Friday, April 22, 2016

Quiet on Stage, Please. And Roll 'em

 Plots intrigue you because you cannot design them out of the box. You need instead to develop a character, see the character as a type, then with enough wrappings and filigree to produce the semblance of a person. As a consequence of this binary, you lap up plot-driven novels as though they were handsfull of M and M's, awaiting you in a nearby dish.

While you are reading, you are wrestling with some concept or other that nags at you, insisting it be made into a story. Your solution to the problem is to throw more needy individuals into the stew. In a real sense, your story, the one variation on a theme you seek to relate in significant individual strands, is The Canterbury Tales.

When the going gets tough, the persistent old refrain reminds us, the tough get going. Your approach to the matter becomes a series of quirky sorts, off on some sort of purpose which you have, over the years, come to realize as a quest, a goal, a pilgrimage. One such venture you recall over a span of a half century had individuals standing in line to purchase tickets to an event such as a play, a rock concert, a ballet, even, when you thought you were wildly in love with a singer, an opera. You remember the final line, as the protagonist approaches the box office, "Two tickets, as close to front row as possible, center section, for the opening performance."

At the time you wrote that narrative, with that ending, you were working as an usher for such venues as the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater, the Wilshire Ebell,and the Shrine Auditorium, where, in most cases, the important aspect of your pay was the experience of a musical comedy, the pulse of stage, of drama, and of opera, concert, or play. 

The anticipation of experiencing them fed your hunger for the performed experience, any one of which, you believed, held the key to the drama you wished to create but were, as yet, unable to articulate in functional ways.

Thus, for the longest time, you saw story as the anticipation of drama. In contrast, you now see it as actors in a live performance or waiting for cues to enter the set for a filmed performance, where they will pretend to be someone else, with the expectations of this other person,this character. Many actors will hold this pretense of being another for the one-time filming or the week or so of a live performance, then off to another impersonation.

You like and romanticize certain actors, envious of the ease with which they slide into the skin of a pretend person, in some cases "doubling" or taking two roles int he same play, or racing across town from one studio to another with the goal of impersonating more than one character. This puts you in mind of the number of schools you attended while in your formative years, then the number of venues where you taught in your more recent years.

In one such circumstance, you began a lecture thinking to remind the students where we were in the previous encounter, more or less the equivalent of telling an audience, "I am Hamlet, until recently a carefree university student, called home to a life-changing series of events beginning when my father died under mysterious circumstances, and my mother with 'O, most dexterous speed,' married my uncle, whom my late father appeared to me as a ghost, demanding I avenge his death."

The students appeared baffled as you spoke, shifting their bodies nervously, until one of them spoke up in a polite but firm interruption.  "Excuse me, but that's not at all what we were discussing last week."

In this dramatic moment, both you and your students are at existential loggerheads, with you, reaching into your teacher's tool kit for the solution. Within this toolkit, the same implements of the actor and writer, which is to say deceit, persuasive abilities, a quickness of ability to accommodate, and a splendid ability to lie without seeming to be doing so. In the moment of the student's interruption, you realized it was indeed not this class but another class in another institution where, only last week, you were discussing the equivalent of Hamlet.

With this awareness came the presence the writer /teacher/
actor/performer needs to recover from being the unreliable narrator. You could easily have admitted the error and gone forth as though nothing had happened, perhaps even evoking sympathetic understanding, but this moment and your devotion to being that aggregate of writer/actor/teacher/performer had pushed you over the edge.  

"Yes," you acknowledged, "but we should have been discussing Prince Hamlet because his travails are the same ones we're experiencing in this class. We need to see beyond the single, straight line of fact or of theory, into the parallel lines of metaphor, of implication, of elephants in the living room."

"Could you walk us through what we should have been thinking last week?" the student who'd called you out with such polite interruption asked.

You examined his face for a moment to see if you could detect any traces of sarcasm. There were none, and so you proceeded with this week's lecture and devices intended to evoke lively conversation, sensing you'd restored the audience's confidence and participation. 

Even more important, you'd brought on stage the process in which performance produces an emotional accompaniment to the facts in play at the moment. The process insures the memory. You, the teacher, and you, the writer, are playing to the house, wishing to convey the living dimensions of the process. The house is every bit a part of the process as you and the material are.

Without the house, the printed page, the scene, the lecture, you are merely talking to yourself, and likely reviewing the wrong lecture.


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