Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Advice to a Theatre Major About to Graduate from College (Part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote a post to a "nervous" theatre major preparing to graduate who was wondering about the next step in her life. Judging from the amount of traffic it generated, I decided there probably ought to be a follow-up. Well, apparently "Nervous" did some thinking last night, and sent me the following response to my question about her "why," the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. Here is what she wrote:

Because I don’t understand the world any other way.
I wish I could say that I was doing this for someone else. Some day, I may very well be. But I think I can’t try to do anything for anyone else until I understand it myself. The reason I say this, I think, is because I grew up with a lot of ideas that were taught to me and that I now believe were not only untrue, but also harmful to me. They were not taught to me with the intention of hurting me- my folks just didn’t see past what they were brought up to believe. At this point, saying something like “I want to change the way people see the world” would sound really awesome, but it wouldn’t be true. Because I don’t know how I see the world yet. Theatre is the only way I know to throw what I think I know and believe out there- to bounce it off someone else's life, their perspective, their beliefs- and get an immediate response. In a scene, it's not about getting it right- it's about making that connection, saying "this is what I think, okay?"- and having that person say, "Yeah! Totally! Keep going" or "Fuck you- try again." You're playing pretend, yes- but that connection, that effort, that hope and potential for honest-to-blog communication is real, dammit. Maybe I could say that I hope people find a curiosity for their worlds, too, but for the time being, I want theatre, want to watch theatre, want to do theatre, because it helps me understand a world that’s too big for me.
That's my why. Right now.


Dear Nervous -- At the risk of sounding like Stanislavski's Torstov in An Actor Prepares, or for that matter your biggest pain-in-the-neck acting teacher, I'm going to say "Nice start, but you need to do some more work!" Here's why.

First of all, I have a feeling that the question you asked yourself was "why do I do theatre?" That's not the question. Theatre is your "what," perhaps, but your "why" needs to be broader. Your "why" is about you as a human being. And it needs to be broad, but not too broad, which brings us to the next point.

Believe it or not, we're all trying to "understand a world that's too big for us." I know, I know, we all walk around giving the impression that we have it all figured out, especially if you're as old as I am, but the fact is we don't, which is why we have books, TV shows, movies, religions, families, marriages, volunteer organizations, sporting events -- well, it is why we have life. Each one of us gets up each morning and tries to figure the world out by experiencing another day. So maybe that's our "meta-why" (oh, God, I can't believe I just wrote that). Here is why it isn't your "why" (in my opinion).

It's too big. It doesn't reflect your special core, your quest, your "true north."

Bear with me for a second. As you know, I co-wrote a play analysis book with Cal Pritner called Introduction to Play Analysis, and in our chapter on conflict analysis we describe what we call the "Major Dramatic Question." The MD? is written in terms of the protagonist, and is the question the audience wants answered by the end of the play. It takes the form of a question: "Will the Protagonist _______________?" So: "Will Hamlet justly avenge his father's murder?" "Will Amanda find Laura a husband?" It's about plot, about action. The MD?, when turned around, becomes the Protagonist's objective for the play: "Hamlet wants to justly avenge his father's death." "Amanda wants to find Laura a husband." If a student turned in an analysis that said the MD? of Hamlet was "Will Hamlet understand the world better," or "Will Amanda find a way to be happy," I'd send them back to the drawing board, because even though those might be broad human goals, they don't lead to specific action. The purpose of a MD?, an objective, a "why" is to rule out certain choices and include others. Hamlet could understand the world better if he went back to Wittenberg and studied more, and he might be happy if he married Ophelia and had a nice house in a Danish suburb. But that's not what he's there to do. That's not his "why."

Of course, life isn't a play, but it is about plot, about action. You're trying to figure out what to do next.

Also, beware of this phrase: "Theatre is the only way I know..." To put it bluntly, theatre isn't the only way to do anything. If that's the only way you know how to do something, then you need to use your imagination a bit more, because there are lots of ways to accomplish a "why." So you say " Theatre is the only way I know to throw what I think I know and believe out there- to bounce it off someone else's life, their perspective, their beliefs- and get an immediate response." Really? What about more direct, less mediated ways like, say, having a conversation or writing an email or giving a speech on a street corner? Wouldn't those options also involve saying what you believe and getting an immediate response? Wouldn't it be more direct to become a minister or a politician rather than an actor? And are you really saying that, as an actress, you will always be speaking about what you think you know and believe? When you do that industrial, or TV commercial, or get that gig in Jersey Boys, will you be speaking your truths? Or will you, instead, be providing the mouthpiece to speak somebody else's truths?

Finding your "why" is hard, hard work, and by now I suspect you've had enough of my criticizing. Maybe a few examples would help. If your why is: "I want to become a famous actor known the world over," then that leads in certain directions and not in others. If that was your why, and you came to me asking about your next step, then I'd probably say "head to Los Angeles." On the other hand, it wouldn't make any sense at all for me to say, "Head to Amery WI and do shows at the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts," because you're not going to find international fame by acting there. On the other hand, if your "why" is "I want to use acting as a way of speaking my own particular truths and getting a direct response," then Amery night be just the ticket -- maybe you'd create shows that explore your own philosophical explorations like, say, Richard Foreman does. A good why leaves some things out.

And I'd also say it might be good to ask "why" a couple times in a row as a way of digging down more deeply. "I want to become a famous actor known the world over." Why? "Because I want to affect a lot of people." Why? "Because I think I'd like to make the world a better place." Why? "Because there isn't enough empathy in the world." OH! So your "why" might be "I want to teach people how to empathize."

Realizing this also allows you to find appropriate day jobs that will feed your soul rather than kill it. If I want to "teach people how to empathize," then my day job might be doing diversity training for corporations, or running a day care for at-risk children, or working for a suicide hotline, or... But if the only way you can imagine accomplishing your "why" is through the theatre, then you are going to be very unhappy whenever you're doing something else, and the reality is that that is going to be most of the time, even if you are successful.

So pour yourself another glass of wine and look inside a bit more. Find your true core, your "why" as a human being, not as a theatre person.

Then you take the next step: finding your how.


Kamella Tate said...

It may be that Nervous is trying to articulate what are, for her, very compelling/propelling existential or phenomenological pressures that underlie her desire. We're older and crankier, and have learned that action and pragmatism are the only "doable" parts of artmaking. The connectedness Nervous longs for is a welcome yet elusive by-product of simply getting up and trying to do a good job of work every day. Regardless of the "felt" satisfactions.

Scott Walters said...

She is a very smart, talented young woman. I'm not much for pragmatism, which usually means "doing things the way they've always been done before." I think you need to understand what it is that really gets you out of bed in the morning (your why), so that you can commit yourself to that full time. I don't think it is much use to commit to a what (e.g., theatre) without a "why" to support it.

Kamella Tate said...

For me, it's the deliberate daily practice that generates the why and helps me understand how the why changes. That's the pragmatism I'm speaking of -- the craft, the doing. Get up, do, the why will follow. The tough part, well one of the tough parts, is maintaining that discipline when a "why" that animated the work for years grows thin or even disappears.

The Waltzing Belgian said...

The problem with using the analogy of the Major Dramatic Question is that the question "Will Hamlet--?" isn't answered from within, it's answered mostly based on clues from the play, from the plot, which guide it in a certain direction. This may be a good way for Nervous to concentrate her efforts: by looking at specific instances from her own past, problems she has solved, ways that she has dealt with things. Simply "soul searching" makes a great bumper-sticker, but it can lead to some radical wish-fulfillment dead-ends. If led unchecked, it could provide answers like "Hamlet really wants to explore the universe". It isn't enough to simply look within, a big part of it consists of looking back and possibly even of talking to other people as a mirror for looking at yourself.

Dustin said...

I'm also getting ready to make that transition from the comforts of my tiny liberal arts college to, as you put it, the BBW, and I can relate to everything Nervous is feeling right now, hell, I could be Nervous.

When working in a market as erratic as theatre, what's the next move? Finding my "why" for getting out of bed, until now, has always been my ambition for learning, but now I'm getting booted from this environment. And if you were to ask what my "Why is?" last week, I would have give you a similar answer. Which means my "why" was in need of a reevaluation.

So last night I took your advice, substituting the wine for beer, and I cam to the conclusion that I believe everyone has a voice/story and they need to be heard, and I want to make sure that happens.

Thank you scott for helping me take the leap into finding what really gets me out of bed in the morning.

Scott Walters said...

Dustin -- That's a great first step. The next one is "how," and I'll try to write about that pretty soon. But notice that helping people to tell their stories can be done in a lot of different ways, which is GOOD! Look around for the different places where you could do that work.

swati said...

I'm from the other side of the world. I'm from India. I just finished my first year (B.A in Performing Arts), and I can still relate to Nervous. Although I have 2 more years to go, I can't help but think of what is going to happen once I'm out of college!
This blog is in some way comforting. Thanks.