Saturday, March 29, 2008

Acting is Ecstasy

I used to be a stage actor years ago. For some reason I was thinking of a particular performance today, and I thought I'd blog about it.

The play was Angels in America by Tony Kushner. It's a pretty magnificent ensemble play about AIDS and the mysteries that lie at the base of American culture. The central character is Prior Walter, a gay man whose descent into sickness leads him to ecstatic, terrible visions and an unwelcome kind of prophethood. I played his lover Louis, who runs away from him when the sickness becomes too much to deal with.

I didn't care for the actor playing Prior Walter at all. He seemed too young. He wouldn't take the role seriously. I remember him in the dressing room on the night of the last performance, yakking on about whatever would annoy the rest of the cast. At one point, as he put a fake Kaposi's Sarcoma (an AIDS-related skin cancer) on his arm with purple magic marker, I nearly told him to shut up and let me concentrate. He was just one of those guys, and it was hard to play his lover.

We went out for a scene that takes place after my grandmother's death. We're talking across each other, every comment a barb or play for dominance. And I used that energy -- that 'shut up' energy -- letting it seep into the sadness about my dead grandmother. Before I knew what was happening, I was more caught up in the role than ever before.

And that night when Prior Walter pulled up his sleeve, I didn't see purple magic marker at all. I saw a horrific cancerous lesion. I don't know how to describe it. It was real. I burst into tears, and while we screamed at each other, we also looked into each other's eyes and started to cry together. The closest thing I could compare it to is descriptions of possession in voodoo rituals. Something just came over and took control of me -- the spirit of this character. There's a lot written about this. There's a lot written drawing parallels between voodoo and Greek drama.

Why am I telling you this? Because it's been too long talking about conceit and character misbehavior and all these other manipulable terms that make screenwriting seem more accessible. What we need to remember is that there's magic here: in writing as in acting.

Conflict in a script allows the actor to channel conflict from his life into the art. He turns structure into dramatic energy. Character misbehavior and goal bring conflict inside a character. They set up a dynamic which allows an actress to enter in and explore. Conflict allows the muse to descend.

There's something easier and purer about acting than writing for me. You simply practice and practice until the character knows where to go. Then you let the character take over. I still wish I had time to devote to the craft.

It's ecstasy to find a few words that invoke a spirit in the minds and hearts of a reader. If you've ever seen a character become real, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't yet, take a moment to remember what all the screenwriting 101 terms are really about. Writing, especially screenwriting, isn't about what happens on the page. It's a magical process that brings art to life (and vice versa). It's an ecstatic process, and so you need to dare yourself to feel some ecstasy every now and again.

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