Monday, July 21, 2014

Acting School for Characters

More often than not, the connection between the writer and actor first articulates itself when the actor is chosen to portray a character from a tangible work, a book, a story, a stage play, a screenplay.

In essence, the actor goes through a process similar to the one used by the writer in bringing the character out of the shadows and into the midst of story.  The result is a fascinating symbiosis whereby the actor adds yet another layer to the palette of traits provided by the author.

At the outset of creation, the author had the need for a package in which to place the goals, imperfections, inabilities, fears, and talents of the recognizable entity we think of as a character.  In the process of developing the story in which the character appears, the writer assumes the metaphorical persona of a ceramicist, adding a touch of attitudinal clay here, removing a certain amount of confidence or experience there.

After numerous revisions of the story, in which the authorial comparison to a ceramicist continues, the author adds, removes, complicates, simplifies, almost certainly at one point or another in the creation mixing the metaphor of ceramicist with, say, a surgeon, removing, rerouting, aging, addling, sharpening.  

A completed character, that is one who has been revised, edited, left out all night to see how he or she fares in the wilderness, has evolved from a faint glimmer to a plausible presence.  A completed character is, at the extreme least, a mixed metaphor.

In the cases of successful series of adventures featuring a particular character, say mystery novelist Tony Hillerman's famed Navajo detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the palette of traits and goals has been extended over time.  Leaphorn, for instance, has to deal with the loss of his wife to cancer; Chee has to cope with an unspoken inner desire, growing over time, to become a shaman.

If the character first appeared in a play, say Hamlet, or The Death of a Salesman, the character has, in a lovely anomaly, grown while remaining the same.  How does Hamlet do this?  Why, he still seeks revenge for his father's murder, he still stirs up the hornet's nest of politics at Elsinore Castle, but he has as well evolved by being portrayed by the likes of Lawrence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannaugh, and Richard Chamberlain, pushing the boundaries of his presence, his motives, and his actions by every actor who would bring some special inner presence to this most special role.

Lee J. Cobb brought such a powerful presence to the character of Wiley Lohman that it was said of him he "owned" the character.  And yet, Cobb's ownership did not scare off Dustin Hoffman or Brian Denehy--nor should it.

The writer and the actor share the process of finding and articulating character.  In this process, the writer tends to be pushed back into the wings, his or her work completed, while those who would stage or film the actor at work begin their own processes of discovery.

The common trait shared by writer and actor is the ability to concentrate.  The actor concentrates on the character to be portrayed, then devises movements, a rhythm, a voice to bring the character forth.  The writer concentrates on each character as an individual, then as the entire ensemble, dithering and plodding about in search of the mischief that is story.

You've had a few moments of being in full concentration, where time, space, and causality are gone.  Then the characters begin moving about, doing what they will, while you follow them, trying to observe.

Concentration.  The focus on the now.  The focus on now to the point where even thought of believing is transcended.  You watch actors at work, using their powers of concentration.  You try to find the place where the actor has stopped being the actor, the writer no longer the writer.  You try to find the place where there are no splendid and bright metaphors or spectacular exchanges of dialogue, because those are in a real sense you, acting as publicist for the self as a writer rather than you, being the medium through which the character emerges.

Characters are bigger than life.  To get into a story of yours, the character has to exude a sense of yearning for something, a yearning ordinary individuals have but do not yet know how to articulate.

You need in effect to send your characters to acting school, where they learn to concentrate on the parts they are about to become.

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