Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Writer Prepares

You might not been aware of the Constantin Stanislavsky book, An Actor Prepares, if Virginia had not given you her copy, shortly before her death.  Stanislavsky was a major figure in the modern theater, training actors and directing them.  Using his techniques, some of Stanislavsky's pupils came to this country, starting workshops in which  techniques known as The Method or Method Acting were presented to aspiring actors.

How do you assess Virginia's influence on you?  Let's begin with a motion picture released in 1942, a biography of the athlete, Lou Gehrig, unfortunate enough to become better known for the degenerative affliction amyotropic lateral sclerosis than for his considerable career as a first baseman and power hitter for the New York Yankees baseball team.

At the time you saw the movie, you were more a fan of the National League Brooklyn Dodgers, in no small measure because their broadcasts were done by Walter Lanier "Red" Barber, who spoke as though he'd taken a bite out of a fluffy biscuit with a smear of honey.  As much as you were fond of baseball at the time, you were fonder of Red Barber's conversational descriptions, laced with enough metaphor and sense of enjoyment to have you sometimes gripping your shoulders in wonder.

Lou Gehrig died in 1941, not yet forty.  The motion picture was a tribute to his life, cut short by the neurodegenerative disease that would be named after him.  In it, there was a scene portraying Gehrig's college days, a baseball scholarship at Columbia University, where he waited tables at a fraternity house to earn spending money.

The fraternity brothers pranked Gehrig, as portrayed by Gary Cooper, by having a seductive Southern belle type young lady flirt with Gehrig. Young as you were, you appreciated the flirtatious lady.  Forty-some-odd years later, you sat in the den of Virginia's home, watching the scene on a TV screen as she explained how she portrayed the flirtatious lady.

Your friendship with her began around 1980, when you and she began discussing such things as acting, acting techniques, and how an actor prepared for a role, all of this coming from seeing her on occasion at the Santa Barbara Vedanta Temple.

She spoke and you listened until March 28, 1986, when her emphysema symptoms became more than she could bear and she took her life.  In many ways, you hear her talking about her craft, her studies, associations, her tumultuous marriage to the actor Yul Brynner, and of most interest to you, her time on stage and in actor's workshops.  You've read and reread many of the books on acting she recommended, in particular the one by a pal of hers, Uta Hagen.

Variations on the original Stanislavsky teachings were bound to proliferate as more actors, impressed with the techniques, turned to coaching themselves.  A friend of yours from the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, Davida Hurwin, studied with Jeff Corey, whom you knew from your days at UCLA.

On your own, you discovered another acting coach, Sanford Meisner, reading his books and listening to him on filmed presentations.  Almost without thinking about it, you began subjecting your own fiction to acting exercises and approaches, growing more convinced the actor and the writer were siblings of intent, each wishing to portray memorable characters who seemed to be the engine of the story in which they appear.

You're trying to recall the first time you told a student or a client to imagine their characters as actors, then instructed them to direct the characters to perform the story as opposed to relying on what you call authorial description.  Your best guess is back in the mid-to-late 1990s at USC and at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, which means if not twenty years ago, close to it.

The last prolonged work of nonfiction you did, The Fiction Writer's Handbook, makes ample reference to such concepts, including, in its early pages, a brief essay on the process of actioning.  This process, a collaboration between the actor and director, causes the actor how to express physicality, the movement that goes along with the dialogue the actor delivers, the pace with which it is delivered, and what things the actor does while speaking.

There is more, of course, but not enough.  Besides, now that the collection of short stories has been put to production and will be appearing in advanced reading copies in the next week, the time has come to begin something new that has been rattling around like the loose change in your pockets.


A Character Prepares:

Acting Techniques and Wisdom to Make Your Fiction Come to Life

  Based on An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavsky and Works 

by Other Noted Acting Teachers

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