Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Building blocks

In which our Diva is settling in for a long winter's homework session

If you're keeping score, you know I have three very different women living in my head this winter.  One died 148 years ago, nine years younger than I am now.  One is nearly 400 years old, and has lived most of that time under a curse and in the midst of violent circumstances.  One... well, she has to wait a bit longer before you hear about her.  All require me to brush up my knowledge -- ranging from decent to cursory to nonexistent -- of several very disparate subjects.

I love research.  It's a running joke (albeit not a thigh-slappingly funny one) that if I couldn't be an actor, I'd want to be a dramaturg. For which, of course, there's even less demand!

Part of it is just that I'm a geek, and the bottom line is that I like to know stuff. But that's just a happy coincidence that meshes well with my firm belief in building as complete a mental foundation as possible of who a character is and the world she inhabits, so that by the time I actually step on stage or in front of the camera, I'm free to just go. To push the technical stuff (hit this mark, say these words, don't lisp around the fangs) to the back of my mind, connect with the people and events in the scene with me, and let the character live her life as honestly as can be.

It sounds utterly simple, and when it's really right, in that moment, it is. It's the stuff leading up to it that's complicated. All that stuff you hear about with the mysterious-sounding names -- sense-memory or substitution or Laban movement work or Linklater voice technique or whatever -- is just building a toolbox for making it that simple when it's time to do what we came here to do. We learn them and drill them and integrate them into our bodies and minds, with no shortage of conscious thought and effort, so that they'll be available when they're what we need and when the last thing we want to have to do is think about them.

It's like anything else: You make it look easy, because in that moment, it is. It's everything leading up to it that wasn't so much.

Doing my job right means, among other things, actively contributing to the misconception that it isn't really work. Chew on that one with your Cheerios. ;-}

Edit: Thank you to StudiesinLight for reminding me of the how this last notion played out in the comic strip 9 Chickweed Lane. It involves a ballet dancer rather than an actor, but the principle is the same (though the public is somewhat aware of the physical rigor of dance, and thus slightly more inclined to comprehend it with the label "work"), and is summarized nicely in this blog post, albeit with the blogger drawing a stereotype-reinforcing conclusion that makes me roll my eyes.

2 comments:

studiesinlight said...

Have you ever followed 9 Chickweed Lane? It's my favorite comic strip since Bill Watterson retired. One of the main characters, Edda, is a ballet dancer, and a classic sequence of the strip is called "Edda and the Unicorn," a long-running meditation on how her job -- professional ballet -- is indeed very demanding and draining, but that the average person on the street imagines it as all play, getting paid to goof off. Her up-and-down feelings about this are embodied in a unicorn that she misperceives the same way that other people misperceive her.

Valerie Meachum said...

StudiesinLight - I used to read it on Sundays when we still got the paper delivered, and I'm pretty sure I remember encountering the unicorn. I'll have to look that up and refresh my memory. Thank you!