From Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
Last night I attended a SAG Foundation event with Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd, who cast Fruitvale Station, and John Jackson, who casts Alexander Payne’s movies, including Nebraska. Nebraska was a ten year process. Novels, films, plays… they are often difficult things to get right, difficult to complete, to fund, to get out in front of an audience. Even, maybe especially, the casting process, like much of the rest, is full of intangibles. Who can say why one actor comes through on film or is right for a role? They both mentioned a spiritual component to casting. And an intuitive one.
When he was asked about his day-to-day work casting, Mr. Jackson said he continually asks, “What does the film need?” It sounds simple, but I find myself returning to it. It’s a great question for anyone in a creative endeavor: for the writer – what does the book or story need? for the improviser – what does the scene need? for everyone on a film – what does the film need? It helps take the ego out of the process and puts the focus on to the final product, where it belongs. It is a question of service and as such, one of love. Love for your fellow artists, for the audience, for the process, and for the work itself. You can watch their interview along with dozens of others at the SAG Foundation website for free!
What does your work need? It is a question that will return you to your passion when it fades, to your purpose when you lose sight, to the story when you wander off. It is worth revisiting every day. Asking “what does it need?” will keep you honest.
Something else to ponder is this from Emma Thompson. As with Mr. Jackson, I keep coming back to what she says:
There’s something about the passing of a master in a field you’ve been trained in that pierces the heart – not in the same way as family or friends of course – but out of a bit of knowledge about the journey, the work, the struggles, the process, the lifestyle. There are so many writers and actors who struggle with mental health, with addiction, with depression, statistically more than the general population. I saw it at grad school when Marcos Villatoro lectured on mental illness and creativity – the room was overflowing and nearly everyone either had bipolar or loved one with it or a related disorder. God knows, I’ve known a lot of addicts, some in my family. I am sad at the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. And terribly disheartened by the comments I’ve seen blaming him. All bets are off when opiates are in the picture. Rehab is no cure, not for alcohol, sure as hell not for heroin. To say PSH was a talented actor is an understatement. Not everyone beats addiction. Not by a long shot. It’s not about willpower. Not solely. Do you think he wanted to leave his children? Doubt it. I’m sure he was looking forward to the next thing with them, the next event with his loved ones, friends, the next role…
There is so much about addiction we do not know. We do know people sometimes turn to drugs not just for kicks, but to cope with undiagnosed mental illness, biochemical imbalances, mysteries. Rehab does not always work. Not every junkie or drunk is a selfish bastard. Most are deeply wounded souls looking for balm, for relief. They may well behave like selfish bastards while under the influence. Oh yes. Still, they deserve our compassion and our help. Yes, they have to walk that road alone and every day is a choice. Just remember before you pick up that rock of condemnation, sometimes the monster… the disease… the addiction… wins. And the rest of us lose someone loved, someone talented, someone who probably would have stuck around if they could have found a way.
How much does or should the private life of an artist play into our appreciation or disparagement of their art? There was the recent dustup over Woody Allen and the Golden Globe award via Twitter from his former family. There have been many writers, musicians, painters, actors, etc. with abhorrent views and/or actions over the centuries. Wagner’s view of Jews was in concert with Hitler’s; there’s long been speculation about Lewis Carroll‘s pedophilia; R Kelly allegedly exploits underage girls; Chris Brown battered; Vanity Fair reports indications that Woody Allen molested his then 7 year old daughter and he certainly married his step-daughter; Roman Polanski pled guilty to raping a 13 year old girl. Or as this article on Jezebel asks, which is worse, Polanski doing it or Hollywood’s embrace of him despite it? Messy, stomach-churning stuff, yet many still go to their movies, attend the concerts, and so on. Wagner are Carroll are both long dead – but do you buy the CD or pay the movie admission for the work from someone current who’s done (or alleged to have done) something abhorrent? Are you then contributing to the fortune that in turn may influence the investigations or case?
These things are uncomfortable. They are not simple. They require thinking from a society that seems hell-bent on not thinking, on only being entertained. But we must think and not rely on the sound bite. Easier said than done.
Art is a mystery. Artists are often a mess. Sometimes the work itself make you want to take a shower. Sometimes it’s the news reports about the creator of that work. Sometimes people do evil things. One of the very best books for beginning to understand some of this is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Hint: narcissism. We need to come to terms with the fact that pedophiles or assaulters or bigots can write great things, perform amazing music, build something of beauty. We don’t like to think so. It is more comfortable to think of the predator as twisted and ugly, but traditionally Lucifer was a beautiful angel of light.
If there is no prosecution, no confession, no clear answer, it is up to the audience to decide individually. In his excellent book on child abuse, The Stop Child Molestation Book: What Ordinary People Can Do In Their Everyday Lives to Save 3 Million Children, Dr. Gene G. Abel asserts we can stop child molestation if we decide to and he lays out the guidelines. But can we stop child abuse (or other forms) while celebrating abusers? What do you think? Do you separate the art from the artist and is there ever a point when that is no longer possible?
Do you make New Years’ resolutions? Set goals? This year, I am trying something different and using Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map. How would you like to feel when you acheive your goals, finish the book, the script, the performance? To avoid the emptiness of spending years only to find there is no there there, try her approach.
Here’s a quote that will resonate with many artists, particularly if there’s trauma in your background:
If you don’t believe you have the right to be here, there will never be enough space for your true self to show up. If you don’t believe that you’re worthy of having your desires fulfilled, then you’ll always feel more empty than full. No amount of focus or positive thinking is going to help you manifest and sustain your definition of success.
She gives suggestions on self-worth and many other aspects of the process. Please feel free to leave your goals, hope, aspirations for next year in the comments.
What does writing improv look like? Like the Live Write at David Rocklin’s Roar Shack in Los Angeles. Here is how he describes the Live Write:
Live Write! A thrilling feat of writerly improvisation! As you arrive, you get to vote on a prompt. The winning prompt will be revealed to four intrepid authors – two of us and two of you audience types, onstage for all to see! We’ll all write to that prompt while our musical guest plays – it’s going to be impossible not to listen, but no one said this was going to be easy. Then the Live Writers will each read their just-written words, and the audience gets to vote! The winner will develop the work into a finished piece to be read at the next show.
With acting improv, it’s important to slow down, listen, trust that you can be quiet onstage sometimes, and to play. It’s supposed to be fun. Have fun! With writing improv, the fun and play still apply, but it’s more about allowing ideas to flow, to let the story appear and run. Let the characters go and follow them to see what happens next.
Neither form responds well to force and that probably holds true for any art in general. Both benefit from intelligence and knowledge and love of research. Of course there are situations – often involving deadlines – where you have to power through and get something done, but as the year winds down, try lightening up. Write a sketch or improvise…. Have fun. Play. Let your work, whether it’s on the page or the stage, breathe. Trust. And let us know what happens…..