Why I Tell Stories

•April 29, 2015 • 2 Comments

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss,
you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you,
and the life you ought to be living
is the one you are living.
When you can see that,
you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss,
and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open
where you didn’t know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss,
doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”
Joseph Campbell

Stories are my bliss. More specifically, the act of telling a story. When I was 15 years old, I appeared as Don Pedro in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  My initiation into theatre (live storytelling!) unearthed a desire that had been with me since before I can consciously remember – the desire to be heard and understood. To be felt. To be connected. To create empathy.

Empathy, it turns out, is the key to storytelling. Whether it was the mythology of old, spoken through flickering flames around a tribal campfire, or a big-budget Marvel movie exploding across a silver screen, these stories share common, universal qualities.  We love a good story, because we can’t help but be caught up in the adventures of “the other” (who, it turns out, is not so unlike ourselves).  By telling stories, we find ourselves.

I was reminded about Campbell and his description of “The Hero’s Journey” by someone I met today. He shared many powerful ideas with me, including a link to this video, produced by The Future of Storytelling. If ever I doubted the impact of story . . . no more:

What amazed me most about this video is the scientific proof of just how powerfully storytelling impacts our minds, our actual brains and neurochemistry, profoundly influencing our choices and motivations. When I hear successful artists describe their “origin stories”, there is always a personal memory or formative experience spearheading their creative life (a school play, a wise mentor, the day the circus came to town, reading Huckleberry Finn, and so on).  These artists (who can belong to any profession or calling) tell stories not because they simply decided to; they were compelled to follow their bliss.  And individuals I know who are unhappy with their career choices, or the pattern of their lives (and I still find myself there, more often than I’d like) . . . perhaps they haven’t recognized the power of story in their lives.  Their story.

I don’t fully understand my potential as a storyteller, but I know that the journey will continue. Doors will open.


Acting is Truth Telling

•April 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’ve heard actors referred to as “professional liars.” This description bothers me, because it seems blind to the purpose of art (not to be confused with artifice, which I consider to be “art made for the wrong reasons”).  Acting, just like any form of art, should serve the opposite purpose: to reveal the invisible, to make the unknown (or the ignored) real and relatable.  As Michelangelo “freed” a statue from the marble, so an actor reveals the character who already exists inside of him – inside all of us.  And like sculpture (or any form of creation), acting is a craft concerned with patience, discipline, and observation. Incredible observation.

Here’s another tale from the Renaissance: Brunelleschi’s dome. Brunelleschi was a talented young Italian architect who had designed an unusually large and top-heavy dome for the Florentine Cathedral.  The city officials requested to see his model, but he refused them, instead throwing down a gauntlet:

That whosoever could make an egg stand upright on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since thus each man’s intellect would be discerned. Taking an egg, therefore, all those Masters sought to make it stand upright, but not one could find a way. Whereupon Filippo, being told to make it stand, took it graciously, and, giving one end of it a blow on the flat piece of marble, made it stand upright. The craftsmen protested that they could have done the same; but Filippo answered, laughing, that they could also have raised the cupola, if they had seen the model or the design. And so it was resolved that he should be commissioned to carry out this work. (Source)

And Brunelleschi’s vision remains untoppled to this day:

Brunelleschi-dome-florentine-cathedral-lit-at-night-florence-italyBrunelleschi saw something that anyone could see – if only they were to look for it.  But process of creation requires discernment.  Choices must be made.

What separates Brunelleschi from his peers is what separates a charlatan from a visionary: great artists have a knack for making choices no one else considered. It’s so boldly original, so truthful, it can feel like magic.  But it’s no illusion, only revelation.  Art finds a new path through a familiar world.

Leave lying to the amateurs.  Acting is truth telling.

Stand. Gather. Deliver.

•December 10, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Some thoughts for the actor upon entering the performance space:

1) Stand.  Don’t sit, crouch, hide, or otherwise distort or minimalize your presence.  Own the space.  Adapt your needs to its requirements.  Be sincere, but command attention by standing firmly with strength of purpose.

2) Gather. Don’t create.  Don’t try and build things that are far away.  Pick things up in the room and suit them to your context.  Instead of envisioning a space, use the space you already have to give you clarity of vision.

3) Deliver.  Don’t blurt, stumble, or apologize.  No beginning said with strength of purpose or clarity of vision is bad.  Let the words flow off your tongue like a waterfall, not fall like hastily-maneuvered Tetris blocks.  Let the body lead the words, let the words speak for themselves, and don’t ever second guess the choice you made in the moment – because the greatest moments in theatre are frequently accidental.

Give this a quick review in your mind before an audition.  I think it might help.

Thoughts for a New Season

•November 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Having just enjoyed a fantastic turkey feast and a good beer, I’ve plonked down on the sofa in the company of family, music, and some long-desired moments of care-free thought.  I like this time of year.

Even though a lot of people consider New Year’s a time for contemplation and change, I find that Winter is naturally my favorite and most thoughtful season, and it usually begins for me around Thanksgiving.  This holiday, as I mentioned in my previous entry, lends itself to taking a moment for contemplation.  But not in a sad way.  In a joyful way.

I’m contemplating, right now as I look out the living room window at the beautiful mountains calmly fading into night, just how much I have to be grateful for.  So much has gone right for me and I know, despite inevitable setbacks and challenges, I have a bright future.  Maybe someone older or more experienced would consider that a naive sentiment, or even unrealistic, but I think it is probable and born out of a healthy optimism.  Oftentimes, if we believe the positive reality we create in our minds, we will bring that reality into existence in our lives and the lives of others.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” is perhaps an overused quotation, easier said than done, but if I put those words into practice on a personal level, I believe I will reap the benefits in the long-term.  It is certainly easier to criticize what we see wrong with the world and in our own lives than to enact change.  But if we take the time to consider where we are and where we could be, if we are willing to work, I find myself pleasantly surprised to find there are far more dreams within my reach than I ever realized before.

But more importantly, I am grateful for what I already have.  To be in a place of contentment, and yet still yearning for new adventures and discovery in life, is a fine balance for me.  It provides me with satisfaction with where I am, but encourages me to never settle for what is easily attained, when some of the greatest experiences in life can be achieved by those who push their boundaries.

Rest, Thanksgiving, and Art for Art’s Sake

•November 24, 2009 • 1 Comment

A bit of a gap again since my last entry, but better late than never.

Peace at last!  It’s almost the end of the fall semester of my Junior year, and Thanksgiving Break is finally here.  It is a special holiday for me, not so much because of the “founding fathers” but rather because it is a reminder in my personal life of all the blessing I have received.  And this Thanksgiving was no exception: having gone through arduous auditions, callbacks, and a 2+ week waiting process for the final cast lists, I have managed to be cast in two of my university’s departmental shows, which is a great honor indeed.  I have two great parts in two great casts, and it really is a wonderful feeling to be rewarded with results like this in a business that constantly dismisses the talent of an individual.

And now I can enjoy this five day break, back at home with my family, and with a reassuring blanket of certainty keeping my ambitions safe (at least for the next few months, then who knows WHAT!)  Actors live very transient lives, I realize.  As a student, I am only just beginning to grasp how fleeting the nature of my work will be.   Shows hold auditions, are cast, produced, and closed within the blink of an eye, and consequently it can be tempting for me to dismiss the lasting impact of my craft.  But I suppose memories and emotions last longer than the final curtain, even if they are less tangible measures of enduring value.

For me Thanksgiving is a time for rest, but it is also a time for contemplation, as I look back on what I have in my life and where I plan to go from here.  Sometimes I question my contribution to society – what good is acting for the world?  One of my professors, thankfully, helped me to reexamine this notion.  He talked to us in class about how we should never treat our chosen field in the arts and humanities as somehow inferior to the sciences or social sciences.

Yes, the world will always need scientists, doctors, engineers – creators of the practical.  But to create art is of no less importance.  Science should not be compared to art, and vice versa, because they are incomparable.  After Yo-Yo Ma finishes a concert, one would not ask him ‘What’s the point of playing the cello?’  A better question might be, ‘What compels you to play the cello?’ or ‘When you play the cello, what do you feel?’  Art is not and should not be a product that can be bought and sold like a plastic toy off a production line.  It does not necessarily feed us, clothe us, assist us in the practicalities of day to day life, or answer the deeper problems of our existence.  But for anyone who has seen a beautiful painting, heard a moving composition, or experienced the enchantment of a sublime piece of literature or theatre, they know that art is an essential part of being human and enjoying our lives to the fullest.

And so I realize that art for art’s sake is more important that art for the sake of practicality.  Art can be practical, but it must exist for itself first.  We create art because we are inspired and we go to art because it inspires creation within us.  Art can give us solutions, but more often I think it raises questions.  And I am a firm believer that it is just as important to be able to send a man to the moon as it is to inspire the hearts of men and women through the mystery of art.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!  May it be Filled with Rest, Peace, and Good Art!

Absence and Practicality

•November 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Hello all, or one, or whoever might happen to read this.

First of all, my apologies for my lack of updates recently.  I suppose it is not very “professional” to leave one’s blog un-updated for so long.  And I enjoy writing.  It gives me a release valve for all the built-up pressure of words and thoughts and ideas that accumulate in my brain over the course of the day (or in this case, weeks).  But as with so many things I enjoy, it still requires practice.  And practice requires a certain amount of discipline.

I would consider myself a person of grand ideas but with sometimes unrealistic expectations or patience for such ideas.  Ultimately, I have a persevering personality, so good and even great things do get done.  But they do not always happen when I want them to, nor do they always attain the level of achievement I desire.  For the past few weeks, I have had auditions, callbacks, classwork, and other personal goings-on that have distracted me from this blog.  But fortunately they have also distracted me from myself.  Instead of constantly raking my mind for new grand schemes that are inevitably overambitious, I have become preoccupied with the demands of the current moment because the current moment has required it.  In others words, I’ve finally had a dose of practicality.  Thank God.

That really is what the last couple of weeks have taught me – simple practicality.  As one of my acting professors told me on Friday during a class improv, “Just work on the simple stuff.  You can break the rules once you’ve learned the simple stuff.”  So if I’m worried that I’m not extending myself enough, (knowing me) I’m probably overextending.  Less is more.  Quality, not quantity.  Find something to do, and do it well.  Practicality.  This is a good thing for me to learn.

Bring Honesty to the Stage

•October 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about honesty and what it means in acting and life.  Sadly, I don’t think we live in a culture that values honesty as much as we should, but I believe that many people still greatly appreciate honesty when it is shared with them.  But in acting, honesty is not merely an act of kindness or respect, it is essential.  You must be honest with your audience, and you must be honest with yourself.

This might be confusing, since the nature of theatre is often compared to a lie – what is happening on stage is not really real; actors are portraying characters.  But I don’t always like to consider theatre a lie.  I like to consider it a different representation of the truth.  Even an autobiography contains some altered or fictional elements that have been adjusted or rephrased for the integrity of the entire message.  A play should be performed with honesty if it is to share the integrity of its message with the audience; the performers must believe in their characters if the audience is to believe in them.

I think the process of acting would be easier if actors placed greater emphasis on portraying characters and situations with honesty.  At the same time, I don’t mean obsessive realism.  Film can be a medium for obsessive realism, but it is rarely manageable on the stage.  By its very nature, the stage is an unrealistic convention for sharing moments of significance with an audience.  Instead of bringing honesty to the stage through ulta-realism, bring honesty to the stage through authenticity.

To play Hamlet, for example, it is not necessary (nor advisable) to work yourself into a suicidal state.  But neither is it good to demean the character to a stereotype, to a Shakespearean cliche from centuries past.  To paraphrase noted film and stage actor Anthony Zerbe, “you must take a step towards the character on the page and let Hamlet take a step from the page towards you.  You are not Hamlet.  Hamlet is not you.  But if you meet each other in the middle, you can find a little of each other and share something with an audience that maybe no one has ever seen before.”  And that authenticity is compelling.  It is honest, and that is an undeniably satisfying quality to see portrayed on stage.