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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Theater

So, I’m on the autism spectrum (Asperger’s)…..

…..and here’s how it manifests in me – it’s like navigating the world with a paint pallet, but with half the colors.  This means I will miss some social cues and over-analyze every word and encounter until my head hurts.  The knowledge that I’m (unofficially) an Asperger’s has been enlightening – finally, as I look back on my life, things started to make sense.  My unofficial diagnosis occurred in 2009, when three separate counselors in two different cities within a six-week period asked me if I was Asperger’s.  Never having heard of it before, the answer was naturally “No”.  Being officially diagnosed is on my List of Things to Do, and it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to find sources that would help (one is in Los Angeles).

How did I survive all this time?

Well, as it turns out, theater probably saved me in a way nothing else could have.  I got involved with theater at the age of three and eventually joined and several local theater troupes, as well as acting classes in college.  This gave me a safe way to explore relationships within context and having a script is really helpful. [1]  Theater is about trust and collaboration – if you didn’t trust your fellow thespians and techies, then there was a problem.  In this scenario, I had to learn who I could trust so I could work with them. [2]

Outside of theater, I tended to be on my own.  I liked being with my friends and doing stuff with them, but it also takes a LOT of energy to just be ‘normal’ enough to interact with people and social situations.  I’m also an empath, so I can feel what everyone else is feeling at any given time.  For example, while I might not be able to pick up on physical behaviors when someone is lying to me, I can definitely feel it when it happens.

What does it feel like to be lied to?  That’s a really good question and I’m sure it’s different for everyone. For me, it’s like being sucker-punched so hard, that I’m knocked out of the situation for a few seconds.  When that feeling passes, I’m no longer able to view things as they had been.  Everything feels fragile – too bright, too dark, too uncertain.  Unreal.  I’m unable to know for certain that what I’d been experiencing before the lie was true or if it was also a lie.  So I will go quiet and shrink back into myself and observe.

And I do that a lot – observing.  I watch how people behave with each other and if an action is confusing to me, I’ll find a way to ask about it.  This is helpful both as an actor and as a writer, which is another thing that helps me survive, analyze and negotiate this world.  As it turns out, I seem to have a pretty good grasp on seeing what’s going on around me.  Interpretation is no longer out of the question.  Case in point – about two years ago, I watched two people meet for the first time.  There was nothing unusual about their meeting, nothing I could point my finger at with any conviction and say, “This was the catalyst.”  But something pinged in my mind as I watched them and I remember thinking, This will develop into something, they will be a couple before the month is out.  Lo, and behold, they were and still are.

More than one person has expressed to me that perhaps therapy would be the best way to learn social cues, to which I say, “Bullshit.”  What could a therapist teach me that real life social interactions couldn’t?  You don’t learn how to ride a horse in the classroom – you go out to the barn, hire an instructor and get in the fucking saddle.  Same thing with driving a car – sure, there are some classroom stuff that you need to learn, but for practical experience, the only way to learn how to drive a car is to get in the driver’s seat.

Same thing with learning about people and social interactions, which is where theater has been an enormous help.  At some point, you have to go out into the real world and deal with real life situations.  You find and surround yourself with people you like and feel comfortable with, so that you have a safe way to experience things in a group.

And then you just go and do.  Observe people and their actions and behaviors.  Ask questions if you find something puzzling.  Be honest about who you are and how you process information, if you think it will help create understanding.  For me, I’ve found that, in most cases, being honest about my Asperger’s does help to alleviate any potential awkwardness.  I don’t even have to go into a lot of detail.

But don’t ever let someone make their discomfort your responsibility.  It’s an unfair position to be put in and one from which you might not be able to defend yourself.  In those situations, the best way to handle it is to walk away and let them hold the bag for their own poor judgment and behavior.

You owe them nothing.

Theater is a great place to observe and learn.

[1] I’ve tried improv and I cannot do it to save my life, nor do I enjoy it.  Improv is too off-the-cuff and on-your-feet thinking for me.  Having a script gives me a sense of structure, which enables me to then build and expand.

[2] Trust is essential in any aspect of life.  However, I’ve also learned who I couldn’t trust.  And that’s a separate post.

Recommended Reading:

The Autistic Brain – Temple Grandin
The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome – Tony Attwood

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So, I’m plugging along on my Ancient Greek Comedy….

……and I can feel the tangents wanting to take off and create something new.  This is exciting to me, because it means that this play has a lot to say, that there’s more depth to it than I had originally anticipated.  But because these tangents are too nebulous and without form, I’m making them wait until this revision is finished.

I know, I know, I’m being terribly mean to these tangents.  I mean, they only want to help my Ancient Greek comedy become something truly magnificent.

And I can’t argue with that, because I want the same thing.  Still, this revision has to happen first and then the tangents can come in and do as they please.  If it makes anyone feel any better about it, I write these tangents down to remember them.  That is, if there’s something solid enough to write down.

In any case, I’m delighted to see characters that I’d written out make their way back in,  One character has regained his speech after I took it away from him.  Issues that I have strong ideas and feelings about are working their way in, which is only right.  Theater, and the arts in general, are about exploring ideas (good, bad, ugly) and politics and feelings.  The arts are here to make us think, not just make us feel.  There is something at work within the confines of this play that I can’t readily identify, but it’s exciting to me.

And that’s a very good thing.

Title and cast list of Hotel Mt. Olympus.

So, here I am again…….

……..about twenty minutes away from midnight, this time. I just got home from an event, but I’d been working on a couple of posts about history all day. It’s working out that it’s going to be more than just one post, which is fine, because there’s a lot to ruminate over. I’m thinking there’ll be two posts, at least, but who knows?

It could be more. I am quite loquacious, when the occasion calls for it.

Ah, it’s moved up to fifteen minutes before midnight.

What thoughts do I have, this late?

Random ones.

I went to bed early last night, around 9 or 9:30. I woke up at one in the morning, didn’t get back to sleep until four. I had the weirdest dream about being in a play with a celebrity and having a phone conversation with him about statements two people claimed I made (one named Sarah, the other’s name escapes me at the moment).

I kept having to move around to a different spot, because there was so much external noise from the streets and businesses around me. (It is fortunate that, even in my dream, I had a cell phone.) I put him right, that what was said to him  by those two people was not from me. He accepted my words with gracious humility and apologized.

Then I had to go round up loose horses. None of the equines resembled mine, but the location the dream horses had escaped from was the same spot where I keep my real horses. And later, I went to a local tavern, located in the middle of a national forest. The word ‘tavern’ was in the establishment’s name and a friend owned and worked there.

There were some other random bits (running into an old college class mate, an auditorium and popcorn, of all things) before I finally woke up at 7:30. That’s a lot of dreaming in three and a half hours.

(Five minutes before midnight.)

I’m not sure what any of that means – I had a friend named Sarah once, but we lost touch many years ago. Not even sure about the meaning of the phone call – I don’t know the celebrity in question, nor would he have any reason to call me.

(Three minutes.)

The horses are probably the simplest part of my dream to interpret.

They’re hard to wrangle and they want their treats. Also, they love to be dramatic about their breakfast.

See you anon.

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So, I’m listening to the rain…..

…….as it descends upon the earth in a torrent. There’s a mini-lake in my backyard now, typical of what happens when there’s too much water in the ground and nowhere for the excess to go. It’s definitely one of those days where staying inside is the best idea. Since I don’t have a lot going on that requires my presence away from the house, I think I’ll stay in, snuggle with the cat, read a book and work on some writing.

I’ve got a number of projects on the fire – a novel, a novella, a stage play, among other things – and I haven’t been as attentive to them as I should have been. Now that I’ve got a little breathing room, I think it’s time to turn my focus on the written word.

I’d written a two act stage play a few years ago – a comedy involving the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies. It’s a little heavy on the Ancient Greeks, but that’s only because I’m more familiar with those archetypes. I’m revising the entire play now, incorporating characters based on other mythologies, so as to have a better representation.

After all, a hotel that caters to the ancient gods and goddesses of myth should be all-inclusive, right?

Right.

Although he doesn’t make an appearance, Poseidon (Roman name, Neptune) is referred to at various points throughout the play. Since water is his primary domain (although he is known to be a shaker of the earth), today seems a good day to dive back into that play and see what turns up.

Title and cast list of Hotel Mt. Olympus.
Title and cast list of Hotel Mt. Olympus.

So, I’m feeling a little bereft……

……now that I’m done re-visiting my trip to Ireland. I’m not sure what course to plot next, but I have some ideas that I’ve started working on. Not necessarily another travel-log, but things that should at least be interesting.

In any case, I’ll try not to mourn the end of my trip down memory lane too much. It was a grand adventure, I feel very lucky that I was able to manage it and I hope to find my way back. Not to repeat it, one can never do that, but to deepen my experience by spending more than one day in a specific place.

That’s the goal, anyway.

In the mean time, I’ve got a novel to finish, a play to revise and a show to act in. Also, it never hurts to plan the next big adventure.

I think I’ll look at Middle-Earth, see if I can convince Gandalf the Gray to take me on one of his quests.

Oh, wait. That’s New Zealand. 😉

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So, I’m in another play…..

……a one-act, more specifically, which lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. There are four other one-acts in this production, thus it’s referred to as the one-act festival. It’s held every year and seems to have a fairly good turn-out.

Which makes the time frame about the length of a two act play (two hours).

This is actually a nifty idea, because you can get maybe four or five playwrights’ work staged and exposed to a receptive audience, instead of just one. It enables unknown playwrights especially, since you could also mix them in with well-known playwrights, whose work has been established.

The stage where the one-acts will be performed, but not with this backdrop.
The stage where the one-acts will be performed, but not with this backdrop.

I’m having a lot of fun with finding my moments within my character’s speeches and today, I made my director cry. Which I suppose was the point – my character is blind, and is writing an email home, feeling very insecure about what may occur upon her arrival. So there’s a lot of emotion and empathy coming out.

That’s part of an actor’s job – to make you feel what the characters feel. Same thing with a writer. Or songwriter.

The arts are about creating empathy between you and the subject. It can be uncomfortable, it can make you mad or upset or happy or melancholy. No two people will have the same kind of experience, even if they see or read the same things.

In a play, there is a symbiotic relationship between the actors on-stage and the audience that is watching them. My job, as an actor, is to make you feel what I’m feeling. If my character, in the moment, is feeling something so powerful, that you start to cry, then I’ve done my job.

Even if it’s a tiny sniffle, I will consider that I did my job and transported you to another plane of emotional existence.

It’s an experience that’s harder to pull off via film or TV – not impossible, just harder.

Go see live theater, even if it’s a musical you grew up loving as a kid. It’s an experience that is always good to share with friends and family.

 

“The stage is set, the curtain rises. We are ready to begin.”
Sherlock Holmes, The Abominable Bride (2015)

So, I’ve been revising my Ancient Greek Comedy….

…..and I got stuck because of Zeus. Why, you ask, would the primary god in Greek mythology be such a problem that you got stuck when writing about him?

Good question.

By rights, he should be a fun character to give life to on the page. He’s larger than life (because he’s a god, naturally), bombastic, can shape-shift into any creature or element he wishes, has the power to control the world and his fellow gods and goddesses.

Zeus should have been a piece of cake to write about.

But he wasn’t.

He started out as a Burl Ives caricature, then I took him out and made him a light/sound effect so that I could reduce the number of characters I had on-stage. Then I added him back on-stage, as a physical character, but with light and sound as his voice. A director read the work and came back with several notes, including one that gave Zeus his voice back.

‘Great,’ I thought, ‘This should be easy.’

It wasn’t.

I had gone through the first twenty pages, revising dialogue and cutting out unnecessary words (and this is how I know I’m a novelist at heart – I’m very wordy). I re-structured character motive and added new directions. All was going well, it was clicking along at a nice pace and I was enjoying the characters and their interactions.

Then I came to Zeus, his first entrance and everything came to a screeching halt.

I typed in his name, hit the Enter key to start his first line and………nothing.

Zip. Nada. Silence.

I put it aside, as I always do when I encounter difficulty. I still kept notes, writing down ideas that could be incorporated into the script. I even began to design a soundtrack, to help with the creative flow. Also, there’s a Greek Chorus and the Greeks were all about music, so it made sense to let that side develop.

But I was still stuck and Zeus, uncharacteristically, was stubbornly silent.

An article I’d read recently about character development had been ruminating in my thoughts – I don’t recall the title of the article or where I’d found it, but I will edit this post to add it should I be lucky enough to find it.

In any case, the article asked a lot of good questions and what I remember is this – what is your character’s over-riding arc? What is their question that needs answering? What is their need?

I began to ask this of my play’s characters and some interesting things began to come up, things that had been below the surface.

And then recent events and Zeus’s own well-documented behavior in his own myths began to shed some light on the subject. Now I know his questions, his arc and his need.

The darkness always comes before the light.

Title and cast list of my play.
Title and cast list of my play.

So, I think my passion went on hiatus……

…….because I am feeling less and less sure of what I want to do. Or where I want to go. It’s an overwhelming weight on my chest, trying to sort out what to do, let alone even coming close to knowing what to do.

I’m pretty sure this is a rut. Why? Because I still want to write. Writing is what I do best. I love sinking into that world I’ve created, taking on multiple characters and locations and basically playing god (or goddess) to make the story come to life.

I also love painting and drawing and acting and theater. I love being around creative people – they are the most exciting, challenging and invigorating people I know. It’s like being on some kind of drug, except instead of destroying your life and the lives around you, the creative energy enriches you, fulfills you, makes life brighter. You are lifted up, not dragged down. Your brain sizzles with ideas that inspires you.

That rut I mentioned? That’s the low – it’s all those doubts and negative thoughts that tell you to not keep going, to just quit while you’re ahead and go do something practical. To hell with the practical – do the art. The practical is only good for one thing – paying bills, building a nest egg for emergencies or that maybe-someday trip.

The art is what makes life magical. It pushes through that dull, gray rut and into to the sparkle and energizes your heart chakra.

Whether it’s art or photography or acting or writing or any creative style I haven’t mentioned, it’s like being around an electrical surge that won’t stop.

Keep doing that art that makes you happy. Even when it feels like the passion packed up and left.

Which reminds me.

I have a violin that I need to learn to play. I have to learn it, even if I suck at it. I’ve had this dream since I was twelve years old. Or maybe I was six, when I discovered Sherlock Holmes. Just the idea of learning the violin makes me happy.

My violin, waiting patiently.
My violin, waiting patiently.

So, Octavia Butler, an influential science fiction writer, once said……

……..about writing, “Here I was, into astronomy, and here into anthropology and there I go into geography. It was much more fun to be able to research and write about whatever I wanted to.”

This falls in line with my own thinking about writing and theater. It’s role-play of the best kind, where you get to try on as many different professions as possible without spending years in a classroom or in the field. There is a kind of freedom in trying on different hats, seeing how they fit and how to utilize them.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to do the research – what some might see as a downside and an inhibitor of creativity is the hard work that goes into making your characters (both on the page and on the stage) layered, believable and, more importantly, real. This will keep your audience engaged until the end, trying to outguess where the character’s ultimate destination will wind up.

What’s also fun is that you discover new things about all kinds of subjects, especially ones you think you know. Whether it’s history, physics, law or how to make an Irish stew, the research you invest in your writing (or any other creative endeavor) will not only enrich the project you’re working on, but will add to your knowledge. Maybe you’ll even add a new skill or discover an interest in something you’d never thought about before. Where it leads is up to you, but the possibilities are endless.

Editor’s Note – This blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC.

Recommended Links/Reading:

Link to Octavia Butler

Kindred by Octavia Butler

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