Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Serial Killers – The Perils of Making a Television Novel

Welcome to the Season Finale of Year One - my last school paper for the year.


America is split in what it desires from television. Often times people simply want to tune in in order to tune out their lives. It’s an escapism designed to allow us to forget credit card bills, oil changes, spousal arguments, delayed trains, traffic jams, and overcharges. Most of us aren’t looking for anything complicated; any distraction will do.
In this regard, episodic television is a comfort. On the same night of every week a viewer can tune in and watch a set of prescribed characters dance through a situation that takes little more than twenty minutes (plus commercials) to encounter, evaluate, and resolve. At the end of every episode all conflicts are settled. Arguments are forgiven and forgotten; threats to safety and well-being are vanquished. Everyone ends up right where they started. Very commedia dell’arte.
This is why television often contributes to the lowest common denominator of entertainment. There is validity to the complaint that scripts are base and that performances are only skin deep. People declare with pride that they never watch television because it harms the overall artistic nature of our culture. It does not challenge. It does not inspire. It merely gives us a way to shut off our consciousness and reset.
Yet television can be a remarkable source for artistic merit. There are people who are trying to build something more, something special. Solid character development. A continuing story. These things and more cannot be achieved with merely a weekly tune-in that can be picked up and dropped anywhere at the points between season one and season ten. I propose that serialized television contains the best opportunity to elevate our collective quality of expectations from this medium.
A failure of episodic television is that it is incompatible with real life. People and their lives change as times goes by. Over the course of five years a human life has the potential to be significantly altered. We get new jobs, or new positions and responsibilities within them. We meet new people, forging new relationships as other ones falter. We undergo trials and discoveries that affect our personalities as well as our dreams. The stagnancy of episodic television is a poor reflection for the long-term nature of the human condition.
One of my first favorite television shows was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Each week the crew of the Starship Enterprise would face a new villain to threaten the safety and security of the principals, and each week the challenge would be met with virtually no long-term consequences. If a character died (which was remarkably rare considering the number of times their lives were threatened) they’d barely be mentioned again, their absence unremarked either subtly or overtly. At times there would occur a seemingly significant role-shift, such as Commander Riker’s battlefield promotion to the rank of Captain in the two part episode The Best of Both Worlds – yet the very next episode showed him reduced back to the rank of Commander. Riker’s return to his previous rank was devoid of either explanation or emotional content; it was as if the trials and perils of the previous week had never happened.
Another example of the unreality of episodic television happened on ABC’s The Commish. The show focused on both the work and family life of Tony Scali, a police commissioner in a small town in upstate New York. In one episode Tony’s teenaged son was kidnapped by a Mafioso. It provided one of the highlights of the series in terms of potential character development as a fearful parent experienced the terror of knowing his child was in mortal danger. By the end of the episode young David was returned unharmed, and the next week there was no follow-through. Tony seemed to have immediately recovered from the threat and fear of loss to his family. Viewers who had missed the episode would never have a notion that just a week ago this parent and child had their lives threatened. It was this unrealistic approach to the exploration of lingering effect that kept at bay substantial emotional investment on the part of the audience.
Episodic television tries to throw in long term elements, but with minimal lingering effect. One such example is in the NBC series Quantum Leap, a show about Sam Beckett, a scientist who travels through time to “put right what once went wrong.” In the episode The Evil Leaper he meets his evil counterpart, a woman who also leaps through time in order to create as much havoc as possible. This antagonist makes more than one appearance in the series, but the interim episodes were so far apart it took a great deal of in-character exposition to explain who she was when she returned.
By contrast, the nature of serialized television operates very much like a novel. Individual episodes function as chapters in a larger overall story. The events of one episode have a direct, lingering effect on the characters and the worlds in which they inhabit. All actions have consequences, be they major or minor. This far-sighted approach to storytelling operates on a far more parallel track to real life, and is therefore better equipped to resonate with an audience in a way that transcends its time slot.
Aside from an afternoon soap opera, the first time I witnessed a television show with a serialized nature was the science fiction epic Babylon 5. The show took place on a space station constructed ten years after a cataclysmic war that nearly resulted in the extinction of the human race. The purpose of the station was to provide a neutral place to encourage diplomatic solutions to stop another devastating war before it could occur. As time went by the audience was subjected to a plot that carried over from one episode to the next. A decision in one episode often held serious repercussions in subsequent episodes all the way to the end of the series.
In this regard watching Babylon 5 was like watching a novel unfold. In the five years it took to tell the tale each of the characters underwent a transformation. People fell in love and got married. People left or died, and their absence was felt by their friends and colleagues. It was refreshing to watch a show in which actions had consequences.
Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski created a story bible for the series detailing every major plot point across a period of five years. While this is a laudable goal to attempt, it is not without risk. During its fourth year he show was slated to be cancelled forcing several plot points to be wrapped up prematurely. It was than granted an unexpected reprieve for a fifth year, but there wasn’t enough remaining plot to fill a season. Several new elements had to be created to fill in the gaps, and the resulting season was relatively shallow.
The creation of a five year plan is commendable, but the inability to carry it out can greatly hinder the overall product. Moreover, many authors feel that creating a plot in advance of the storyline and forcing the characters through it is as unrealistic as imagining every story finishes where it begins. In his book On Writing, novelist Stephen King said
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).
Playwright Brett C. Leonard, author of The Long Red Road, gave us a writing workshop in which he explained a piece of his writing process. A story, he told us, consists of creating the characters and what they want, then to follow them along and see what happens to them. If it is natural that a man on a journey to the Grand Canyon stops along the way, he should stop. He may meet a woman. He’ll have feelings about her, and the two of them may fall in love. Thus the realistic approach to storytelling is dictated by the characters’ desires, by their wants and by their dreams. The story follows them; they do not follow the story.
Author Neil Gaiman expressed a similar notion:
It's like hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles. You know more or less where you're going to be when, and you have a fair idea of where you're going to hit on the way, but you don't know everything that's going to happen. You don't know that the car may break down at some point and leave you stranded in St. Louis for a week, or whatever.
Other television series have learned and followed this lesson. HBO’s The Wire is a show about police officers in Baltimore, Maryland. Each season was constructed with an organic build based on actual events and experiences of the show’s creator, David Simon. It was this draw from reality, both in terms of character and story, which allowed for a more naturalistic quality of storytelling to emerge. Instead of attempting to develop a plotline across the show’s five year run, each season placed the characters in a new situation that would run its course by season’s end. As the characters moved through the story they were affected by the world in which they inhabited as much as their actions had lasting influence in the community at large. Furthermore, each season was not wholly independent of those previous or subsequent. Characters not directly involved in that season’s primary plot thrust would nonetheless regularly resurface with the full force of their histories behind them.
The worst mistake a serialized television show can make is to retroactively alter the plot of a series. In the pilot episode of NBC’s Heroes a pair of brothers, Peter and Nathan Petrelli, are told of their father’s death. This event does a great deal to inform the nature of the two men and their relationship with one another. It helps to guide and shape them as they struggle with the dangers they regularly face.
Two years later, in season three, it is revealed that the men’s father is alive. What’s more, Arthur Petrelli is directly responsible for every major plot point over the previous two seasons. To validate the charge, several scenes were filmed with the show’s previous chief villain, Daniel Linderman, loathly taking orders from Arthur in a way that completely contradicted two seasons of his character’s development. This was an example of such blatant revisionist plot history to rival the “Greedo shot first” controversy that spawned so much ire in the world of Star Wars fandom.
This is another lesson that can be learned from the novelists such as Neil Gaiman discovered while writing his graphic novel series Sandman. In some respects, Sandman was very much like a serialized television show in that each issue was published independently before he’d finished writing the whole story.
[I was] writing it with no room for change—I couldn't go back to change things that had already come out. In a novel, you can always go back and make it look like you knew what you were doing all along before the thing goes out and gets published. If you need a gun in a desk drawer, and you realize that in Chapter 11, you can go back and put it in that desk drawer when you opened it in Chapter 2. So if I'm going to need the gun, I'm going to have to do it in some other way that's satisfying, or I don't have a gun.
A significant achievement in the writing of a series comes when the writers reinvent some of the shows history without blatantly making it obvious. In the season three episode Rapture from the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, a woman named Deanna discovers the secret identity of one of her predecessors. The audience is not given the information; Deanna sees the face of a hooded figure leaving us only with the cryptic statement, “You? Forgive me, I . . . I had no idea.” Seventeen episodes later, in season four, the character’s identity was finally revealed. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore openly admitted being unaware of the identity of this mysterious person at the time the former episode was aired, but the subsequent episodes were written with that in mind. The reveal was done in such a way that never contradicted the shows prior plot points, storylines, or character motivations.
Other shows have a good blend of plotting vs. following. In Fox’s 24, each season has one major threat which must be vanquished. A fair amount of background is detailed before the season begins both in terms of character and story, and the facts are slowly revealed over the course of a season. In this case plotting has the effect of providing discoveries of who the bad guys are and their motivations, and then more significant reveals of who the bad guys really are and why the whole story is more dynamic than was originally presented can (and always do) occur. Multiple layers of complexity are possible, leaving the main character a changed man from one season to the next along with his colleagues.
Subsequent seasons of 24 take previous character development stories into account. Jack Bauer grows with each passing event that happens to him. Threats to his family, his intimate relationships, and his failures or success all have an impact on how he deals with the next situation he encounters. Sometimes a lover or colleague dies (and they die a lot). Sometimes Jack fails to stop the bad guy. Sometimes he can only carry out his mission by swallowing his fear, his pride, or his self-respect. And we feel for Jack because the affect can always be felt within the words the writers give him to speak, the actions they give him to undertake, and Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of the character.
Perhaps the most frequent goal of any American television series is syndication. Once a show accomplishes this it can live forever in reruns. It takes 100 episodes to get there, and the average number of episodes each season means it takes at least five years. This means five years’ worth of stories, five years’ worth of characters, five years’ worth of challenges and love affairs and antagonists. Some shows try to sneak their way to syndication within the original concept, such as the original Star Trek’s “five year mission” to explore new life and new civilizations. Another trick (attempted by more than one production company) was 1993’s Time Trax, in which a policeman from the future must travel back in time to recapture 100 escaped convicts resulting in a formulaic freak-of-the-week plot structure.
Some shows are successful beyond their original measure. Chris Carter’s The X-Files¬ was plotted for about two seasons, but the success of the show meant he had to scramble for story ideas once he discovered the show could run into three seasons and beyond (it ultimately ran for nine). Sometimes the popularity of a show brings an unprecedented measure of attention to a particular actor as it did with ER’s George Clooney, who left the show after five seasons to pursue a successful film career; yet the show was able to carry on another ten seasons without him. David Duchovny left The X-Files with a similar (though less successful) goal, and the show only lasted two seasons beyond his involvement.
Both serialized and episodic television can run into trouble when its success outweighs its ability to maintain its own weight of viewership and fandom. Shows that run long enough eventually begin to run thin on new ideas that fit within the original concept, and the show runs the risk of “jumping the shark.”
In the 1970’s Happy Days ran for a number of years before the episode Hollywood in which charismatic tough-guy Fonzie straps on a pair of water skis and executes the daredevil feat of jumping over a shark. Since then, “jumping the shark” has become an idiom to describe
…a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on...it's all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it "Jumping the Shark." From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same.
No matter how well-intentioned, superbly written or excellently performed, sooner or later a show must change, or it must die. The fact that there was once an entire website (and more than a few books) devoted to heralding the death of a series before the body grows cold denotes there is a limit to how much change an audience will accept. The basic concept of Roseanne was that of a working class family, relatable to a broad swipe of American demographics. The sudden change of the Connor family winning the lottery altered the landscape of the show too drastically to maintain the ratings, and the show faded away.
Another Great Moment in Shark Jump History was in the 1980’s comedy/detective show Moonlighting. The show was a relatively rare combination of serialization on the part of the principal characters and episodic structure in the cases they worked on. Bruce Willis as David Addison and Cybil Shepherd as Maddie Hayes brought a mutual charisma and sexual tension that viewers found inescapable for the show’s run – until season three, when the pair finally consummated their relationship. Afterwards the pregnancy of Cybil Shepherd resulted in a profound absence of her character. The show’s success was so centered on the potential romantic involvement of its two main characters that when that aspect was removed the show no longer had legs to stand on.
In order for a show to maintain integrity throughout its entire run, a development team could do worse than to follow the adage “quit while you’re ahead.” Find a story and follow it, but don’t push it farther than it’s willing to go. The popularity of DVD sales takes some of the strength out of the power of syndication; no matter how unsuccessful a series may be during its original aring, devoted fans can still rent or purchase the series to keep its memory (and royalty checks) alive. The short-lived Fox show Firefly is one such poignant example of this.
Much like comic books, television may never be universally considered to be high art. But just because things don’t happen doesn’t mean they can’t. Give consideration to the possibility, and anything becomes possible.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reflections On Year One - Acting Thesis

Yes, this is another class assignment. Deal with it.


When I began my undergraduate education at the University of North Texas in 1996 the first text I was given to read was Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting; the second was Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. I came into college without having embraced acting as an art form; much less one that had such a wide variety of techniques to accomplish what was to my perception the same end result. Acting was, to me, a series of technical exercises that was only as varied as the genres listed in the video store. Action. Drama. Comedy.

So the notions of Boleslavsky and Shurtleff were more than merely foreign concepts – they were essentially in a different language. How could I possibly expect to apply their concepts to fit within my preconceived notion of what acting was? My first digestion of these texts did as much for my acting as eating them would have done. They struck the surface, but didn’t penetrate. I heard the words, but didn’t know how to allow them to inform my art. By the time I graduated in 2001 I had barely advanced beyond my first day.

The intervening years and my first three quarters of graduate school gave me the perspective I needed to let the ideas permeate. An idea heard once can be remembered and regurgitated, but my comparatively short time at Depaul has allowed me to explore, interpret and embrace everything I first heard fourteen years ago, to make sense of it and apply it to my craft.

I committed to acting as a career path three days before I began college. I was as fresh to the idea as Boleslavsky’s character of The Creature to whom acting was a matter of surface technique – how to make it look like she was doing what the text said she was supposed to do. Her first lesson in actual human suffering was my own:

I must tell you that this very moment you did more for the theatre, or rather for yourself in the theatre, than you did in playing all your parts. You suffered just now; you felt deeply. Those are two things without which you cannot do in any art and especially in the art of the theatre. Only by paying this price can you attain the happiness of creation, the happiness of the birth of a new artistic value.

It was only through my two quarters of studying Meisner this year that I began to comprehend the value of that statement. Acting isn’t about presentation or duplication of the human condition. It is about a genuine creation of a human being believing in and behaving within a set of given circumstances. From Boleslavsky, “To imitate is wrong. To create is right.”

My original trepidation was based on my fear that suffering was the only characteristic necessary to embrace acting as an art. Of course suffering is necessary, but so is joy, fear, pride, or any of the wide range of emotional experiences. “If you are a sensitive and normal human being, all life is open and familiar to you.”

One of the more influential training experiences was with the professors of the Moscow Art Theatre in 2005. One man, Yuri Yeremin, posed the question, “What makes an actor unique among artists? What is it that an actor does that no other artist does?” The first part of the answer was “The ability to believe in a set of given circumstances.”

Meisner would have us understand the difference between belief and acceptance. One may not ever believe he is his character, or that he is living within the world described for within the script. Indeed, complete belief would have us inquiring about the crowd of strangers staring at us from beyond the lights. The actor should rather acknowledge, understand, and accept that the given circumstances are indeed true, and behave truthfully within them.

The Creature: But I am speaking to my mother in the part.
I: Is she really your mother?
The Creature: No.
I: Then what difference does it make?”

Boleslavsky’s first chapter on Concentration is about the acceptance, as Meisner would have it, that you are living within those given circumstances. It is necessary to use one’s own five senses to inform the quality of that world. See the place you’re in. Feel its temperatures, its textures. Hear the sounds that belong in that place. If you’re doing something, really DO it, don’t simply show the audience what it would look like if you were. Are you sewing? Then sew, don’t merely pass a needle back and forth to yourself. Chopping garlic? Keep hacking away until it’s done. Allow that a standard of perfection must be met. One cannot expect an audience to accept your given circumstances if you, as the actor, cannot accept them yourself.

Meisner deepens the concept of concentration by bringing in a partner to create an additional set of effects. The influences on the five senses are compounded and informed by the emotional response to another human being in the room. This is someone who has just as much influence on your emotional state as the room itself and the activity you’re doing has on your physical senses. Take in what you’re given, let it affect to you, and respond to it truthfully.

The Creature: So one must choose his actions in accordance with the character of the part that opposes him.
I: Always. Not only the character of the part, but also the individuality of the actor who plays the part.”

It was this additional element that was the most difficult for me to embrace. I had always considered myself as someone who is willing and able to accept a variety of variables in my life as well as my performances. One of the first things I learned about myself while studying Meisner is that I only felt this way due to the sheer amount of analysis and mental preparation in which I regularly engaged. Every possibility and contingency was considered, and every reaction I could possibly have was mapped out.

This idea has served me reasonably well in life, but I needed to let go of that need to control in order to progress as an actor. There is no scene, not even a monologue, that doesn’t have an intended target. I want something from someone, and I cannot know what to do next if I’m not paying attention to how my actions are being received and interpreted. Every action must therefore be a reaction to the other person in the scene.

The text of a script is rich with information about a pair of characters in a scene, but it is the job of the actor to add dimension and importance to the lines and what they might mean. I began my scenework at DePaul by reacting only to the lines I heard, but not to the person who was saying them to me. In this manner I was able to perform an entire scene by myself. My scene partner became irrelevant. By pre-coding my thoughts, statements and responses, I was neglecting myself the opportunity to be surprised and make discoveries throughout my scenework. I would react to the lines, but not to my partner’s wants or emotional states. As Trudie told me from my first scene showing with Emma Kate, “It was good acting, but it wasn’t the truth.” From Shurtleff,

One can employ any extravagance of feeling or expression, as long as there is relationship in it. What we term overacting is done by people who are acting by themselves, narcissistically setting up a storm in which no one else exists. Of course, this is unreal. Add relationship, the awareness and need of another, to these very same extravagant choices, and they will be real, lifelike.

Later in Meisner came the work of emotional preparation. I had never tried this before, preferring to enter each scene as I begin anything in life – with cool detachment from a centered, mind-cleared state. That worked as I began to spar in my martial arts practice or concentrated on a homework assignment. But theatre is not life. It is far more interesting than life. The boldest choices borne of the strongest possible set of actions in order to achieve the most passionate of dreams are what good theatre is all about. Emotional preparation in its most extreme is what makes a scene interesting.

My struggle to adequately prepare emotionally is a consequence of my active fantasy life. Since I was a child I have been a fan of the most wild science-fiction and fantasy enabling me to imagine myself in the most fantastic scenarios (as the hero, of course). As someone who was regularly bullied I discovered long ago I could carry out quite extravagant revenge fantasies in my mind. In my attempts to always be prepared for the worst case, I have regularly imagined – and planned for – what I would do and how I would react in the event of the death of a loved one. Because I knew it was always a fantasy I trained myself not to dwell too long or hard on these extreme circumstances. Because I did this so often I began to grow immune to the effects of letting these emotions reside within me.

It was here that instead of using Meisner to understand Boleslavsky, I discovered that the opposite was in fact true:

How do you learn a tune you want to remember? How do you learn the outline of muscles you want to draw? How do you learn the mixture of colors you want to use in painting? Through constant repetition and perfection. … your actual work is done in solitude—entirely inside of yourself. You know how, now, through concentration. Think over the process of approach toward the actual moment of that real double feeling. You will know when you get it. You will feel the warmth of it and the satisfaction.

Here Boleslavsky gives a fine rehearsal technique, but my biggest success in emotional preparation came from unearthing the memories from a quite painful set of circumstances throughout my life. My physicality has always been something of which I am proud (insofar as one can be proud of an accident of birth), but there have been times I’ve come dangerously close to accidentally bringing physical harm to another. Far more often I’ve been chastised and made to feel ashamed by how close others have perceived I came to hurting a person through my ineptitude, true or not.

One of the reasons for success in drawing upon this set of emotions is how many times I’ve felt and hidden from them. By exploring the long-standing aspects of myself of which I am deeply ashamed, and therefore hide, I was able to hit a previously unmet level of discovery.

The other reason I believe this worked so well for me is that is relied on a circumstance that was created by something I had done, not something that had happened to me. This is always the more interesting choice.

I: All right. What is the action?
The Creature: To be insulted.
I: Wrong. To preserve your dignity.”

The text of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition is replete with cyclical information. That is to say that there is no one aspect of his Twelve Guideposts that does not contain some scrap of each of the others, and multiple passes of the material are required to understand fully the complexities of his guidance.

He nonetheless begins with the most important foundation of scenework – that of relationship. Who is your partner, and what does this person mean to you? It is only when this groundwork is laid that the rest of the importance of the work can follow. Shurtleff’s notion that “every scene is a love scene” is paramount in making the sort of active, important choices that make a scene the most it can be.

My first scenework of the year, Pinter’s Betrayal with Emma Kate, wouldn’t have been nearly so dimensional had I not done the necessary exploration of relationship. The characters of Jerry and Emma have a deeply rich and complex association. They are long time (though not lately) lovers who played house in the afternoon in spite of their spouses, yet they never meant so much to one another that making the dream into a reality was important enough to carry out. The text of the scene is filled with reminiscence, and it would be a sharply neglectful reading if the actors failed to embody the relationship in its entirety.

An actor cannot act without creating a relationship with that other person who’s onstage with him. Some actors do it instinctively; they are the lucky ones. But when the instincts don’t work the way they should, the first thing an actor must do then is ask questions about the relationship and insist upon full emotional answers that can lead him to commit himself fully.

Equally important is the concept of Fighting For. I’ve heard this in every acting class and read it in every acting text, but it’s usually described as a want, a goal, or an objective. But wanting something and having a goal is passive, not active, and as previously described, it is the active choices that make the best scenework.

I believe my most important work of the year was with John in The Lonesome West. He and I wanted a scene in which we could play around, say snide things and vulgar things, and basically behave as a couple of shocking and immature boys. We found a scene with that particular set of traps, and fell right into them. I don’t doubt the scene has been played with the dynamics that drew he and I to it, but we learned this was neither the more interesting choice, nor the best use of our tuition.

We began our viewpoint of the scene as two men (brothers) who despised one another, tried to one-up the other man. We wanted nothing from one another; instead we wanted to do something to each other. We eventually (through direction) began to incorporate and embrace the “love scene” idea, and this significantly changed our attitude from fighting against into fighting for.

I respect and appreciate Shurtleff’s ideas of opposites. He explains that for everything a character wants and feels, he should also want and feel the exact opposite. I love you, but I also hate you. I respect you, but you also disgust me. It is this internal conflict within a character that can make it so much more interesting than it would otherwise be, and it is true to life as well. While this is an excellent quality to use to inform scenework, it holds a danger for me. My safety zone is within my own head, and if I regress into myself it can be difficult to come back out. Instead I should know that my internal conflict should be based on a problem with my scene partner, and needs to be brought forth in order to be dealt with and solved.

Opposites are inherent in Shurtleff’s guidepost of Humor. Humor is such a subjective quality, varied drastically from one person’s opinion to the next. But he explains that humor is necessary to scenework, especially the most dramatic of scenes. Predictability and uniformity is scenically uninteresting. No matter how dramatic and dire a situation may be, a lack of variation will kill it. Variation not merely in tempo and tactics, but in attitude as well. Humor adds perspective to a scene – it’s so much more funny when juxtaposed against tragedy (or just plain seriousness) and vice versa. If you heat a glass it will only get so hot, but subject it to the extremes of hot and cold and the glass will shatter.

My goal as an artist is to shatter my audience. As Shurtleff said to one of his students, “The way you shifted from one role to another as she revealed her new tactics to get at you was very effective. We never knew for sure what you might do next. I think that makes acting most interesting.”

Earlier I discussed the cool detachment with which I’d begin a scene – this is against Shurtleff’s advice as well. In the guidepost to which he refers as The Moment Before, he explains that something always happened before the moment that starts a scene. Coming into things with from a mindless, emotionless state is far less theatrically interesting than having a strong driving force for my first action.

Buried within The Moment Before is a concept introduced to us in class known as what is Beneath the action of the scene. Sometimes The Moment Before is literally just that, but there are scenes that are influenced by the long-term history of the characters involved.

The biggest Moment Before I had all year was in The Lonesome West; we had just come from the funeral of our priest who had committed suicide. He had left us a note that put us in charge of his immortal soul. Father Welsh had explained that he was betting his soul could be washed clean of the sin of suicide if it brought some greater good. The good, he’d explained, would be that it stopped us from fighting one another as we’d done all our lives. This Moment Before and this Beneath had the most power over transforming the quality of our work into something more than the cheap interpretation we had originally picked.

Finally, everything I learned all year came home in working my final scene with Pamela from Orange Flower Water. Once again we played two people in love, with spouses and children to acknowledge, but the inherent question was much larger from us both. Instead of should we cheat on our marriages, the question was should be abandon our marriages and start a new life with one another. I wanted this, but our philosophical disagreement stood between us. I had to change her mind about the nature of her faith and keep her on my side at the same time.

I’m proud to say I was able to employ everything I learned this year into this scene. I felt my biggest struggles with staying in Solo Performance Mode were gone. I didn’t say anything to her I didn’t feel came out of a reaction to her behavior. I was engaged and invested in affecting her, listened sharply and was affected by her attitude. I didn’t pre-code or pre-plan a response, and allowed each rehearsal to refresh with a new understanding of who she was, what she wanted, and how I felt about that, and how that feeling informed my next extension into her to get what I wanted. What I knew we both wanted.

I believe the most important lesson for me to learn is that I’m not done learning. Education, like art, is never truly finished. There’s always a greater understanding to be had, a deeper richness and complexity that can be gained from further exploration. Luckily for me there are two more years of graduate school, dozens of texts on acting, and a lifetime full of opportunities for me to expand upon what I’ve learned.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


It was a week ago today that I made a pledge to purge myself of the chemical vices I’ve lately been leaning upon. It used to take three days to smoke a pack of cigarettes and a month to drink 1.75L of whiskey, and caffeine was only for the morning. Then I noticed I was buying a pack of smokes nearly every day (I would bum out nearly half my pack, but still). My monthly bottle of whiskey turned into weekly. I even bought a bottle of NoDoz to keep me energized throughout the day.

I wasn’t particularly feeling it in my body, not on any noticeable level – but last Saturday night’s drunken sleep was interrupted a half dozen times by a thirst only alcohol can cause, and it took nearly half of Sunday to equalize. I started to wonder how much I was depending on my vices to propel me through the day and into the night. Thus concerned, I decided it was time to quit.


At once.

It worked.

No alcohol, no caffeine, no nicotine, and what the hell, no sugar. I wasn’t hardcore about it. I went out with my class plus a couple of friends on Tuesday and had a beer, and I didn’t read ingredient labels to make sure my pasta sauce lacked high-fructose corn syrup. But I didn’t slug down coffee and pills, and I didn’t get blackout drunk from a bottle in my freezer. I didn’t touch (much less inhale) anything that was on fire, and I didn’t stand over my boss’s candy dish watching it magically empty itself while I collected empty wrappers.

It was a strange experience because I barely felt any effect through the week. On Monday and Tuesday I felt myself getting sleepy around noon, but I ate my lunch, powered through, and was over it. I didn’t sleep any better, nor any worse. Mostly I was bored.

I came to wonder whether I had accidentally worked out some magical harmony of uppers and downers that kept my body at its own natural equilibrium. I’m certain I could find no less than a dozen advocates that would tell me what an idiotic notion this is without being able to provide a shred of empirical evidence, but the world in which I choose to live is more interesting than this. I say I created one hell of a chemistry experiment on myself which, in the end, caused nothing to happen. If I had only quit one or two of my vices, I would have felt the disharmonious effect. But I didn’t. So I didn’t. So there.

Quitting cigarettes was hardest. My hands like to be busy, and there’s nothing else to do when I walk; it just so happens the distance from the train stop to the door of The Theatre School is exactly one cigarette. So I rejuvenated my love for Stevie Ray Vaughan and began a practice of air guitar which I began to carry out with a level of exuberance usually reserved for my living room.

Today I decided Level One of the new paradigm was complete. I proved to myself I could stay away entirely, but I still missed it occasionally. I missed the taste of morning coffee. I missed a smoke to wind down before bed. I missed entertaining myself by stumbling around, music blaring through the headphones, and waking up the next morning to discover I had, in my drunken stupor, viciously and savagely cleaned my entire apartment.

So today I hit Level Two – the level of control. I had my Special Sunday Coffee with breakfast, and will probably go back to enjoying a bit in the mornings, but I’m done with the pills. I had a smoke earlier today to break the monotony, and I’ll have another before bed, but I won’t suck one down every time I find myself with five minutes and nothing to do. And my drinking will be reserved for my Sunday Night Cook fests.

I have no illusions as to whether these things are harmful. I’m sure I could escape death indefinitely if I did none of them, but I’m also going to get back to exercise. It’s been since December that I put my body through the rigors of regular cardiovascular punishment (and I’ve not put on any of the weight I lost in the last year, so I must have learned a thing or three about portion control). Tomorrow begins a regimen of thrice weekly running/cycling and an equal amount of weightlifting. It’s been nearly a year since I started getting back into shape, and I’ve done well – but I still have a long road ahead of me. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

One More Regret

One of the incredible things about school is the opportunities they give us – like a songwriting workshop with this guy.

Without apology or explanation, here’s the one I wrote.


Another choice to make
Of which path to take
I can’t tell what Hell
This could lead me to

If I could find a way
That won’t leave me ashamed
Not counting that I know
What this does to you

One More Regret
Ain’t gonna kill me I bet
Never made the choice that sent me to my maker… yet.
From all of the days ‘tween this ‘un and the grave,
I think I can live with One More Regret.

I could take a chance
On a new romance
I could face my place
That I already planned with you

But either choice I make
Will only cause me to ache
I know I’m gonna wish I’d picked
The other avenue

One More Regret
May put my soul in debt
But I haven’t made the choice that closed my eyes on this world… yet.
From all of the days ‘tween this ‘un and the grave,
There’s still room in my life for One More Regret.

Now the part that’s sick
About the choice I picked
Is when I woke to find that my heart broke
By the choice I made

Still I have to go on
‘Cause there’s another dawn
And if I make another mistake
It won’t put me in the grave

One More Regret
Ain’t gonna kill me I bet
Still never made the choice that put me in the boneyard… yet.
From all of the days ‘tween this ‘un and the grave,
I believe that I can live with One More Regret.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why Translate?

Another quarter ends, another paper is written...


One of my earliest experiences with Shakespeare was with Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1993. My mother drove me to the movie theatre in the hopes of pulling me out of the house, away from video games, and experiencing a little culture for once if she had to shove it down my throat with a funnel. On the way to the only little independent theatre that was playing the film in Dallas, she explained the plot to me so that I wouldn’t be entirely lost in a torrent of unfamiliar language. Resistant as I was to being pulled away from my otherwise unoccupied afternoon, I grudgingly found within myself a growing curiosity and interest in the story of Beatrice and Benedick; two people too proud to realize the depth of their mutual love masked under their adversarial habit.
One of the focal points of the discussion in the car was the importance of Shakespeare’s language. It was this, my mother described, that set him apart from playwrights before or since. It is why we’ve continued to produce his work for so many generations since his death. The notion of language had me intrigued; wasn’t Shakespeare from England? Wouldn’t the film, therefore, be in English? I was now excited to explore an undiscovered country of storytelling. I was wholly unprepared, however, to meet the challenge. Armed with my mother’s plot synopsis combined with the performers’ knowledge of the text and communication thereof I understood enough about what was going on to be able to enjoy myself. It was the first movie I ever saw where people clapped at the end.
Yet I still knew something critical was missing. I had the sense of what was going on, and from time to time I could pick out an intelligible string of words. But each victory was short-lived. Before long I’d be hit with another volley of metaphors in a vernacular to which I had never been exposed, and my confusion and frustration proved a valiant force against my curiosity and enjoyment in the story.
When the film was released to video I nabbed a copy to be watched and re-watched in an attempt to further unravel the mysteries of the play. I found I had a solid grasp of the plot, but the individual conversations eluded me time and again. I tried to read a copy, but the words themselves without an actor’s intention to back them up were woefully dreary. What was the sense of this remarkable language if I couldn’t understand it?
Later that year I was exposed to Romeo and Juliet in my high school English class. We listened to a recording and read along with the play, stopping about once each verse to breakdown, analyze, and interpret what was being said. We looked up the words we didn’t know as our teacher explained the metaphoric linguistics, but it was such a dry, sanitized experience that wiped all possible appreciation I could otherwise have had for the story itself – much less the prose. At the end of the section I had a comprehensive understanding of how to reconstruct the language, and an abysmal, mind-numbing memory of being mentally dragged over coals.
It seemed to me at that time, and ever since, that a middle ground should exist between one type of experience and the other. The plays were written for the purpose of performance, not to simply be read, and thus the joy of the experience must come from an (at least) adequate realization thereof; but without proper training and preparation on the part of the audience the full measure of appreciation is somewhat lacking. One possible solution – vehemently debated, yet rarely explored – is to translate the works of Shakespeare into the language of the contemporary English speaker.
Why Not?
This is a topic to heat the blood of academics and actors alike. For those of us who have explored the depth and breadth of Shakespeare, the notion of changing his words to better suit ourselves is appalling. There is transcendence in his use of the language that creates an unparalleled magic when performed. The words wash over us in a variety of styles, from rhyming poems to free-verse prose. He altered his voice to complement his characters, masterfully capturing the very essence of royalty and peasantry, the proud and the humble, the virtuous and the villainous. 
Shakespeare put a lot of work into the creation and execution of his scripts. His writing had a level of beauty and complexity that enabled his work to survive where others have not. It has been argued that the greatest contribution Shakespeare left to the world lies not in the stories themselves as much as the manner in which he told them. If we accept this to be true (and many do), changing the words would strip from Shakespeare the dominant reason we continue to honor, revere and perform his work.
There is a fear that a reimagined update of the texts would dumb them down, sanitize them until they’ve lost the density of the original material, and this fear is not unfounded. Full-fledged remakes of the plays often take the form of films (1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, or 2001’s O for example) aimed at a high school crowd, whose own lexicon consists of such an innate lack of poetry even compared with an audience whose average age is a mere ten years their senior. These films tend to seek out the broadest possible audience, and therefore tend to abjure any level of depth, complexity, or imagination that allows them to be remembered by the time they’re shelved at your local video store. If this is the only example of what we can expect from a contemporized version of these plays, it’s no wonder the resistance to translate is so passionately adhered to.
It’s also worth mentioning that the difficulty in understanding Shakespeare’s writing advances our intellectualism. The process of wrapping our brains around that which we do not understand challenges us, makes us grow. Much of the purpose of public education is not merely to teach us the lesson, but to teach us how to learn. Shakespeare’s use of a now largely archaic lexicon keeps our vocabulary broadened as we seek the meanings of each word we do not understand. The metaphor excites our imagination, bringing about a fuller world of color and complexity. If we pander to a lazy populace with a contemporary translation, we run the risk of breeding a generation of people who are less well equipped to broaden their minds when called upon.
Furthering the challenge is the question of whom do we trust to carry it out? The work of Shakespeare is so revered, so honored; many people believe there is no living soul up to the task of truly capturing the glory and spirit of the original. They who understand the work well enough to be capable of penning an elegant modern translation would most likely choose to propagate a more widespread comprehension of the original. If there was someone who believed himself capable of taking up that particular gauntlet, the world of literary criticism would be awash with vilification before it could even be published. Who, when faced with such a possibility, would find and maintain the resolve to carry the project to fruition?
Finally, let’s suppose a respectable, broadly accepted version were to be completed, published, and made readily available to anyone who wanted it. Would anyone be bold enough to mount it into production? Who would choose to forsake the original, in all its glory (and royalty-free, I might add) and adopt the Monkey’s Paw of a wholly “new” work?
The most prevalent argument for translating Shakespeare’s work is to bring about a broader level of accessibility to the material. Not all of us are blessed with an educational system that’s up to the task, or teachers passionate and talented enough to encourage a gaggle of willful souls to embrace a set of 400-year-old stories with an antiquated vernacular. In the absence of assistance, it’s rare to find a person gifted with the self-directed dedication necessary to tackle the task of comprehending, much less mastering, Shakespeare.
Educators have long since implemented a graduating level of exposure to a variety of subject matter. Children learn the mechanics of addition and subtraction long before multiplication and division rear their heads. History may teach us of the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, but the content containing plague-ridden blankets and broken promises is reserved for later. Likewise, the work of Shakespeare is advanced material to a 21st century mind, regardless of age, experience, or level of maturity. Even someone skilled with a broad vocabulary and excellent reading comprehension can find Shakespeare’s plays to be a challenge at first exposure. To attempt a full-scale comprehension of his plays without proper preparation can be as fruitless as a full-scale water balloon assault against a herd of stampeding elephants.
But the benefits of a contemporary translation of the work wouldn’t be limited to schoolchildren. Many people who aren’t exposed to the pleasure of discovery in childhood rarely find the impetus to seek it out as adults. Even then, Shakespeare is treated as a genre unto himself. Even the most seasoned readers and theatre goers never venture beyond the comfortable zones of contemporary literature as it is. People who take it upon themselves to broaden the horizons of their exposure to the literary and theatrical worlds rarely have been exposed to the challenges inherent in tackling Shakespeare’s work. Everyone needs a launching point, and that point is variable, unique to the individual. Plot synopses and summaries are fine for an overall picture, but to go from reading the Cliff Notes to encountering a production may be too big a step for some.
It has been noted that an actor’s job is to properly convey the meaning of the text even if the words are unfathomable. As an actor I know this to be true, but this argument has nothing to do with the question of translating the work. If someone witnessing a performance gets the meaning without understanding the words, of course the actors, directors, and designers have done their task well. But this has more to do with the performer’s understanding and communication, not the audience’s. I can be the best actor I can be, interpreting and communicating the text with the full range of my skill; but when there comes a point that I make myself understood without use of language, then the language is already lost. If it’s going to be lost no matter what I do as a performer, it won’t get more lost if I’m speaking a text other than the original.
Too late
Whether one believes in the necessity or the benefits of translating Shakespeare, the plain truth is that it’s already been done, and repeatedly. 
Modern translations of Shakespeare’s work are nothing new. Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, a retelling of twenty of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, was first published in 1807. Its goal was to give young readers an introductory exposure to the plays in the style of a novelization. It’s true this was more of a synopsis than a translation, but the fact remains that 200 years ago – only half the years removed from Shakespeare that we are today – it was recognized that a deeper appreciation of the work can be assisted by amending the text. Even then, great care was taken to make sure the language and spirit of the original remained intact.
No Fear Shakespeare provides a side-by-side, line-by-line comparison of the original text with its modern equivalent. Of course these publications are intended for use as study guides as opposed to pleasurable reading, much less performance. Nonetheless its existence and prevalence in the market demonstrates that there is both a need and a desire to understand the work. People are seeking, and finding, a method of discovery that exists between the synopsis and the performance.
When one of Shakespeare’s plays is brought to a country where English is not the dominant language, it’s translated into the contemporary equivalent of that language, not the 17th century equivalent. We don’t expect native speakers of Russian, French, or Japanese to learn English in order to read Shakespeare any more than we learn Russian to read Dostoyevsky, French to read Dumas, or Japanese to watch Seven Samurai. We could do these things, of course – but we can (and do) also translate the works themselves, understanding that this is a halfway point from where we stand to the original and should be respected as such. As an audience we can choose to go further in our exploration if we choose.
As for the argument that a translation is an adaptation, the truth is Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted from their original performance days from the beginning. Multiple versions of the plays exist, from the Quartos to the Folios, each containing lines that exist in one but not the other, or variations of the lines themselves. Any director who decides to pick one over the other, or cut a bit he doesn’t think quite fits, is already altering the original work. Not to mention the variety of meanings that can be inferred from punctuation; a comma is not a semicolon is not a period is not an exclamation mark, yet each of these can be found in the same sentence.
But translations exist in a more insidiously subtle form as well. The spellings used in contemporary printings are frequently at odds with the original, and can provide drastically different interpretations when explored, according to Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars. When Hamlet says “The air bites shrewdly”, an original (Quarto) spelling has shrewdly written as Shroudly. This “gives the word a dimension more than temperature. Gives a more frightening resonance to Horatio’s response—‘It is a nipping and an eager air’—which is often read as having erotic overtones, but which could just as well—with ’Shroudly’—express the apprehension that death is nipping eagerly at our heels.” (Rosenbaum) 
And if you’re dead set against it, brace yourself; a man named Kent Richmond has already broken the ice with his Enjoy Shakespeare series. Since 2004 he’s been making available an assortment of line-by-line verse translations both in paperback and for your favorite e-book medium. Richmond has clearly taken great pains to preserve as much of the source material as possible, including iambic pentameter. Witness, for example, a comparison between Shakespeare’s original next of Twelfth Night and Richmond’s own:


There is a fair behavior in thee, captain; (11 syllables)
And though that nature with a beauteous wall (10 syllables)
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee (10 syllables)
I will believe thou has a mind that suits (10 syllables)
With this thy fair and outward character. (10 syllables)


I sense a decent man inside you, captain. (11 syllables)
And although nature often hides what's foul (10 syllables)
Behind a lovely wall, I can have faith (10 syllables)
That you, sir, have a mind that matches well (10 syllables)
This fair and outward character I see. (10 syllables)

What’s the difference? 
If you don’t want to read an updated version of the plays, the solution is simple: don’t. No one is going to make you. If you find the notion of seeing a translated version of the plays to be distasteful, don’t see one. It’s really that simple. Shakespeare wrote beautifully and Shakespeare wrote well, but in his day, Shakespeare wrote for everyone. It’s disingenuous to that spirit of inclusion if we take an action that blocks anyone from the experience. 
No one is advocating eliminating the original work. A contemporary translation doesn’t mean we have to throw out the Ardens and the Pelicans and the Penguins. No one is going to burn all of the Folios and the Quartos, and Shakespearean theatres around the world won’t stop producing works based on these texts. A contemporary edition of the play will simply add another book to the shelf, not take any away. It will be one more facet of a multi-hued gem through which we attempt to explore and uncover the mysteries of perhaps the man we all know when he’s referred to simply as “The Bard”. 
In the end, I find myself sympathetic to those who would choose to translate. While they may lack the quality of the Folio edition, contemporary versions of the plays will grant Shakespeare a broader audience than before. My mother is an educator, serving as a librarian in a public middle school. She doesn’t discriminate when it comes to finding methods of getting children to read. When Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings into feature films she helped to publicize them among her students because they were based on books. The vast majority of the film audience probably stopped exploring the work of Tolkien with the movies, but if the movies encouraged just one more person to pick up a book than otherwise would have, that’s a victory for the reading side. 
Similarly, a contemporary Shakespearean translation will probably lead most people to choose to read only the newest version and stop there. But if it convinces just one person to take the next step and explore the source material than otherwise would have, that’s a win.
Let’s take all we can get.