Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Letter to Leonata

Dear Leonata,

Well we open Much Ado About Nothing this week and I can honestly say that to portray you I have never worked so hard, been so challenged or felt so terrified in my life. The last couple of months have been exhilarating, upsetting and exhausting. I am passionate about learning, so in the end, because I have learned so much I am so grateful for this whole experience, but I have to admit when I woke up this morning with a big knot of fear in my stomach I thought, “Can you please just go away?!”

As I have studied you, I have learned much about myself and for that I will always be grateful. I have learned that I did not know how to scream. In your big emotional monologues, I have to scream – and I was at a loss as to how to do that. It’s not that I’ve never raised my voice, but I came to the somewhat surprising realization that I did not know how to scream. I can now – I practiced!

When comparing myself to you, I learned that I apologize for myself – all the time – often on a daily basis. I use self-depreciating humor, I preface what I have to say with a tone of voice or words that excuse what I’m about to say. I even move apologetically. I’ve come to realize that I’ve done it all my adult life, probably beginning back in ninth grade, when I purposely set out to take my rather large personality and make it fit more acceptably into the society around me. You would think an apologetic person would have self-esteem problems and I’m sure some of mine is related to moments when I am feeling less than confident, but most of it stems from hiding. Deep down I have always felt as if I have great power and ability (a great gift I thank my parents for,) but I have often felt that my confidence and joy made others uncomfortable. I have also felt that as I pursued things outside my home, that I was open to criticism from others who did not understand or appreciate my choices – so I have hidden the larger parts of me and apologized them away. This has been a rather shocking self-realization and I am still processing what it means and how understanding this changes me, but one thing is certain: it does change me.

The last thing I learned is that I am very cut off from my body. I have developed my intellect, my character, my talents, but not my body and my emotions. I have a highly developed ability to control and process my emotions in acceptable ways, but not to feel them fully. I have always felt a barrier in my performing and my writing and I think this is it. Until I can experience and process emotion more fully, how can I portray them on paper or on the stage? Next semester I am taking Movement for Actors, which I suspect may end up being one of the most important classes I take at school. I really look forward to exploring this more.

So Leonata… you terrify me. You’ve made me look at myself in new and surprising and sometimes painful ways. You live life raw and real and I don’t always know how to deal with that, but you inspire me to push towards more authenticity in my life. I will not be the same for knowing you. My dearest wish this week is that I can breathe you in and give you life with all the passion and pain that is you – and when all is said and done that I take a piece of you home with me to stay.

Thank you for the journey,

Wendy opens as Leonata in Much Ado About Nothing at UVU on Dec. 3, 2009. Call 801 863-PLAY for tickets.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Laban - Discovering Character through Movement

We’ve been studying another interesting thing in Acting 2 that I think applies to the writing of characters. It’s Laban (pronounced LAH-bahn) – a way to identify different kinds of movement. It’s based on three pairs of opposites: Direct/Indirect, Sustained/Quick and Strong/Light. By pairing these elements in all their possible combinations we get: Press (DSS), Glide (DSL), Slash (DQS), Dab (DQL), Wring (ISS), Float (ISL), Punch (IQS), and Flick (IQL). We have spent time moving in all these ways and thinking about which ways we love moving like and which ways we hate moving like – what energy are we? It’s been very interesting.

I am Glide – at least that’s how I see myself, but I have Press in me as well. The opposite of Glide is Slash and that definitely is the one I hate the most. The energy I feel most connected to is Sustained. I can relate to all the movements that are sustained to one degree or another: Float, Glide, Press and Wring, although I find Press and Wring exhausting. I am quite uncomfortable with all the quick movements, especially the strong ones. This really plays out in my day to day movement and to how I move on stage. I can have some grace, especially if allowed to move slowly or smoothly, but I can be pretty awkward if I have to do anything fast. I have to slap someone in Much Ado About Nothing – while saying a line and turning around – I took me a ridiculous amount of time to get this down and I’m still working on it – it’s embarrassing, really.

I’m a pretty direct person as well, although I am not adverse to some indirect, as I enjoy float and I can be wring if distraught or overly tired. I think the indirect parts of me are my creativity and, when I can let down my direct guard, my spontaneity (but I have to consciously put it aside, spontaneity is not my primary inclination.) The hardest part for me to figure out was strong or light. I feel as if I’m both. I feel a great deal of inner strength, but I hardly show it at all outwardly. In thought and intellect, I think I’m strong and don’t have a lot of interest in light, fluffy subjects; but in temperament, although I can be feisty and passionate, I am pretty even tempered – pretty glide-like. So I’m a lot of Glide, with a determined Press when necessary. Does that make me passive-aggressive? Or bi-polar? Ha! I hope not – I’d rather say I’m multi-layered! I would think a well developed person could have positive aspects of many energies – they all have their purposes and strong points.

So how does that apply to the work of character? I think developing character through physical aspects is very intriguing. It adds whole new layers to who this person is, how they interact with the world and what they’re about. Since I’m obsessing about Leonata right now, this was the first place I applied it. I think she is definitely Press (that’s where I best connect with her – determination and absolute resolve.), but she’s also Wring and occasionally Slash (and that’s where I struggle most with her.) These energies help me further understand Leonata and trying to implement Press and Wring physically on stage will, I hope, help me look more outwardly powerful. As a writer I plan to explore these energies with all of my characters. I think Laban is a useful tool to help paint a more complete picture of character.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Turning Memory into Meaning

I also maintain a blog for a Sunday School class that I teach and we were discussing how to preserve family stories and history. Below is a post I wrote this week about some ways I have taken bits of memories and developed them into fuller stories:

Preserving memories from our own lives and from the lives of our families is important, but what if we want to pass on more than brief reminiscence? What if we want those who come after us to get a sense of who we are and what our lives stood for? What if we want to pass on meaning as well as memory?

This can be done if we look for elements of story structure in the pieces of memory and tease out a fuller narrative. Our bits and pieces can also be woven together in a pattern of theme. Our brains are hard-wired for story. We learn and connect through story. And all story has patterns. We recognize and are satisfied when we interact with a complete story. On a very basic level stories are about struggle. We are the protagonists in our own lives and we are always struggling against something: a playground bully, our boss, the society’s standards, ourselves. In a story, as in life, someone is breaking the norms or pushing against someone or something else. When we pass on personal stories, we often gloss over the struggle, but the struggle is where we learn. The triumphs will not mean as much if we do not understand the struggles.

If we triumph over something less noble, we have a drama. If we have a noble purpose, but are unbalanced or overzealous and crash and burn, we have a tragedy. If we are breaking some rules, getting into trouble, but learn our lesson and all turns out well, we often have a comedy. Even though our lives don’t come wrapped up in a perfectly formed story, all the elements are still there.

Also look for simple plot structure in the memory. What was the status quo before the story? What was an incident that changed all that and who or what caused it? What are the struggles that came from that change? Who won or triumphed at the end? Did we return to the same status quo or was the status quo altered permanently and what was learned? For example, I tell a story about how I was a wrestling champion at my 5th grade summer camp. It’s a pretty funny story all by itself, but by emphasizing the social norms that I broke by being a girl wrestler in the 70’s, and my conflicting feelings over facing a boy I liked in the championship and contrasting myself with the perfect popular girls, I can show an heightened sense of drama and triumph when I win in the end.

Grouping memories around a theme is also a great way to tell a story. When I wrote my dad’s life history, I broke it into three categories or chapters. The first was called Heartland. It was about his growing up years in the Teton Valley in Idaho. The second was called Wings. It was about his adventurous nature as a young adult into adulthood and the creative, unique parent he was. The image of the Wing’s title page is that of a parachuting firefighter, which he did one summer to earn money for college. The final chapter was called Refiner’s Fire. He was a chemist who grew crystals in large furnaces that seemed like volcanoes to me. This chapter talks about how he faced his oncoming death at 38. Here’s is the opening paragraph to Heartland, to give you an idea of how I used theme in my father’s history:

Everyone has a homeland. It’s where you were born and raised. Most people also have a heartland. A place that echoes with warm memories and stories you can call your own. Sometimes your homeland and your heartland are one and the same, but sometimes they are not. A heartland can be filled with the majestic beauty of nature or it can be a city apartment in a high-rise building, it could be a swing in a big oak tree in your Grandpa’s backyard or in the arms of someone you love best, and sometimes… it can be a whole valley.

The Teton Valley is not my homeland. I was born and raised in California, but my father was born there in 1934, in a little log cabin, just off Highway 33 in Tetonia Idaho. The Teton Valley is the place that calls to my heart and tells me that I am home. It’s the place I’ve come to just about every year of my life to swing out across the creek on my Grandpa’s farm. It’s the place I come to pick huckleberries with my cousin Jed. It’s the place I come to feel six pairs of loving arms around me as my six aunts still give me extra attention and love, trying to fill the space left empty when my dad died when I was eight years old. The Teton Valley is where my dad was first nurtured, where he started thrusting down his first tender roots of life. It’s a place that played a big part in what he would become.

Then I related all the stories of my dad growing up, complete with pictures. Then at the end of the chapter, I wrote:

The Teton Valley’s breathtaking beauty and immense harshness seeped into my dad’s blood. Years of hard work built sinew and gave him backbone. A sky and land wide enough to let an imagination soar formed his intellect. A devout, hard-working and loving family molded a steadfast and gentle heart. I’d like to think some of that valley DNA exists in my bones and beats in my heart, calling me home to my heartland… a little farm with a creek and a barn nestled at the base of the Tetons.

One more idea on meaning: The motivation for writing my dad’s history was that I realized that his own grandchildren did not know very much about their grandpa. So to connect them further to the stories and the project, I had each grandchild create a picture to illustrate one of the stories. It really worked. As we published the book, each child was excited to see their artwork!

The pictures don't have to be great works of art. Here are two samples. Above is a rattlesnake cooking in a pan - my dad killed one on a campout, and yes, we ate it! Below is my dad sliding down his barn roof in the wintertime on a shovel. I told you my dad was adventurous!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Understanding Emotion

Last week in Acting 2, a life coach came in and spoke to us about emotional response and how to apply what we learned to the characters that we just worked on in scenes. This information is very applicable to the process of writing characters as well. So, here's what I learned:

Emotions are our first language. When we are young we are very in tune with our emotions - how we feel is how we react - but as we grow up we cover up and disconnect from our emotions. Every feeling - both positive and negative - has great power for insight. If we are not paying attention to this process, we are missing valuable information about ourselves. The presenter highly recommended journaling to create better awareness.

My favorite thing she said was that there are laws that govern emotions. If we can master the laws, we can break them - opening the way to amazing things.

If you want to fly, the first thing you have to do is understand

One of these laws is that the emotional response that we see or feel on the surface is not the primary emotion. Take anger. Anger is a protective emotion. We are protecting ourselves in some way. If we dig deeper, we might find embarrassment, frustration and usually at the core are the primary emotions of fear and/or pain. We are fearful or hurt when a belief we hold is not being reinforced or is being threatened.

We all hold beliefs and every event of our lives are filtered through these beliefs. If the belief is a negative one, such as "I am unloveable," this belief can be rescripted. It is difficult work, but we can change our view of ourselves and the world to something more healthy by being aware of our emotional responses and figuring out their underlying beliefs.

We also have meta-emotions and this is what sets us apart from all other living things: Meta-emotions are how we feel about how we feel. This adds more layers of emotions as we start to judge ourselves and others usually accompanied by more emotional responses.

Being aware of our emotions helps us to be more emotionally responsible. An emotionally irresponsible person:

1. Blames others "You make me so mad!"

2. Projects their own feelings on others "Why are you so irritated?" (when in fact they are the ones that are irritated.)

3. Tranfers emotions they don't know how to handle onto others. (if they didn't get the love they wanted from their father, they would transfer that need and/or anger onto someone else.)

When dealing with emotionally irresponsible people it is important to set boundaries. Clearly and calmly state what is acceptable and know that what you do will speak louder than what you say. Follow through on your stated boundaries. Don't be someone else's emotional garbage recepticle.

So how does this apply to acting and/or writing characters? Well I started immediately applying it to Leonata. It was helpful for me to understand that Leonata is not an emotionally responsible person. Her emotions are definitely out of balance - which make her hard for me to portray. It was also helpful to understand that her anger - unbridled rage, really - is masking fear. She is a woman in a man's world - in the middle of a war - and the events happening in the story, put her and her household in a very precarious position. It's much more than just loosing social face and standing. Her grief in her second monologue is also covering up a lot of stuff. Fear is still there, but also guilt and shame perhaps at how she treated her own daughter and bewilderment at how her world - and many of her beliefs - have crumbled around her.

This presentation got me looking deeper at character and realizing more fully the many layers that make up a human being.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

In Leonata's Footsteps

In Leonata’s Footsteps

Some very interesting things happen when you change the male part of Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing to a woman. Some very interesting commentaries on women’s roles emerge. Below is a cutting of my favorite Leonata speech in the play. Here she is refusing to be comforted or counseled by her brother Antonio when her only child, Hero, has had her honor slandered.

I pray thee cease thy council,
Bring me a woman that so lov’d her child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelm’d like mine,
And bid her speak to me of patience.
If such a one will smile and pat her hair,
Bid sorrow wag, cry ‘hem’ when she should groan,
Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk
With candle-wasters – bring her yet to me,
And I of her will gather patience.
But there is no such woman, women
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.
No, no! Til women’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no woman’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when she shall endure
The like herself. Therefore give me no counsel.
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

I pray thee peace, I will be flesh and blood.

It’s basically saying that women are good at counseling forbearance when they are not feeling the grief, but not good at bearing up when they are the ones grieving. It speaks to the expectations of women to keep up appearances and to be patient in all things. I love, love, love the line: I pray thee peace, I will be flesh and blood.

I feel this is my journey in playing Leonata. She requires a good deal of passion – unbridled rage and grief – that I am having a hard time accessing. I was a very free and passionate child, but have spent my adulthood carefully schooling myself and being socialized into a disciplined, balanced and even person. I am a pleasant person, but am I flesh and blood?

I still want balance. I still want pleasant, caring, kind and any good thing that I have been able to develop within myself. And I don’t want to be unbridled – there lies the way to destruction, but I do want authenticity and passion – life giving passion.

It is a matter of looking hard at the layers of constructs surrounding me. Which ones are life giving and which are encrusted and hindering? The process of peeling away those layers can be confusing and painful, but I fear pain less than I do mediocrity. How can I offer anything to the world as a person, a writer, a performer, a friend if I – the good, the bad and the ugly – am not authentic?

I will be flesh and blood.