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Writing from Character

December 13th, 2011 No comments

Silver3 at Conni's

Attended the Writing from Character workshop last night at CPT, which was run by the heroes of Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and that is good as I was somewhat nervous being one of the only playwrights in a room filled with actors.


The workshop, loosely described, is about creating character by using a variety of techniques, including clowning. The main idea being that you have a character in mind based on a prop, and combined with movement and various other techniques you identify some biographical information about your character which then you can develop more fully into three dimensions.

I have been through a variant on this process before in a workshop at CSU. Interestingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, both focused on getting into one’s own body prior to the activity; and it is remarkable how much physicality can influence quirks of character in the development phase.

The evening started with everyone circling up and going through a quick name game to, as much as anything, loosen everyone up. That was followed by a five minute period during which everyone stretched on his/her own just to loosen up. This was the outset of my being thankful for doing, albeit half-heartedly, P90X. The stretch techniques and CardioX came in helpful for not only the stretching but what followed immediately upon it. We were encouraged to move around the room, walking, exploring the space.

We were in the Orthodox Church at CPT which is a quaint, baroque, and highly engaging space. The vaulted ceiling, tumbling into a cupola, is painted the hue of the lightest bluest sky of summer, set off by the brilliant gold paint liberally scattered about. The silhouette of tree limbs peeped at the windows and the wood floors felt immensely real under my bare feet. (I owe that description to the elevated awareness to which my senses were subject by the exercises. )

The exploration quickly turned to simply walking around the room, engaging the eye on whatever it took rest. Then the pace was increased. We were next encouraged to identify open space between all of the bodies moving about and move through them. Circles circled and then reversed, people dashed diagonally across the space. The clip increased. A rule was added that if you encountered a person you were to turn and move the opposite direction, as if you ricochetted off the individual. We were admonished to keep loose and lithe so as not to bash anyone we might bump into. Next we were encouraged to follow persons. Then to either stop or deflect when we bumped into another. The pace continued and we were encouraged to become aware of those around us, to pick a person and keep him/her in our peripheral vision at all times. Next it was two, then three. My eyes seemed to slide sideways in my head as I became increasingly aware of the breadth of the space around me. When the exercise concluded I was drenched in sweat, and yet was strangely un-tired. As one person described it, it was very much a constant exchange of energy from everyone in the room; and it might have been a sort of sustenance.

We did an exercise where we imagined we had extra limbs; where we contorted our bodies into odd shapes and physical expressions. Next we donned our outfits: pieces of clothing we brought along to help us envision a character. I wore a tremendously gaudy dress splattered with a rainbow of colors; I looked, no doubt, like an Amish Moony. We sauntered the room soon after listening to the coaxing commands of Jeffrey Frace to imagine that we were happy, to imagine that this was the happiest day of our lives, to imagine that we were infinitely desirable: that the world’s leading thinkers sought us out; the leading politicians called us on the phone for advice; etc. We were to inflate ourselves as much as possible and strut about the room greeting all the other inflated personas who inhabited the room. It was quite fun.

Then we sat and picked up a pad and paper and in response to Jeffrey’s commands, created a biography for a character that had emerged for us. The questions: Name, Age, Where from, Education, Key Moment in life, personal eccentricity, Greatest Fear, Greatest Dream, etc, required immediate responses (we were given approximately five minutes in which to get the details of our character in order). Then, as the main body of the workshop attendees sat, some several of us where called up in a group and Jeffrey pummeled us with questions about our biography. Many of the questions required on the spot generation of new facets to our personalities. We were then all given a scenario in which we had to act together: the first group was that a ballet troupe was unable to make their performance and the characters in the group had to fill in; next was the same scenario with Shakespeare replacing ballet; finally, (my group) it was a square dance.

All of these aspects are on view in Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant at CPT, which ends next week. Wild characters, bursting with energy, are engaged in running a restaurant and in coordinating the cooking and live entertainment for Conni’s guests (i.e. you, the audience).

The workshop concludes tomorrow night with an advancement of the characters we created and a short stint into cooking and working together to create and serve dinner while working in characters. Should be fun!

For those of you who are interested, my character is Schnickel Fritz, a 41-year-old Ponderer from Middletown, Ohio, who talks like Tom Waits. He can’t remember his education only that he became totally enlightened after a rumspringa acid trip. During the trip he realized that certain core tenants of the Mennonite faith coincided with a mix of Japanese zen Buddhist thought as filtered through a Hippy-style smokendum. Fritz’s personal eccentricity includes making animal faces and expressions (as well as accompanying noises) with his beard–but this only happens during periods of great excitement. Fritz’s greatest fear is being forcibly shaved. This also happens to be his greatest dream. One of the more terrible moments in Fritz’s life was when his pet cow Beatrice, a Hereford-Friesian dairy cow, was given over for slaughter to Butcher Langer.

When interviewed Fritz admitted that his sole exceptional feature is Pondering. “I am especially good and noble when it comes to the art of pondering. I love to emponder others. I am in transition. In my youth I was sought out for my great pondering ability and exquisite pondering poses: for which I was featured as a centerfold in Thinker Magazine: the Journal of the Subsupercilious. (Known in certain circles as “the Bent Brow”.) More recently I have traded my stardom for seeking states of non-being in my pondering, concentrating less on the outward form of my poses and more on a deeper sense of nothingness. In this regard, I have taken to assisting others who seek out deep wonderment.”

On Writing…and on Writing about Sex

June 2nd, 2008 No comments

Just now getting to the article in American Theatre highlighting the work of Wallace Shawn. The first that I’ll talk about is “Writing about Sex” which is the first article.

First, I found his commentary on writing to be not only amusing, but accurate. Shawn notes that,

“I don’t do my own writing. I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what the fuck is he saying?” The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organizing abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most successful.” Pp24

There are many such examples of writers talking about how they write. The muses of course being the oldest, but always the notion that somehow one is channeling the voice or channeling the impulse, guiding it, stewarding it onto paper, into the laptop, whatever… The writers as a vehicle to impart the raging voice of the gods. The writer as a lightning rod. Or in the case above, the writer as the person sitting closest to the open window. But I find the notion of the “modest organizing” quite interesting at this point. The small kudos paid to the logical dweller in the great cavern who’s only pedantic offering is to sort things out. And I don’t underestimate this by any stretch of the imagination. Shawn is quite right to point to the “skill” required, for it is that. It is one that I am still honing. I can catch the torrent and ensure that it pours out onto a page. It is that skill at going back and doing the “modest organizing” and the “finding” that is most important. To pare down the utterance. To select. And yet NOT TO HARM or DISTORT the voice. My “modest” parcel always tries to tamper. Tries to adjust. And the only thing that I can think of right now is Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who dabbles a bit too much and all of a sudden the whole damn thing is spinning out of control—brooms and water everywhere.

And like Shawn, I am tempted to just call the voice the unconscious. Especially after my stints reading Jung and Campbell. But I am interested in the fact that he ties the unconscious to society—that:

“I’m forced to conclude that, if the unconscious has thoughts, it has to have heard these thoughts, or at least their constituent fragments, from human beings of some description—from the people I’ve met, the people I’ve read about, the people I’ve happened to overhear on the street. So, it’s not just a theory that society is speaking to itself through me.”

Here, Shawn really is pointing to the idea of society being channeled through the writer, and not the collective unconscious. This notion is somewhat different for me as I think the images that I have put out are somewhat more raw than something that would be formed by society. Shawn’s work is very talky and full of ideas that must be imparted—usually with a quick, breathless flurry. My images tend to stride and swagger around the room and fart. Yet, I find his notion of channeling the rest of society very compelling. And it is to this voice that Shawn attributes his focused interest in sex.

“So,” Shawn writes “at a certain point—and with a certain sadness, because of how I knew I would be seen by other people—I decided I was going to trust the voice I was hearing. And of course, like every writer, I hope I’ll be one of the ones who will be led to do something truly worthwhile.” 25

There are two things I would comment on here: first, the notion of how others will see you. Certainly, I have found, and am slowly wrestling with, that there is this realization that if you want to have an authentic voice you must speak the truth. I am reminded of the scene in Labute’s The Shape of Things where it is stated that there is no place for morality in art. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written.” And yet, the people you know DO SEE YOU DIFFERENTLY based on what you put out into the world. Dare you be daring and shock them all? Or do you stay domesticated and dish out lukewarm, tasteless paste? The second is that the hope that this voice will take him to election. That is, a sort of disembodied method of selection. An almost spiritual notion of selection for greatness. And not the notion of greatness for greatness in and of itself, but rather of being led to see something. That the reward is where you are taken, not in any outward dressings that are applied to it.

But more to the point of the article, the “voice outside the window” for Shawn kept returning to the topic of sex. So, the article asks, “why is sex interesting to write about?”

Well, for Shawn it has as much to do with the utter animal nature or bestial nature of the activity as anything—the shocking realization that he, as a human, in engaging in an activity that “pigs, flies, wolves, lions and tigers, also engage in…” 80. And that this fact disrupts his view of himself—“violently disrupts,” in fact. Although, he expands on this rather nicely by noting that sex is nature and that, as such, sex is really nature “coming into our home or apartment and taking root inside our own minds. It comes out of the mud where the earliest creatures swam; it comes up and appears in our brains in the form of feelings and thoughts.” That is to say, it insinuates itself into our whole being on nearly every level—and this, I suppose, is appropriate as it is the single imperative that nature outlines for us—all of we living beings on this planet, large or small, self-aware or not, by whatever definition, with souls or without, again by whatever definition—namely, to generate new versions of ourselves—to keep this Passion Play rolling along, regardless of the individual or personal character and the importance we attach to it—that is, our ‘self’. As Shawn comments, sex “sweeps other feelings and other thoughts completely out of the way.” Again, affirming its primal authority. It is the prime mover, the first cause, and it will not be bested.

Then, working his evolutionary magic, Shawn draws us into the absurdity of our own existence, as he always manages to do in his writing. By mis-direction he first, he draws our attention to the “big toe” and then compares it to the penis—noting that the two are made fundamentally similar materials. And then by spinning the logic of his argument out, he notes that men “buy magazines containing pictures of breasts, but not magazines with pictures of knees or elbows.” (Of course, during the Victorian-era, I’m sure this was in-fact the choice material—as societies at different times fetish-ize different things.) And then Shawn goes on to the demagoguery surrounding the choice of where to put that penis, and how, generally, the success or failure of an enterprise aimed at sexual gratification can make or break a poor human being. And expands to suggest that the power of desire (for anything: body, meadow, horse, painting, etc.) may reflect the power of love flowing through the individual. Hopefully, that is, not the likely more mundane rapacity of the lower Chakras—the third of possession in particular.

Shawn goes on to talk about the taboos and other barriers erected around sex, the idea of sex, the likelihood of sex, as well as the other features: jealousy, possessiveness, etc. And even notes evidence from a recent sociological survey that found, when Americans were asked the question: “What is very important for a successful marriage?” That 93% said their partner’s faithfulness, while only 70% said a “happy sexual relationship” thus drawing up the high irony that 23% of the respondents feel it is more important that their spouse not be having sex at all—or rather, as Shawn puts it “more important that they and their partner should not have sex with others than that they themselves should enjoy sex.” Yet another example of how the American individual is always more focused on the activities of others than engaged in that form of self-reflection that may lead to personal improvement and general happiness for the greater good. Further, Shawn notes that sex seems to lead to anarchy and thus those who are “committed to predictability and order find themselves inevitably either standing opposite to it, or occasionally trying to pretend to themselves that it doesn’t even exist.”

And at long last, Shawn concludes his tour by discussing what we may deem to be the ultimate point of this lively narrated escapade: that “perhaps it would be a good thing if people saw themselves as a part of nature, connected to the environment in which they live. Sex can be a very humbling, equalizing force…naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden inside the pleasure garden” and he even points out that when we find out some sexual tidbit about our leaders they somehow lose a measure of their superiority or power—they are lessened in our minds by the revelation. Again, connecting the impulse to sex back to the poor creatures of the earth, reminding ourselves that we are in fact one of them.

I am reminded of a movie that was on HBO frequently when I was a teen: Maxwell Smart and the Nude Bomb. It has been a while since I thought of this movie. The premise can be inferred from the title. The moment that I remember most, however, is a conference which must have been a mock representation of the United Nations. Maxwell Smart, or someone, makes the observation that a nude bomb would be great—it would end war—you can’t kill someone on a battlefield if you can’t tell him apart. You’d be unable to make the distinction. At which point an African states boldly, “We would.”

Some differences then are impossible to be got rid of. But the overall message of Shawn in this article is valid and enjoyably delivered.

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