Monday, March 7, 2016

The Opposite of People

by David Sharp

For those of you familiar with Tom Stoppard's brilliant parody of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, you may recognize the quote I've borrowed for the title of this blog post. And if you do recognize the quote, then you already know that the subject of my post this week is…
And thou, oh sky!
Oh, blue and lovely sky!
That art ever partly cloudy!
With chance of rain at 30%!


I was an actor before I was a writer, and it is through acting that I found my writing voice. It is also through acting that I discovered how gratifying it can be to connect with other people through a story. Sometimes I think of acting as extroverted writing. Which is not to say that introverts can't act, nor that extraverts can't write. In fact, there are advantages to either of those combinations, but we'll save that for another post.

Before I go on, a brief disclaimer: The following is simply on the basis of my own personal experience. It is not meant to be all-encompassing or without exceptions.

Actors and writers have a lot in common. They are both trying to convey a story to an audience. There are characters and themes. There is a beginning, middle and end. Conflict and rising action take the characters through their paces and deliver them into their logical conclusions.

Hand feeding this guy is literally that.
He'll be happy to eat your hand.
A word on actors – and remember, I am one– they drive me crazy! Crazy!!! Like hand-feeding crocodiles level of crazy! The collective creative energy is something special to behold, but working with them is like herding cats. It requires a great deal of discipline on the part of every member of a troupe to make a production that is cohesive and reaches the goals that we set for it. And I learned some valuable lessons in working with actors. I'd like to share a few of those now. I think that the application to writers will be apparent.

1. Talent is nothing without dedication. Being gifted at something is worthless if you won't apply yourself to it. Just because you enjoy it doesn't mean it's not work. As a director, I would happily cast a mediocre actor who I knew would give it his all over a talented prodigy with a halfhearted work ethic. There is a level of professionalism that is as important with the arts as it is in any endeavor. You have to start each day ready to work, and open to collaboration with others.

2. The identity is in the action. I have known some actors who acted because they loved to tell a story. I have known other actors who acted because they loved to think of themselves as actors. It's the performance that bears the fruit. The more time you spend thinking about how people perceive you, the less time you will spend thinking about your craft. Many aspiring starlets seemed to have their Hollywood memoirs written before they ever happened, but these were usually the same people who would lose the story to their desire for a spotlight. They'd over-perform their lines to the point of being inauthentic. Much like musicians who sacrifice the melody of a song so they can show off their vocal range. As writers, we are just as susceptible. We can kill a book with indulgent prose when we try to show off. Don't worry about being a writer. Focus on your craft, and the identity will be in that.

3. Headlining is not the same as success. Advice from a seasoned director I've met is this: Flash in the pan celebrities are not as successful as those actors you see over and over in supporting roles, and whose names you don't know but haven't you seen him in something before? Not every writer should aspire to be James Patterson. Probably James Patterson didn't aspire to be James Patterson. (Well, maybe he did in an existential sense, but you know what I mean.) Decide what success looks like to you, and set your own goals. And celebrate when you achieve them. Don't get caught up forever saying if only it had been more.

All of this, I can whittle down to a single point for both actors and writers. Your best work will come when you focus on telling your story.

Perhaps you also have some expertise from another arena that reinforces your writing. If so, please share in the comments. Until then, I leave you with the immortal words of the Player King:

"Don't you see?! We're actors- we're the opposite of people!"


Deborah Nielsen said...

A lot of what you say applies to musicians as well. When everybody put egos aside, show up ready to play the same piece of music and follow the conductor, the results can be awesome. If someone shows up without having practiced or decides they want to be the virtuoso when the part doesn't call for it, well, the audience just wants to leave. And your fellow orchestra/band members wish you would. There have been times when I've forced myself to practice when I'd rather do something else because I don't want to be that person. Same for writing. Some days I have to force myself to sit down and write because I have a deadline or because I'll never get the piece I'm doing for me done.

David Sharp said...

I can see how musicians face many of the same issues. It may even be more pronounced since music requires such a high quality of harmony between different members of the orchestra or band. Still, it's so amazing when it all comes together. Writing seems more solo much of the time, but there's still a lot of collaboration with critique groups, editors, publishers and also the readers. Great observation! Thanks for sharing.

Share a Post