There’s joy in learning how to cry

Tuesday night at Meisner 4 we each read our Spoon River piece out loud, then put our copy away and said it again in our own words.

I’d read it at least one hundred times over the week and had very little reaction to it. Just words on a page, words in my head.

By the time I finished saying it in my own words I was trembling and on edge. (half ready to cry, half afraid/wanting to hide) By the time one of my classmates had finished her piece  More

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Bryan Cranston on Auditioning

 

The video below struck a cord with me because it answers something that been bothering me over the last few months. I’ve done more auditions since January than I have the entire rest of my life put together (not that it’s a lot by acting standards). This has brought to the forefront an issue I’d noticed before but when auditions are months apart it’s easier to shove the thought away and forget about it than when you have one a week for several weeks in a row.

My issue is exactly what Brian deals with- the attitude to have about an audition. I have two defaults that I swing between, forcing myself into one or the other.

  1. I don’t care if I get in, this audition doesn’t matter. It’s just practice.
  2. I want this role/job/etc SO BAD and I have to convince them to give it to me.

More

Recap: FAILED

My quest to write 1,000,000 words in a year is over.

I’ve not updated my blog in two weeks because I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but today I finally faced the facts. I am too far behind.

The pace I was writing in Nov was doable, and had I done that from the start I would have easily made it. However, the first three or four months I consistently did not make weekly goals. Part of it was the fact that it didn’t feel real, part of it was the very difficult transition to writing a significant amount every day. It was a hard adjustment.

Now, however, as much as I am screaming at myself to not give up, I can’t do it. To hit my goal at this point I’d have to write about 4,800 words a day. Every day. Until mid-March. On top of a full time job, a (hopefully) part time job, class, and life. While I think that’s a reasonable word count for a professional writer it is not for me if I’m working 40-60 hours a week. Especially with no break days.

This experiment, failed as it is, has taught me so much about writing and, more specifically, myself as a writer.

  • I do better with multiple projects at once, that I can switch between.
  • My productivity is uneven. I get more words done in four days of writing with three off than I do if I write every day.
  • Journaling/morning pages are exempt from that rule, and something I need to do every day. For my mental health if no other reason.
  • I am capable of turning out large numbers of words in a day, that the hurtles are mental only. That 1,100-1,300 words in 30 minutes is a reasonable goal, and that I can do that about 4-6 times in a row before there is a noticeable slump in my speed. That there’s no point going on after that, it’s best to leave and come back in a few hours. Do another 4-6 sets then.
  • I work better out in a coffee shop or even a fast food joint than I do at home. I do NOT work well on planes/buses/etc.
  • Music is useful for focusing, but if it’s Top 40 stuff I’ll end up singing along instead of writing. Best bet is either film scores or heavy rock.
  • I write fiction best in the late morning, afternoon, or evening. Early to mid-mornings and late nights are better for non-fiction.
  • Reading before I write is hit or miss. It might inspire me, but it also might depress me with the difference in quality. Votes still out on that one. However, reading the same short piece (one by Anne Lamott) about writing before each session is grounding and puts me in the mood to write.
  • My writing style is a reflection of what drove me to embrace improv. I enjoy chasing the unknown. More experiments with plotting have left me just as frustrated as before. I want to chase the story. Maybe I have an end scene in mind, or at least a theme, but the actual events are best found in the moment.
  • I enjoy both writing and editing. I’ve found that most people claim it’s only possible to like one of them but I truly look forward to both. I love creating stories, and I love tightening what I’ve written. I do find editing to be more overwhelming and thus more difficult to work on for long lengths of time.

So the project has been very useful. I may try it again one day. Maybe. But for now it is over. I will keep posting my word counts every week, just not against where I should be. Both for the accountability and for the knowledge of the ground I am covering. I want to keep tracking my word counts, I just know they aren’t going to hit 1,000,000 this year.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me, and hopefully big things will be coming soon! I am going to be putting more time into editing my novel Raising Trouble, since I won’t feel guilty for not using that time to work on my goal. And I’m going to finish my current novel, Avon, pretty soon. Also, I’m getting back into fan fiction as a way to get some feedback and do some shorter pieces. When I get something new up I’ll put a link on here.

Lots of changes, and yet my focus is the same. Writing, acting, creating. Failing forward. Which this failure has been.

Unexpected Rewards

Yesterday was one of those days where I forced myself to go to the drop-in class at iO even though all I wanted to do was sleep. I was rewarded with an experience I’ve never had on stage before.

Several of the students wanted to work on acting/realism so that was our focus. I had this moment where I was squared off with a guy and we were just looking at each other, trying to let whatever was already there bubble up and build something from the natural feelings without judging them or trying to categorize them.

So anyway, we are doing that and Lyndsay was giving us a lot of side-coaching. Telling my partner to breath and to quit fidgeting, that he was defusing all the energy that needed to come out as an emotion through moving around. The same note she gave me several times when I had her during the intensive. So I took it as a note for me as well and doubled-down. Forced myself to stand perfectly still. Both feet flat on the floor, both hands flat on the sides of my legs, no swaying or nodding or chewing on my lip or anything else that would let me move around.

It was freakin’ hard! But I had the chance to work on it because she was talking to him. So I kept staring, and kept forcing myself to be perfectly still. As we finally started talking I wanted to move. Very much. Then I opened my mouth to say something and the urge to move was so intense I felt like I simply couldn’t hold still another second. So I blurted out something instead.

I just opened my mouth and words came out that I didn’t expect, that I would never have said because they didn’t make any sense. But it was that or move and I’d already decided I was NOT going to move. I couldn’t say what I’d planned, to further the story, because that would have meant moving. I think Lyndsay would say that it was because what I planned to say wasn’t honest to the scene, so I wanted to shift around to defuse that dishonesty. Like a little kid.

He blinked. I think I surprised him too. But as soon as I said the unexpected words I felt this rush of energy sweep through me. In that moment, when I chose to not let it out any other way, the reward was stunning. I’ve never like that on stage. The rush lasted the rest of the scene. I was buzzy, electric, with energy. I felt dizzy with it. I kept going with what we’d already started, I didn’t have to think about my answers. I felt like I had control, in a good way. Like, even if he had flipped and done something unexpected I could have held onto my own stuff. Something I tend to not do.

I’m not sure where the balance is in this. I can’t simply stare down everyone on stage without moving. And I tend to come off as nervous quite often, that’s where my energy seems to come from. So I need to figure out how to get that sense of power even when I’m moving or gesturing.

How did this happen?

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Last night I sat down and wrote up an “outline” for a story. I put outline in quotes because I don’t typically plot books ahead of time so compared to the average book outline this one is sorely lacking. It’s just over one legal pad in length and it hit all the main ideas I have for the story. I wanted to jot down the high points before I forgot them, I wasn’t trying to create a plot.

This morning I was looking at it and noticed something. I grabbed a pen and five minutes later I was staring at the page in shock. I’d written a perfect story arc. Without trying.

Let me explain. When I divided what I’d written into sections (chunks of story, building blocks) I noticed each paragraph was a section. I don’t have two sections in one paragraph, or a section that stretches over two paragraphs. All total, seven of them. Then I labeled each one by what was happening- by the role that section would play in the story. Look at the labels I ended up with:

  1. Opening/Hook
  2. Inciting incident/end act 1
  3. And then
  4. And then
  5. Until finally/end act 2
  6. Act 3/ triumph
  7. Wrap-up/happily ever after

Upon further inspection I found that Act 1 has a positive ending, Act 2 has a negative ending, and Act 3 has a positive ending, which is much higher than the positive end to Act 1. Which is also textbook (by which I mean Story, by McGee).

Somehow, somewhere, without me noticing, structure has slipped into my brain!

Mind Blown

There is a student in the Funny Bones intro class who is extremely nervous. This person is hysterically funny but can’t see it, and is always wanting to just watch because they “can’t do it” or will “mess it up”. I was trying to encourage them to play the other night and said something like, “You can’t mess it up. No matter what happens we’ll make it work. We’ll take care of you.”

Brain explosion.

 

That is basically the exact thing every improv teacher I’ve ever had has said to me at some point.

  • Relax
  • It’s fine
  • You’re fine
  • It’ll work out
  • Your class has your back

I never believed them any more than this person believed me last night. This person sat to the side and held themselves tightly and gave me scared rabbit eyes. Which made me feel a little sad for them.

Is this the way my teachers have felt about me when I’ve been freaking out?

I have this frame of reference now where I can see all the stuff they’re worried about and I can see how it’s not actually a big deal. I know that, yeah, OK, sometimes it’s going to be rough. Maybe really rough. This will probably not be the best improv ever done. But it will be fine, and sometimes brilliant. It’s going to be OK, but they can’t see that because of being right in the middle of it and being terrified half to death.

So, like I said, mind blown. I’ve only been doing this for two years but I can see from here that the things this person, five or so weeks in, is worried about are not things to be worried about. If they would relax it would be a lot more fun for them, and it would lead to better scenes.

Hello? Anna, are you listening? How is it that I never put that together until now? I’ve never felt like it was true, it always seemed to me that when teachers or experienced players would say “You’re doing fine, it’s good” it was overly optimistic, or just plain patronizing. No, it’s not. I can clearly tell that it’s crap.

Now I’m seeing it from the other side. When I say, “You’re fine” I don’t mean the improv being done is the best it’ll ever be, or the best ever in history. It’s just, it really is fine. They’re right where they should be, and none of us are thinking they’re behind or whatever, even though they do.

As soon as I said those words I had to stop and think about it. Hit me that hard, right between my improv eyes. Perspective is amazing. I want to take this revelation with me, somehow. But I don’t know how to remember that in the moment. How can I hold onto this knowledge that right now feels so intense and useful?

Juggling my improv balls

Last night at my musical improv class I was part of a scene that worked. I mean, it was funny and it held together and it was fun for everyone (me, partner, audience). It was one of those rare moments where everything falls together and it just is. It’s a great feeling. I think one of the reasons I’ve stuck with improv is that it can happen anytime at all, no warning, and yet there’s no way to make it happen. It’s always a gift.

In the past when I’ve had those moments, times that I’ve realized I actually just did decent work and it all came together and it was fun, there has been a feeling that I wasn’t making choices or thinking. I was just doing and it was right. And that’s remarkable and wonderful and intoxicating.

Last night, however, was different. My mind was moving fast. There was no sense of being out of control or of just going with it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was making choices and thinking out options. “Oh, I need to match his character right now. A peg leg suits this scene. He’s just shown that’s dusty, I should sneeze. Dropping a coin down the hole will be funny but not distract from what he is saying.” On and on like that.

For me improv has always been one of two things. Sometimes, 95% of the time, my mind is spinning with all the things I need to do and tensing up in panic. Trying to keep all the improv balls in the air, trying to remember all the things I’m supposed to be doing to make this thing work, and knowing that I’m dropping things because I can’t keep watch on all of them at once.

About 4.95% of the time it is me deciding to ignore all those things and “be in the moment”, which tends to go even worse and leads to me ignoring my partners and being utterly boring and not making any choices. About .05% of the time are those rare scenes I mentioned before, where I’m actually in the moment and it all comes together without thought.

Having my mind going 90 to nothing and yet not being consumed by the thoughts was a weird experience. It’s hard to put into words. There was no self-consciousness, no sense of judging what I, or he, had done, and yet a complete awareness of it. There was no franticness to the scene, but it didn’t drag either. I felt like my mind was in two parts and one part was feeding ideas and choices to the other part, which did them.

I just realized as I was writing those words- this is the first time I’ve felt like I was juggling all the balls. Not all the improv balls there are, goodness. But all the ones I gave myself. I’ve been doing improv for 21 months now and I’ve been frustrated because I’ve yet to have that “ah ha” moment that comes along when you are learning a new skill and you suddenly realize you are doing it instead of thinking about doing it. I had that last night. For the first time I was holding onto a character (voice and posture both) and doing space work and adding to the scene and listening to my partner- and I was doing it all by making active choices yet not realizing in the moment that I was making them.

Dang.

Aside

Are you inside-out or outside-in?

There are two basic ways of building a character with emotion in improv-

1) Inside-Out

Choose an emotion to feel as you enter the scene. Allow that emotion to influence what you do. Example- I choose angry, and let myself feel angry. That leads to walking stiffly, breathing heavy, and knocking over a chair to make a point.

2) Outside-In

Chose a posture to hold as you enter a scene. Allow that posture to influence how you feel. Example- I choose to walk stiffly and breath heavy, knocking over a chair as I enter. That leads to me to knowing that I feel angry.

Both work. I’d say that great improvisers use both, but everyone has one that works better for them. I didn’t understand the second method when I heard about it and so the only method I thought I tried was inside-out. I did outside-in exercises in a class I took but I didn’t understand that you could use that to make a character, I thought it was just to practice showing the emotion you had already decided on.

Then I took a physicality workshop in December and he talked a lot about the second method, of doing things and seeing where that leads. He then had us do an exercise I’d done several times before, leading with different parts of the body.

Eureka!

For the first time I understood the point of the exercise; as I shifted from leading with my head to my hands, or even from my eyes to my chin, I could feel the character change, and also the feeling behind that character. More though, for the first time I understood that you could use that in a scene. I didn’t have to try to feel sad, I could just look sad and do what a sad person would do. Then I’d be sad.

I am definitely an outside-in sort of person.

 

Finding the game

I was watching Leno last week and he had Dana Carvey on the show. I was bored and tuning most of it out, Carvey was making a lot of political jokes that weren’t very funny and I was about to change the channel when something caught my eye.

They were playing a game. Not a traditional game, no chess pieces or cards. No, they were playing a game called “I’m going to do impersonations and you are going to pretend to try and cut me off and I’m going to walk over you but you don’t really mind”. And they played it beautifully. I never would have noticed that in the past. I would have thought Carvey was just being a jerk or whatever. But the body language between the two of them didn’t look like they were arguing, it looked like a tennis match. Leno would wait to the right moment to cut him off, Carvey would wait until Leno said just enough to be funny before starting again.

In improv one of the 1,000 things you are supposed to do simultaneously in the first 10 seconds is to “find the game”. I’m terrible at it. Apparently I set-up games and then don’t follow through on them, or I ignore games that other players offer me, I just don’t see them. I didn’t get what a game was, despite having been told, and shown, over and over and over. I catch on to some things sooooo slowly. But once I had my revelation during Leno I started looking for them on other shows and finding them all over the place. Finally it clicked!

Sitcoms are where I’m having the most success spotting them but they should be in dramas too. Every good scene should have one. I saw less than one minute of a muted Andy Griffith Show episode and still found the game between him and Barney, it was completely physical. Barney was playing the “for every three feet you get me to walk I’m going to step back a foot and turn, shaking my head” game. It was just that measured once I was looking for it and didn’t any dialogue to distract me. And then the example above was from an interview. I don’t know how often they come up in situations like that, I suspect it’s most likely when he’s interviewing a comedian or actor, less so if it’s a political figure or an athlete. Someone who, like me, would complete miss the offer.

Now I’m looking forward to my next practice, see if I do better at this. Even if I’m still too distracted by everything else going on to play the game I at least understand what I’m looking for now!

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