The needle and the damage done…

936full-philip-seymour-hoffmanThere’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.

 

Resolutions, goals, inspirations

champagne_glasses1Do you make New Years’ resolutions? Set goals? This year, I am trying something different and using Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire MapHow 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.

2014, the Year of Power. Happy New Year! lightning-bolt-abstract-arc-pixmac-illustration-12178875

a Norwegian Blue pining for the fjords…

roar shackWhat 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.

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Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch

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…..

a death in the family…

Gary hsMy brother died November 19th.

Growing up at the beach, I was in the water all the time. One of the scariest things that can happen is getting caught in that washing machine when big wave after big wave comes pounding into shore and you can barely get your breath in between and you wonder if you’ll make it back to shore, how you’ll ever get your feet under you again. That’s what grief is like, that’s what events since August have been like. I will be glad to see 2013 go with its bad news and heartbreak. Here’s hoping it’s all out of the way now so 2014 will be better.

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I don’t need to write about my brother because Richard Russo already did for the most part in Nobody’s Fool. There’s a lot of him in Sully. Or vice versa, I’m not sure. Paul Newman played him in the movie. Appropriate. Handsome with eyes every bit as blue.

What do you take from real life into characters? What ignites that alchemy? Recently I was asked out on a coffee date, then the day before he decided that a Catholic who loves bacon was unacceptable to a self-described “tapas-loving Buddhist.” I would have never imagined that interaction! (it’s just coffee!!) So there’s a seed for a scene or a couple of characters. And that is where improv comes in. A premise, strong characters…

Yes, and…

wonderbookIn his incredible Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff Vandermeer quotes Philip K. Dick finalist Karin Lowachee who says, in part, “An actor once said that acting to him was ‘finding truths in imaginary circumstances,’ and I think that applies equally to writers. Writers, to me, are very similar to actors in how they engage with their process and with the ultimate work. It’s just that actors output through motion and speech, and writers output through the written word.” (17)

True.

Sometimes it is hard to say “yes and” to life. And yet we do and we keep going, keep creating, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, spin grief into art.

last pic w Gary

The Handless Maiden

feelings-switch_269Last week, I wrote about owning your own shadow. This week, I’ve been reading Robert A. Johnson’s book on The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden and again, it’s resonating. Hands, writing, feelings….

We’ve done a weird inversion of the feeling and the rational. We increasingly replace rational solutions on a societal level – the way we regulate our schools, businesses and so on – with the singular litmus test of feeling good, regardless of whether it is effective, smart or makes sense.  Meanwhile, many of us are cut off from our feelings on the micro or personal level and that is when lives feel empty and fill with all the -isms and addictions. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Johnson describes the devil’s bargain at its worst: we want relatedness, but we will not give relatedness. Something for nothing. To gain a bargain at the expense of some inner value is extremely dangerous. Easier, faster, more is the great seduction of the modern mind.

“One faces the devil’s bargain frequently when planning the structure of one’s day. How much can one crowd into the day? How much can I get with minimum payment? How many times in the day does feeling (the daughter’s hands) take second place to practicality? How many days go by without music or the gym or a sunset walk?”

This leads to the lottery mentality of overnight success. Artistry requires time, effort, often pain and suffering… the more uncomfortable feelings.  Here’s Leonard Cohen on writing “Hallelujah“:

“The only advice I have for young songwriters is that if you stick with a song long enough, it will yield. But long enough is not any fixed duration, its not a week or two, its not a month or two, its not necessarily even a year or two. If a song is to yield you might have to stay with it for years and years. ‘Hallelujah’ was at least five years. I have about 80 verses. I just took verses out of the many that established some sort of coherence. The trouble that I find is that I have to finish the verse before I can discard it. So that lengthens the process considerably.

“I filled two notebooks with the song, and I remember being on the floor of the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, “I can’t finish this song.”

Discipline is required to give one time to work, but there’s the balance of allowing time for the unexpected, for honoring the generative part where the creativity bubbles up. It is one of the reasons Julia Cameron prescribes the Artist Date in her book, The Artist’s Way.

Fill the well. Allow feelings to surface. Write them, perform them honestly and you can help heal the world.

Owning your shadow

shadow

Perhaps since it’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, the dark, the spooky, the unseen are more on my mind. Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian psychologist, wrote a slim book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche that is very helpful for artists. He’s also the author of She, He, and The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden. Most of the circles I spend time in are made up of artists of one kind or another: writers, actors, improvisers, musicians and so on.  Most are functioning perfectly well to all outward appearances, but I’d wager most carry a heavy shadow. With a large measure of creativity apparently comes a large shadow.

Every artist I’ve met deals with depression and loneliness at one time or another, some nearly all of the time. Some also act out or have difficulties in a variety of relationships. In his book, Johnson writes:

“A friend asked me recently why so many creative people have such a miserable time of it. History abounds with stories of shocking or eccentric behavior among the great. Narrow creativity always brings a narrow shadow with it, while broader talents call up a greater portion of the dark. Schumann, the composer, went mad; the world knows about the very dark side of Picasso’s life; and everyone hears stories about local geniuses with their unusual habits. While those with the largest talent seems to suffer most, we all must be aware of how we use our creativity – and of the dark side that accompanies our gifts. To make a work of art, to say something kind, to help others, to beautify the house, to protect the family – all these acts will have an equal weight on the opposite side of the scale and can lead us into sin. We cannot refuse our creativity or stop expressing ourselves in this way; yet we can be aware of this dynamic and make some small but conscious gesture to compensate for it.”

The talented Justine Musk has also written about this in her post on the heroine’s journey.  You can hear her read at Roar Shack on November 10 at 826LA in Echo Park, CA.

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.