Character and Movement, part two

kooza_resizedstill2The 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.

benedikt in character

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.

kooza_resizedstill3We 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.


Movement & Character, part one

Benedikt Negro

Sunday evening, I had the great pleasure of taking a workshop at Body Chance from Benedikt Negro, lead performer in Cirque du Soleil’s O for the past 11 years. Let that sink in a moment. 11 years, 10 shows a week and no injuries, thanks in part to the Alexander Technique. That’s something like 5,000 performances. He studied mime and pantomine for 3 years in Berlin in addition to dance, acting, etc. It is astounding to be taught by someone who has that much control over his body. And we had a lot of fun!

Shorthand difference between mime and pantomime? In pantomime, you walk the dog, in mime, you are the dog. Paul Curtis, Founder/Director of the American Mime Theatre, uses the following definitions: Pantomime is the art of creating the illusion of reality by dealing with imaginary objects or situations. Its art rests on the ability to imply weight, texture, line, rhythm and force to the air around them. Mime, on the other hand, is the art of acting silently through various kinds of theatrical movement.

Among other things, Benedikt taught us about progressive and digressive movements (as in throwing and catching an imaginary ball bouncing off a wall). The movement is big to small and then small to big in terms of the body – torso to fingertips, fingertips, hand, arm back to torso. It’s expressed in the body, not the face, which is an important note for improvisers, actors and fiction writers creating characters. Concentrate on the body, the shape, how it moves and you can learn a lot about character and emotion.

After the workshop, he performed for a small group of us and it was extraordinary. At O, the audience is 2,000, so to see a performer of his caliber in a studio was a very special treat. There was a Q & A and my question was how he keeps the performance fresh for himself after years. He said that once he regarded it as part of his daily routine, then it is like anything else, some days you notice a spectacular sunrise, or enjoy the smell of coffee, birdsong, or a friend’s smile. You look for the small pleasures and that’s what keeps it fresh not only for himself but the audience. He was very aware of the obligation to the person seeing the show for the first time. Good advice for anyone, especially those of us living the creative life.

More next week….


Writing & Improv #1

Monsters & MermaidsQuite possibly the first in a sporadic series….

This year, I returned to acting. I studied theater in college and worked both sides of the camera when I came to Hollywood. This time around, a remarkable number of things fell into place. I rejoined SAG-AFTRA and started meeting amazing people. Much of it led me to improv – specifically at IO West in Hollywood – which has been an amazing, thrilling, challenging and super fun experience.

One of the “enemies” of good improv is plot. How’s that for a novelist and screenwriter? Challenging, to understate the case. The task in improv is to kill plot. What???! You’re asking a writer to forget all about plot?


And I look forward to seeing how playing with improv impacts my writing from here on.

In addition to class, nine of us have formed a troupe, Monsters & Mermaids. We performed our first public show last Saturday as part of the L.A. Indie Improv Festival. It went well and we had a blast doing it.

the evidence... at Oh My Ribs!
the evidence… at Oh My Ribs!

Here are some of our notes from rehearsals:

  • Begin with who are you, where you are and what you want
  • Let your imagination do the work
  • Have a specific “want” at the beginning of each scene
  • Create the physical environment to ground the scene
  • Be specific and rich with details of both character and the environment
  • Think about what your character does, why they do it and how they do it
  • Establish the character’s agenda before the story; let the characters and their relationships develop first.

Hmmm, not so different from writing when it comes down to it.

Huge shoutouts to Dave Hill and Aaron Krebs for their coaching, plus their brilliant shows at IO, and to Gavin Leighton for taking great notes during rehearsals.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sixth Rule for Writing Fiction

Well, this is embarrassing – I lost track of the days, but better late than never. #6! Thanks, Aaron. Now let’s all go make life difficult for our characters.

Also, a hearty shoutout to friend and mentor Cheryl Strayed: Her memoir Wild hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!!

Now here’s Aaron:

by adgansky

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they’re made of. –Kurt Vonnegut

No one likes to betray a friend, but we sometimes feel that way when we make bad things happen to our characters. But then, maybe you don’t feel that way. maybe it’s easy for you to throw obstacles at your protagonist because you don’t care much for them. Ideally, though, you will feel a little bit bad when you, as I did recently, have a Sasquatch jump out of a forest and beat your favorite character near to death (it’s a fantasy–work with me here). I may have cried a little. I do that sometimes.

For me, this rule, like the greatest two-handed broadsword, is double-edged. On one edge, we need to create (or, as some might say, build or discover, depending on your personal writing philosophy) characters that we love, that we hate to hurt. If we’re not doing this–if we as their creator don’t have an intense emotional connection to them, how much less will the reader care?–we’re letting our readership down. Our characters’ pain should, at least in some small part, become our pain.

The second side we need to allow our characters to experience these misfortunes. If we don’t, we’ll never really know them. How do they react when faced with Sasquatch in a dimly lit forest and the break of day? How do they cope when their loved one dies? How do their bodies mend after a car crash? How do they recover psychologically after a messy divorce? After being betrayed by their best friend? What does this do to them?

This is not to say that the characters life must be one tragedy after another, a veritable helicopter rotary blade of horrors. Your character should overcome, should be rewarded for their efforts. Just understand, that, once they do, something else must threaten them, or their families, or their fortunes, or whatever it is that they care most about.

Wallace Stevens says that, “Death is mother of beauty.” This may suggest that we only appreciate beauty because we know it is temporary, we know that there is an ever-abiding threat. If beauty persisted indefinitely, we would not call it beauty. We would not even notice it to begin with.

Make something beautiful by introducing something that threatens it. Take something your character feels is permanent, and then threaten it. Then, and only then, can you see what your character is truly made of.

talent ≠ character

In the wake of the John Galliano incident, I spent way too much time procrastinating regarding my own writing by reading comments about JG and getting depressed. First, it shouldn’t, but it surprised me how many people were willing to overlook and make excuses for his ugly remarks or not understand how he could hold those views in light of his talent. Seriously?

That’s like saying, “You make pretty dresses (books, music, art, etc) so you must be all pretty inside too.”

Then there were those who eviscerated Mel Gibson and somehow thought this was different. Um, no. Whatever your political, sexual or faith orientation, a bigot is a bigot. Blaming it on his inebriation? Mental illness? Come on. Try lack of character. Lack of good character. Just because someone writes great music or novels or designs or acts well, doesn’t mean anything about what kind of person they are. I’m not sure how this fairy tale took root in our culture (lots of blame to go around including the Romantics to Hollywood movies), but it’s demonstrably wrong. Coco Chanel: compelling rags to riches story, iconic designs and she was not only a Nazi sympathizer but collaborator and notorious anti-Semite. Wagner, another anti-Semite, yet his music has endured. Others are blogging about this and noting the difference between the art and the artist.

And I’m not alone in thinking about what Woody Allen said: “People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are sh*theels.”                         …and then he married his step-daughter.

So once again, talent does not equal good character. Fame does not equal good character.

It is, however, a worthwhile endeavor to improve your own character as your improve your writing (or other art) because you do not have to be an unhappy, miserable jerk to create something wonderful and worthwhile…or controversial. Truly controversial, not merely shocking. I know plenty of now-sober writers whose decision to set aside the bottle or needle has no doubt extended their years to work, improved the quality of their life and relationships, and given them the clarity we all need to create art that creates connection.

give me a moment: what reveals character?

In the past six months, I’ve had my hair blown out straight a few times and at first I loved it, but then discovered that I don’t feel like me without curly hair. That got me thinking about ways to reveal character.

What’s a small change that would make your protagonist uncomfortable… not even uncomfortable, just… not quite themselves? Curly to straight hair, putting on a suit for the first time, a tie, or someone buttoned up going too casual for who they are? What’s a little change you can have them make that would reveal volumes about who they are by their reaction to it?

What about you, the writer? Now how can you take that feeling and translate it for your characters?

Last night, I heard Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries speak (he’s very good) and he told a story of one of his former gang members getting his first suit and going on an airplane for the first time to a conference in DC followed by dinner at the White House. Okay, that’s really big, but what I’m talking about was this:

when he came out of the dressing room and saw himself in the mirror for the first time in a suit, he could only stare at himself in the mirror, his mouth half open.

That is a great moment. That reveals character. You don’t have to go on endlessly – just give us a moment.

P.S. Please do something nice and click on the link above to donate to help get gang members off the street and into jobs. If you’re in L.A., go eat at the Homegirl Cafe or buy Homeboy Salsa and chips at Ralph’s in Southern California for your Super Bowl party. Thanks.


Writers are not known for their social skills. Here’s an article on the 20th century’s most reclusive authors. However, most authors who last have engaged in a fair amount of self-promotion. Mark Twain comes to mind. And his autobiography is out. He would have loved all the social media available now. You can be reclusive – maybe people will find your books. You want the odds to tip in your favor, find a way to get the word out and either be or get comfortable doing it. Unless of course you only write for yourself.

What does this have to do with Mad Men? Not drinking, tempting as that may be when a writer must face the public. No, it’s about what your characters wear. Faran Krentcil takes a look at the women’s fashion in Mad Men. In one episode, many of the choices are designed to blend in with the sets (wallflowers, nudge, nudge). The Fashion File is a great resource for dressing your characters, to discover how to reinforce character and themes. Example, you ask?

In “Blowing Smoke,” cigarette campaigns and ruinous addictions both stoke the plot and influence the costumes. When Don Draper wrote an anti-tobacco manifesto for the New YorkTimes, he didn’t just have an ironic cancer stick in his hand. He also had an ash-colored suit and tie that referenced his nicotine clouds, Roger’s “black spot on the X-ray” comment, and the boardroom suggestion that the agency was “decaying.” In fact, a quick survey of the SCDP senior partners in their first meeting in this episode shows them all in various shades of gray, black, and white — skeleton colors, if we’re being honest. Add Faye Miller at the end of the table with a jagged black-and-white blouse, and the bleak at-death’s-door vibe is palpable. They look like a pile of bones.

What your people wear can reinforce themes and motifs. Something to think about. Keep writing.