Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Writer Prepares a Character Preparing to Be an Actor

Constantin Stanislavsky, the Russian actor, director, and teacher who made direct contributions to the vision and performance of modern theater, then in another, deeper sense, contributed more through his numerous students, published a major work, An Actor Prepares,  in 1936.

The book is still in print, its influence on actors and directors still a vibrant force in the matter of a staged or filmed story.  Your own teacher gave you her copy of the book in 1986, long after she had used it, first as a guide for her own education, and then as a text from which she developed acting classes.  It was one of her parting gifts to you after her decision to take her own life before her emphysema took it from her.  You can still hear her talking about the need to be alert to cues.  "An actor who misses a cue is an incomplete actor."

You are neither an actor nor complete.  In many ways, the books, essays, reviews, and stories you write are attempts at adding a greater measure of completion than you find present.  You, the non-actor that you are, find yourself currently involved in a book with the title A Character Prepares.  

The book will have a sub-title offering a nod of recognition to Constantin Stanislavsky, at the same time suggesting this book is for fiction writers who wish to create characters as robust and vibrant as were some of Stanislavsky's better students, and any number of accomplished actors who've come along in subsequent years.

Some time ago, at least a year, you found in the latest copy of your subscription to The Paris Review a short story by an accomplished writer, Donald Antrim.  You knew of Antrim from a previous novel6, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.  The fact of him having a story in the current edition of The Paris Review thus became a twofer you couldn't resist, not when you saw the title, "An Actor Prepares."

Even though there is no apparent trace of the first-person narrator in the opening paragraph, an oversight you might well consider fatal, you were drawn in because--well, because Antrim is a special writer, one who in many ways fulfills approaches you feel necessary for anyone who becomes what you would call "a good writer."  Here's where the discomfort comes rushing into your being.  Most of the writers, actors, and musicians you consider of the extraordinary sort of individual you have dreams some day of writing your way into, may be said to be eccentric, perhaps the next plateau up, which is overly focused, and quite possibly several steps in that "other" way, which is to say bat-shit crazy.

It is one thing to wonder if you are working away now at matters beyond mere, simple technique and into more complex neuroses or eccentricities.  It is that one thing to wonder if you are too normal, too average to achieve the insights and visions you wish, but quite another thing to give the appearance or, better still, recognition that Donald Antrim, whom you have never met in person, nor have you a common friend or even acquaintance, either is too well-adjusted and normal or sufficiently not.  See what you've done; you've raised the idea, perhaps the pons asinorum of artistry, that the aspect we think of as creativity is more resident in the eccentric than those who seem to be more identifiable with the rest of us.

Antrim's opening brings Lee Strasburg, the noted acting coach, on stage:  " Lee Strasburg, a founder of the Group Theater, and the great teacher of the American Method, famously advised his students never to 'use' --for generating tears, etc. in a dramatic scene--personal/historical material less than seven years in the personal/historical past; otherwise, the Emotion Memory (the death of a loved one or some like event in the actor's life that can, when evoked through recall and substitution, hurl open the floodgates, as they say, right on cue, night after night, even during a long run)--this material, being too close, as it were, might overwhelm the artist and compromise the total control required to act the part--"

As you read this, you were caught up in the swooping, free-wheeling flight of a sentence that is fraught with emotion, verve, daring, and language, not yet ready to give in and call it a sentence or any other such thing, making a perfect kind of sense as well as opening dramatic floodgates, warnings, and expertise.

Somewhere, therein, you begin to realize this had better not be the author talking, is in fact, not the author talking at all, but rather a "skinny, balding, unmarried, childless forty-six-year-old Lysander [from A Midsummer Night's Dream] --a PhD with hair on his back--mean within the context of an otherwise college-age show?"  We already know this narrator as Reginald Barry, a professor of speech and drama at a small, liberal arts college, both he and the college compromised in ways itching to reveal themselves to us.

Well before you had the governing notion for your version of "An Actor Prepares" (which you have to render in quotes because it is thinking this is how you would have written your short story, using Antrim's inspired use of Stanislavsky's book title)  by naming it A Character Prepares, you have written several stories about an actor named Matthew Bender, who is a likely candidate for the starring role in your version.

All of which comes to the point.  In earlier times, Antrim's remarkable story would have sent you reeling off into the bushes to pee away envy.  Rejoice then for these times.  Antrim's story is splendid, a reminder, in fact, of the high quality of his work.  You can envy that, too, but you do not pee that off in the bushes, you remind yourself of Virginia, who reminded you to be alert for cues, which is what these vagrant lines are about--cues.  Antrim saw a remarkable world in that title, presented it, and took his character, Reginald "Barry, on a dangerous, surreal ride over bumpy pavement.  He took you along with his character.

You must look for clues and cues, then find ways to give them enough of a shove so that they will cough and sputter a few times before catching hold, then become a story with an irresistible opening paragraph about ordinary things that may have been residing among your shelves the many years.

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