The few things I’ve learned so far from the Alexander Technique at Body Chance are that your head is always in motion, your head and neck are attached behind your nose (focus on that while writing or walking and see what happens), your arm is a larger-than-imagined hinge and the glide hinges are at the center of your breastbone, and to relax (as before auditions) let your jaw go. The jaw is a two-part hinge – you only need the first gliding part and if you relax into that first movement of the hinge, breathing and general body relaxation follow. I am beginning to see how Benedikt Negro stays present and appears lighter than air in his performances.
Studying clowning, movement, improv – any one of these is another way into creating characters for writing or acting. Benedikt taught us that the foundation for clowning is entering a scene with one energy and exiting with another. It reminds me of one of the things Rob Roberge teaches about dialog in a scene: it’s about characters saying “no” to each other until the final “no.” There is one energy in hoping for Yes and another once No is received. Or vice versa. Something in a scene must shift for an audience to remain engaged. And stillness to notice the shift. The master of using the stillness – silence itself – to change energy and supply emotional information is Samuel Beckett.
We are constantly in movement, even while appearing still. The world is constantly in movement, even in the most serene still life. The globe turns. Emotions swirl within us. Think about your character’s body (or your own!) spring-loaded in gravity and see where it takes you.
The University of Notre Dame has been running a series for years now called What Would You Fight For? Each week during football season, they televise one and post it online. What would you fight for? Seriously. Is there anything and if not, why not? It’s another way of asking, “what are you passionate about?” That’s probably the main reason I loved TED Global so much – same reason I love Notre Dame. They are passionate about things. They are actively trying to make a difference, to improve the world in small ways and large.
What do I or have I fought for? Everything from the right word on the page, the right scenes for the book or screenplay to the right approach in helping kids in Dandora get a basic education. I’ve fought for money for scholarships for my own kids and for the ones in the slums. I’ve fought to be a better person and a good parent. I spent years fighting the bureaucracy of LAUSD to make sure my children got a good education. I fought the legacy of dysfunction in the family I grew up in so that the one I created would be better, kinder.
If you’re not fighting to be better at what you do, a better writer, a better actor, a better person or for where you live or on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves, then how are you spending your life? There’s never a reason for boredom. There is too much to do. There are too many dreams to explore, too many problems to solve. Fight to create the best book possible, to give the best performance, to be the best spouse, the best parent. Fight your demons, fight for faith, for art, for healing, for freedom. Fight on behalf of the weak, to make the world better than you found it. Fight to be the very best you can be. Fight the good fight. An artist can always improve.
Recently, I’ve been in rooms with various artists who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of addiction even though many creative people struggle with addictions of one form or another. With (for example) 54% of playwrights as alcoholics, it’s no surprise that a large percentage of books, plays and screenplays include the subject in large or small part. Consider Hunter S. Thompson, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Bukowski… you get the point.
How do I know about it? My mother was a Valium addict and I went through rehab with her then Al-Anon after. I have a number of friends and family with various addictions. I’ve read the literature and lived the problems and been to the funerals.
If you are a writer or actor and you are not an addict and/or did not grow up around it, consider attending AA and Al-Anon meetings and reading the literature, such as the Big Book of AA. Find open meetings, call ahead and let whoever runs the meeting know ahead of time what you are doing. Do not go under false pretenses. Learn and observe the rules. Not every meeting will accept you. It is not tourism. Do NOT write about people in the meetings – respect their anonymity. The only purpose is to learn the dynamics and struggles, to learn what real addiction and recovery look like, not to acquire fodder for your work.
This seems like it would be very familiar ground for anyone, but there are subtleties that you as an artist need to be aware of. Get the details right. Do you know what a dry drunk is? Do you know the difference between not being sober and using? Do you fully understand what true sobriety is? (Hint: it’s a controversial subject with a fair amount of disagreement on the definition) Can a person be sober and continue to lie? Learn the warning signs of alcoholism, the symptoms of drug addiction and signs of relapse.
If you are performing or writing the role of an addict or in relationship to one, you need to understand the dynamics of that relationship and not filtered via TV, books or movies. Talk to real addicts and real families impacted. Find out what happens. Learn the difference between an alcoholic, a Valium addict and a heroin junkie. I had a friend once with experience in all those relationships who declared she’d take anyone over a Valium addict any day of the week. Go discover why. Interview the doctors and therapists who work with them. You owe it to yourself and your audience or readers to get it right, to stop playing or writing stereotypes, to go deeper.