Friday, June 13, 2014

Cattle Call for Characters


Professional actors and dancers are so used to auditions for roles that they have for some time been calling them Cattle Calls.  In earlier days, you went on quite a few of these.  

Although the intent was to make enough to pay your bar bill at a remarkable saloon, called Mr. Smith's Back Fence, across Fairfax Avenue from CBS TV-City, rather than pursuing a career as an actor, you nevertheless enjoyed the irony of being a writer who resorted to acting to earn enough to live on while writing.  Your career peak came when you were cast twice by the director, John Frankenheimer (1930-2002).

For the past several weeks, when your focus was not on promotional tours for your recent book, your interest has been on your work in progress, tentatively called A Character Prepares, the title a homage to Constantin Stanislavsky, the noted Russian director and acting teacher, in his way the grandfather of the so-called Method Acting technique that has spread through the worlds of stage, television, and motion pictures.

Although you are no actor in any acceptable professional sense of the word, you have in effect been showing up for cattle calls for most of your adult life.  These cattle calls were quite often called by you, unless you happened to be a writer for hire, working with a director who wanted to bring his own story to life.

To your credit, you spent a good deal of time thinking about the characters you intended to use in your own productions, which is to say, short stories and novels.  For the longest time, you had the sense casting directors must have when they interview strangers.  Under the best of circumstances, a character is a stranger to you until she or he is placed in the tight-fit position of an individual caught up in a condition or situation, whereupon relevant traits begin to emerge from the clamor of undifferentiated details.

But alas, under the best of those circumstances, your characters remained shadowy presences.  They continued as shadowy until you sought a way to make them more dimensional and alive.  In all probability, A Character Prepares  had its genesis when you came up with a necessary solution to the problem.  Even then, solution in hand, you had no conscious awareness of thinking to write such a book where, in the most reductionist approach, you posit the techniques employed by skilled actors to be applied by writers such as yourself in the creation of memorable, workable, unpredictable characters.

Your given now, on this thirteenth day of June in 2014, is that all characters--repeat, all--should be unpredictable.  Even when the story calls for a character whose responses are predictable, nevertheless, that character should have some dark side or hidden spontaneity, some explosive ability to improvise on the spot a game-changing response that is nevertheless within the framework of that character's reach.

Although you cannot pinpoint the exact time you began using your own Method, you are aware of what it is:  No matter who or what the character, you cast yourself in the role, imagined yourself portraying that him or her in a staged version of the story.  You assumed his or her vocabulary, invented a backstory for him or her, and an agenda, your most famous example being the person who delivers the pizza.

This delivery is your response to a meme you picked up from the still-influential mystery writer, Raymond Chandler, in his long, lovely, quirky essay, "The Simple Art of Murder."  Chandler was inveighing against the device of having a gun-waving man barging into a scene when it seemed to be losing traction.  You want and welcome mistaken pizza deliveries as well as intentional ones. 

 In either case, the delivery person has an agenda.  The least part of the agenda is not to remain a pizza deliverer for the balance of his or her working life.  In fact, the delivery person has an ambition of being an actor, thus each appearance is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate such things as abilities with accent, and dramatic presence.

When presenting this basic to students, you remind them with considerable emphasis that everyone in your story wishes to be someone or something else, possibly even both.

Thus you have been the hundred or so individuals appearing in your latest book,  In addition, you've improvised for your own amusement and to keep your imagination lithe and supple.  As a consequence, you've been several versions of Lear.  You've appeared in a version of Romeo and Juliet where the Montagues and Capulets are Cohens and Levys.  You've been a Lear whose kingdom was a thriving line of ladies' clothing.  You've been pompous, shy, emotive, bombastic, serious, driven.  Why stop there?

Why stop, indeed?  As you lay first in Intensive Care after your cancer surgery, then in a more conventional hospital room you shared with a young Chumash Indian who was visited each day by a stream of Uncles, you observed the hospital routine about you, then became one of the superheroes of your birth culture; you became a Golem, a creature made from river clay, brought to life with the magic from The Kabbala, its power source a Hebrew word written on a tiny scroll, then stuffed into the creature's ear.  

The Golem's original purpose was to combat antisemitism.  You had no trouble with that, but in order to give the Golem something extra, you had him created by a group of patients in a rehab hospital to guard their rights and dignity.  Of course, in the process, he began hitting on nurses.

The more you thought about this technique of casting yourself, the more you understood how you also cast others of your acquaintance, adding to each role that quintessential quality of having some aspect of unpredictability to be released like a flock of birds at a wedding or ritual, simultaneously thrilling and surprising you and all the other yous and you look-alikes in the ensemble of characters.

Part of the reason for this new book, this blog entry, and this entire blog, and anything else you write, be it a book review, short story, or essay, is discovery--the discovery of surprise.

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