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.

Theatre: The Great Provoker?

•October 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I recently saw a professional production of David Mamet’s Oleanna at a regional theatre near my university.  I’ve read both Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, but this was my first exposure to Mamet on the stage – and it was moving.  Perhaps I shouldn’t say moving, because if anything, the play stopped me dead in my tracks . . . and it made me angry.

The subtitle for the play is appropriately “a power play” and it was just that – a constant shifting of energy between just two characters for 90 minutes, with an inevitable explosion of frustration between them overwhelming the audience with a catharsis of violence and anger.  It was not traditional Mamet, at least not from what I have read: minimal strong language, vulgarities, or obscenity.  There was just a simmering, brooding resentment that seemed to be building in the characters for the entire duration of the play (and, it often seemed, within the audience as well).  Apparently, the original Broadway production suffered brawling fistfights between audience members in the lobby after the premiere.  How can a play, a work of fiction, do this to us?

I’ve known for a long time that the theatre can be a place of extreme provocation.  Just look at Brecht, or Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  It even goes back to the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and some of the satyr plays of the Greeks.  As long as there has been a need for censorship in the theatre, there has been provocation.  But at the same time, I’ve probably more commonly associated theatre with a place of entertainment, maybe even enlightenment.  Provocation, I feel can be both.  Just look at Mel Brook’s The Producers.  Springtime for Hitler and Germany?  Brooks manages to accomplish much of his humor through almost, but not quite, deeply offending his audiences.

But then, is that really provocation?  I think my 21st century, Western notions of theatre can be very comfortable at times.  If its a comedy, it’s funny.  If it’s a drama, it’s “moving” (whatever that means).  To roughly paraphrase something I heard Anne Bogart say, “It is not the theatre that moves me, that I find so interesting, as the theatre that holds me motionless – that takes my breath away.”  Oleanna took my breath away, because it provoked me.  It made me angry.  Alright, so I didn’t get in a fist-fight in the lobby afterwards, but I was deeply concerned about the implications of what I had just seen – because I could see truth in it.  Perhaps this is why a play like Oleanna is more than just an “edgy comedy” or an “enlightened drama” – it takes us past a comedic edgy into a realistic edgy and instead of patting us over the head with a neat, little moral precept or enlightened solution, it throws deeply distressing problems in our face and then withholds any satisfactory answers to our questions.

Oleanna stopped me in my tracks, despite the play being nearly 20 years old, because I could see the relevance of the problems it was exposing.  And instead of trying to offer a solution to the problem (which I don’t necessarily think is the job of a playwright), Mamet frustrates us to the point of emotional anguish, to the point of an explosion, and then perhaps we realize the irony – we are not so different from the characters on that stage.  And unlike them, we are real.

Take Care of Yourself

•October 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This advice is just as much for me as for anyone else who happens to read this.

As humans, we have almost always lived in some state of danger or uncertainty.  Living in a country like the United States in the 21st century, however, it is easy to forget just how dangerous the world can be.  With cell phones, the internet, medical technology, transportation, abundant food, and a huge amount of instantaneous satisfaction, it can be VERY easy for me to forget just how quickly all of this can be taken away.  I am NOT invincible, even though sometimes I would like to think I am.  Accidents can happen, mistakes can occur.  I am blessed with a tremendous amount of control over my life and my future, but even then, money and privilege can not but CERTAINTY.  I do not know that I will wake up tomorrow, for certain.  I do not know that my dorm room might burn down, for certain.  I do not know that my friends or family might be killed in a car accident, for certain.  These are terrible things to think about, which is why I think death is such a taboo topic in our culture – it makes us feel uncomfortable.  But I think it is far better to acknowledge these possibilities rather than live in denial.  I’m not saying be morbid, I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t take our lives for granted.

Recently, I have been taking my life for granted.  I have been taking the opportunities given to me for granted.  I would even go so far as to say I have been squandering them.  Despite my privilege and opportunity, I have not taken care of myself or the blessings I have in this life.  Staying up late, very late, with no real reason other than I do not want to sleep; I think I am too good for sleep.  As a reaction against my narcolepsy, with the help of my new medication, I think part of me thought I was invincible, that sleep was no longer that important.  It was a big mistake.

By staying up late, by increasing my sleep debt to an inordinate amount, I literally made myself sick.  At first I thought it was just seasonal allergies, but I’ve realized over the past few weeks this is a yo-yo effect: if I get a decent amount of sleep for a night, I feel alright the next day, but since my sleep is never consistent, the sickness soon comes back.  I had terrible, chronic headaches.  A bad cough and painful sinuses.  My muscles felt weak and stiff, and I was feeling cold shivers.  It was getting to the point where I was even starting to feel dizzy when I got up, almost falling over if I exerted myself too much.  And this was entirely my own fault.

Yes, I could easily blame seasonal allergies, the flu season, the demands of college, but deep down inside I know that I am the instigator of the suffering with which I am now contending.  I have taken life for granted, to the extent that I am causing myself harm.  Nothing outside of me has done this, so I must take responsibility.

This is perhaps a sobering entry, maybe more so for me as I type it than for those few who I know read it.  But I am glad I am saying it, because it is encouraging me to be accountable.  And my life is improving.  I have been insisting I go to bed at a sensible time and after several nights of good sleep, the improvement in my overall health is very apparent.  The key is to make such behavior a CONSCIOUS habit, just like any form of actor training.  It must become a part of my daily ritual, the same as brushing my teeth or doing my stretches.

My advice to all: please, take care of yourself.  No one else can do this for you, and no one else can help you recover until you take the initiative yourself.  Whether you are an artist or not, you will reap the benefits of good health through this behavior, which will also help you tackle the challenges outside of yourself, over which you may have little or no control.

Take care of yourself.

A Life Led by Fear, Will Lose the Chance to Love

•October 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Once upon a time, a boy and his father went walking in the woods.  The boy loved this.  He loved the woods and he loved spending time with his father.  They would walk for hours, hand in hand, amidst the trees, crossing bridges over bubbling brooks, sometimes looking up to see the sun peering cheerfully through the thick forest’s hair.

One day, the boy and his father were enjoying one of their walks through the woods, but the cheerful sun had disappeared and quickly been replaced by glowering rain clouds and the the flash of untamed electricity.  The boy was scared and began to cry out in terror, but the father quickly took him in his arms and ran through the woods faster than the boy thought possible.  Under the shelter of a cave, they sought refuge while the storm thundered overhead.  The boy clung to his father, who comforted him greatly, but the fear still gripped his young body.


“Yes, my son.”

“Will you always be here for me?”

The father smiled with warm certainty.

“My son,” he said, “I will always be with you, even when I am no longer able to hold you in my arms.  Storms will come and fear will swell up in you, but if you remember love, you will never be without me.  One day, you will be able to give that love to another.”

The boy did not completely understand his father, but a feeling of complete reassurance wrapped itself firmly around him.  He was comforted, and his fear began to fade.

Suddenly, as if the sun’s familiar glow had never left the heavens, rays of light shone through the once cloudy sky, now replaced with a tapestry of celestial blue.  The boy and his father emerged back into the world, hand in hand once more.  Fear no longer divided the boy from the life he was learning to love, and as the Father grasped his tiny palm, he began to realize his potential for compassion.