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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Theater

So, apparently it’s Shakespeare Sunday…..

…….where quotes from the Bard and his many plays are shared liberally and with love all over the internet. There are so many plays to choose from, so many lines and thoughts to suit any occasion, that it quite boggles the mind. No, that’s not a Shakespeare reference, although, since he did invent more than a thousand words, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

William Shakespeare’s works are a huge influence on me as both a writer and an actor – I began reading his plays at the age of twelve and performed in The Merchant of Venice at the age of twenty-one. His use of language is exciting, creating visual images through words and drawing us back in time to experience the lives of those who came before us. From Ancient Egypt to his own historical kings in Scotland and England to fantastical islands where magic is as natural a resource as water, Shakespeare has given us works that transcend time and place.

Unfamiliar with the Bard? Check out some of the films based on his plays – from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh, there are excellent and engaging adaptations that make the words and worlds of William Shakespeare accessible.

“But this rough magic, I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do, To work mine end upon their senses
That this airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I’ll drown my book.”
Prospero, The Tempest

So, the final curtain looms…..

……as my show enters its last weekend. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur and it seems inconceivable that there are only three performances left. Each performance led to something new in my character, a discovery of her humanity and motives. Although it’s not written in the script, I felt an underlying sense of guilt and fear that drove her to her final destination. There were specific lines that alluded to her distress, but the nature of her personality drove others away from her, a self-defensive measure on her part.

This show, The Mousetrap as written by Dame Agatha Christie (adapted from her short story Three Blind Mice, which in itself is adapted from the radio play written in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday), premiered in London in 1952. It has continued to play in front of audiences, celebrating its 64th anniversary this year in the same theater.

It has been a privilege and a joy to work with my fellow cast mates, who have provided a lot of support and laughter in the last few weeks. I am grateful to my director, for casting me in this part, for reasons I mention in a previous post. I had the best stage manager and costumer and producer to help shape, guide and fashion us into a wonderful presentation.

For their privacy, I will not identify them or post their pictures – I feel I need to ask their permission.

But I will leave you with a photograph of our set, where we played out our parts and made our discoveries and connections, both within the context of the play as our characters and outside the play, as actors, as friends, as comrades in arms.

The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.
The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.

So, one of the best ways to improve your writing…..

……is to get involved with and work in theater.

As an actor, you learn to develop character – background, secrets, moments before – that lead to a richer performance and the constant discovery of new things. As a director, you learn how each scene works and flows together, with tweaking here and there to create a cohesive narrative. And, of course, there is the playwright, who puts the words in the mouths of the characters.

Building sets gives you a rough sense of how the play’s world looked. Adding props and furniture gives clues to the characters, their histories, their connections. Costumes and make-up show how characters might look in 17th century France, 11th century BCE Greece or Rome or Egypt.

Every aspect of theater can and will carry over into your writing. I’ve always found myself relying on my theater background not just for inspiration, but for ways to forward my story when the way seems blocked.

Also, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

So, I recently got cast in a show……..

…….which I’m terribly excited about. I had stage-managed this same show about twenty some years ago, and had convinced my director then to allow me to be the shadowy killer so as to maintain the air of Whodunnit. The play in question is a mystery, there’s a juicy murder or two, a cast of suspicious characters and, of course, the Reveal. This is another form of collaborative creativity – by working with other actors, director and stage crew, you enter another world and invite the audience to join you.

Acting, like writing or music or dance or any other artistic expression, is hard work, whether it’s on stage or on film. It requires discipline just as much as talent. An actor learns about the craft through reading of scripts, observing other actors work, and taking classes to enhance their skills, ranging from accents to stage combat.

As with writing, I’m always asking myself questions. In this instance, why did my character arrive at this particular destination? Was it tied to the past? Was it a meeting place? There was an incident that involved my character years earlier – did present circumstances come about because of guilt from a tragic decision? This is the behind the scenes work that goes into each role that is seen onstage. If done well, it looks easy. If done poorly, it looks not so good. 

Is there a fun part to all of this work? That’s simple – yes. The fun part is working with one’s fellow actors and discovering the relationships the characters have with each other. The fun is finding the rhythm of the play both as an individual actor and as a group. The fun is feeling that energy as it is shared with the audience, which is then bounced back to the actors. The fun is knowing that, for two hours, you took a risk and performed live in front of people you know and people you don’t.

The fun is living as someone else, with their history riding inside you.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

So, one of my favorite creative past times…..

……is theater. I grew up acting in school plays, then college productions and local community theater, with an occasional dabble in building sets, costumes and make-up. I even did extra work on a TV movie, which is another story entirely. Theater, like film and TV, is a collaborative effort. You need each person to fulfill a role or task to make the final product work smoothly (technical, sound, lighting, effects, other actors, writers), even if it’s a one person show.

This is true of every creative endeavor. Granted, you are the only one doing your work (whether it’s learning lines or creating a sculpture or any other artistic expression), but the act itself is a collaboration of all that you had learned up to that point. Look at any acknowledgements page in any book and you will find the word “collaboration” or its sibling “collaborative”. There will then be a list of names or groups the author then gives his or her thanks to – because while the act of writing is solitary, the process of putting a book together (from research to final edits to publication) is not.

There is the stereotype of the writer as being an odd creature, solitary, slightly disheveled and not quite fully present in the moment. They are distracted by their thoughts and scribble madly on a pad of paper, relying on copious amounts of coffee (or, in some cases, alcohol) to keep the pace going, finally producing a perfect manuscript. What no one sees is the relentless edits, the hours of researching a particular historical incident, the mapping out of the plot and the creation and naming of characters.

None of this is done in a vacuum – writers groups, editors, beta readers, other writers are there to help give an objective opinion and offer support when the going gets tough. What theater teaches us is that in order for a production to work smoothly, there has to be teamwork. For an author to create her best work, she has to have the teamwork of her editor and beta readers and groups to encourage necessary changes within her story. The same goes for a photographer, her crew and the model. It is all a team effort.

The more creative endeavors you try, the more you’ll realize that it’s this teamwork is where you gain your greatest strength.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is concurrently published on Citizens Journal VC

So, I’m re-writing my Ancient Greek comedy……

……and I kept coming back to a quote regarding writing and editing. It was made by Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 Cambridge lecture “On Style” and it has been widely popularized by the likes of William Faulkner, Alan Ginsberg and Stephen King, to name a few – “Murder your darlings”.

In other words, be as verbose as you want in your writing, but cut the unnecessary fluff when going back to editing, revision, and re-writes.

As I began working on revising and re-writing my play, I noticed that some of the dialogue as it stood was far better suited to the narrative form, rather than script-form. ‘Wordy’ would be a better description, actually, and I was able to cut down on the number of words while keeping the integrity of the line intact.

In some cases, this was fairly easy. In others, not so much.

I’m eleven pages into this re-write of the original script, which topped out at fifty-plus pages. I’m also re-formatting it, to script guidelines, so the structure is also different. There are the requisite stop-starts as I come to scenes that require a bit more creative thinking before weaving the new changes into what’s already there.

An example of this is giving one character his voice back. As written originally, his dialogue was sound and light cues, so I’ve paused there to really look at another character’s reactions to him. I have to ask myself what was said to make the second character react in outrage or frustration and the more specific I am, the funnier the scene will be. Changes will occur, as it always does, but it’s an interesting process to see what chaos might ensue.

(Then again, considering that this play is about the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies, chaos might be an understatement.)

So, when writing your tales of wonder, be as wordy, as verbose, as flowery as you like. Just remember that, when editing and revising, wordy is not always better, so trim the fat, weed out the excess.

Murder your darlings.

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