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Collected Stories

by Donald Margulies

Reading Collected Stories reminded me of just how similar the different art mediums really are.. Many of the lines in the play that struck me, did so because they resonated with me as an actor. Even though the characters are talking about writing, if you substitute a few words you could easily have a play about singing, or dancing, or performance art. This reminds me that we are all striving for the same thing - truth, and meaning.

The basic plot is that Ruth, an established well-respected writer, is coaching a young grad student, Lisa, on her latest piece. They are in Ruth's home and Lisa is overwhelmed with nerves and excitement and insecurity. Ruth tries to instill in her the idea that no one can give you the answer - you have to find it for yourself. She says:
You're going to have to decide for yourself what is useful criticism and what is not. I'm not a doctor, you know, I don't dispense prescriptions: If you do such-and-such and such-and-such, your story will be perfect. It doesn't work that way.
This is true of all art. There is no "right" answer.. there is work that moves you, spiritually, emotionally, physically, what have you.. and work that does not. You have to be your own judge. Or as my lovely acting teacher says, "You are your own bullshit meter." Meaning only you know when you're bullshitting and when you're being truthful.

Ruth continues:
The good ones ask the right questions; that's the key. 
While there may not be right answers, there are questions that provoke us as actors, writers, fill-in-the-blank, to push us in a direction that inspires. A good teacher/mentor/director will know what questions to ask, or will be inspired by our work and questions will arise. On that same note, ideally questions arise for us, the artist, as well. Something will linger in the back of our minds until it infuses itself in the work.

In answering a question about what she's working on next, Lisa begins to tell the basic story she's writing. Ruth interrupts her:
Don't tell me about it, write it, I don't want to hear it. Telling takes away the need to write it. It relieves the pressure. And once that tension dissipates, so does the need to relieve it. First write it, then we'll talk about it.
This makes me think of the work of the actor. Since we as humans are constantly evolving, the things that move us or upset us or anger us are also changing. Therefore, something that provokes me to sorrow one day may not be as potent the next. The pressure may have been relieved. It's no longer working. So, I have to adapt my meanings within the work so that they elicit the response that is desired every time.

I can't help but think that as Margulies was writing this play he was winking at the audience in much the way Shakespeare does in Hamlet's "Speak the speech.." .. is this not a clue to actors and other playwrights:
We must never be arbitrary. There is so much goddamn arbitrariness in the world, we mustn't let it seep into our stories. We mustn't devalue our stories with flippancy. That would be the death of us all.
Subtle, right? I love it. :) I leave you with my favorite line in the play, as food for thought.
But the fact remains you still have to do the work and you still have to put up with assholes. Only now doing the work will be harder, and the assholes you'll have to put up with'll be of a slightly higher-echelon of assholes. And, that, as far as I can tell, is the definition of success.
Wednesday Play-a-day: Hysteria by Terry Johnson

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