azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
azdak ([personal profile] azdak) wrote2010-10-14 09:19 am

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I got stuck for a while on a particular scene in the current writing project. I needed the characters to sit at a table, then move to a couch and then have sex. Sounds reasonable enough, but I simply couldn't get it to work. They would sit at the table, talk and then have sex or they would sit on the couch, talk and then have sex, but they refused to interrupt the process of having a conversation that led to sex at the table in order to go and sit on the couch for a bit.

This struck me as exactly the kind of problem I used to face directing plays. Which makes it Reason 1649 why writing is like acting/directing.

It's something of a cliché that actors are constantly asking, "What's my motivation?" One of my acting teachers used to tell a story about a famous theatre actress who was told by her director to move five paces to the left in order to say a particular line. When she asked what her motivation was for moving, he replied, "Your costume clashes with the scenery."

This particular source of conflict between actors and directors – the clash between the limited, subjective view of one particular character versus the bird's eye view of the needs of the production as a whole - is fundamental to theatre, so of course Michael Frayn couldn't leave it out of his classic Noises Off.. It's funny and it's spot on, and a shortened version is under the cut.



(The cast, under the auspices of the director, Lloyd, are in the middle of the dress rehearsal for a catastrophically under-rehearsed farce).

FREDERICK: Lloyd, you know how stupid I am about moves. It’s just my usual dimness. But why do I take the things off into the study? Wouldn't it be more natural if I left them on?

LLOYD: No.

FREDERICK: I thought it might be somehow more logical.

LLOYD: No.

FREDERICK: Lloyd, I know it's a bit late in the day to go into all this…

LLOYD: Freddie, we've got several more minutes left before we open.

FREDERICK: Thank you, Lloyd. As long as we're not being pushed. But I've never understood why he carries an overnight bag and a box of groceries into the study to look at his mail.

GARRY: Because they have to be out of the way for my next scene!

FREDERICK: I see that.

BELINDA: And Freddie, my sweet, Selsdon needs them in the study for his scene.

FREDERICK: I see that…I just don't know why I take them

LLOYD: Freddie, love, why does anyone do anything? The wellsprings of human action are deep and cloudy. Maybe something happened to you as a very small child which made you frightened to let go of groceries,

BELINDA: Or it could be genetic.

LLOYD: It certainly could.

FREDERICK: Of course. Thank you. I understand all that. But…

LLOYD: Freddie, love, I'm telling you – I don't know. I don't think the author knows. I don't know why the author came into this industry in the first place. I don't now why any of us came into it.

FREDERICK: All the same, if you could just give me a reason I could keep in my mind.

LLOYD: All right, I'll give you a reason. You carry those groceries into the study, Freddie, honey, because it's just slightly after midnight, and we're not going to be finished before we open tomorrow night. Correction – before we open tonight. (Frederick nods, rebuked, and goes into the study.) And on we go. From after Freddie's exit, with the groceries.

BELINDA: (keeping her voice down) Lloyd, sweetheart, his wife left him this morning.

LLOYD: Oh. (Pause.) Freddie! (Enter Frederick, still wounded, from the study.) I think the point is that you've had a great fright when she mentions income tax and you feel very insecure and exposed and you want something familiar to hold on to.

FREDERICK: (With humble gratitude.) Thank you, Lloyd. (He clutches the groceries to his chest). That's most helpful.

The point underlying both my acting teacher's anecdote and Frayn's scene, though, is that Freddie is right. He does, as an actor, need to know why his character does what he does, otherwise he can't carry out that action convincingly. The audience will notice if he doesn't. They may not be able to articulate what's wrong, but they'll be aware, at some level, that the action is mechanical, meaningless, and they'll think to themselves that that actor, or maybe that whole production wasn't very good (Freddie clutching the groceries to his chest demonstrates that this little bit of insight is going to have a direct effect on how he performs that scene from now on). Lloyd has a point, too, of course. The groceries have to be taken off stage for a whole host of reasons unrelated to the psychology of Freddie's character. But in order for both needs to be met, the interior world of the character has to be made to match up with the external world of the plot and the text. You have to find a way of getting from A to B that both serves the production and makes psychological sense.

Writers are in the unenviable position of being both actors and directors. They have to shunt their characters around like chess pieces in order for the plot to work out, but they also have to make sure that the moves feel right for the characters. And quite often the two needs don't match up. That's when writers get stuck (or write badly). The solution is often Lloyd's – to answer the question "Why does A do this?" not with a generality ("Because that's what A is like, thanks to genetics/childhood upbringing/authorial fiat"), but with a concrete motivation, anchored in the immediate events of the plot.

If you can think of one...

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