who is this character?  Ah, an orphan girl from Kansas, you say?  Splendid.  Now, the issue of the character wanting something. 

The orphan girl from Kansas, having been moved precipitously to Oz, wants back in Kansas.  The more critical the character to the outcome of the story, say Macbeth in Shakespeare's play, the more his desires must relate to the outcome.  Now that the character is in and his/her importance established (don't forget Lady Macbeth), what is he/she willing to do to accomplish the goal?

The more time you spend constructing identities for your own characters, or, if you are an actor, constructing an identity for the character you are to portray, the more you begin to see potentials for the forces that brought them to the story.  Now the connective tissue:  Using your own experiences, you extrapolate on how they, these characters you are in the act of creating or are in the act of portraying, will behave in given situations.

Your goal as a writer is to push the intensity of every beat to the point where the character of your own creation or the character you are about to portray will be as unlike anyone else as possible.  If you were an actor, you'd want your performance to be as non-derivative of the works of other characters as possible.  Let's go right for the throat here.  Suppose you were to do Lear.  

You admire so many of the actors who have done Lear:  Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and Albert Finney.  How could you even think to step where they have so well trod?  Why, you'd go interior, to your own culture, an aging man who has become bitter because his daughters do not think his jokes funny, his wisdom, such as it is, very wise.  You would learn your lines in this context, allowing it to inform your delivery.  And although your fool was doing his best to keep you moving, aloft, sane, you would see him as a comic from the Catskills, whose humor you envied.

This would be your approach to one of Shakespeare's most magisterial dramas, which, from your first reading of it, reminded you of your own Jewish heritage.  This would be your series of triggers.  In many ways, alas; this is as close as you will come to portraying Lear, except, now that you have a handle on it, in your mind.

The closest you can come to being a true player is by being a writer, who does not allow his characters to appear without some sense of rudder, some sense of being an armature about which experiences are wrapped, set forth in situations where fates, circumstances, and outcomes have got away from their grasp.

You love them for trying so hard, and what you want most from them is that they reach again for something they thought to have lost, then do something to surprise them--and you.


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