Sunday, April 25, 2004

Living the Fictional Life

I've interviewed dozens of actors, writers, producers and other creative people over the years, mostly in connection with Doctor Who and Quantum Leap and, decades ago, Star Trek. Celebrity tends to accrue more to on-camera types than behind-the-scenes people, so it's the actors who turn up most at conventions and golf tournaments. The writers are more easily found in production offices or at home, and there are fewer opportunities to meet them unless they're named John Vornholt or Ed Bryant or David Gerrold. Consequently, most of my interviewees are actors. That's fine with me.

When I talk to an actor, the question I'm always driving at, usually without arriving, is this: what happens in the actor's mind at the moment of performance? When I do ask the question, I get a variety of answers.

Some actors claim that it's simply a matter of hitting their marks, saying their lines and not bumping into the scenery. But is that truly all they're doing? Is it as calculated and external as that, just a matter of saying the lines convincingly, without ever feeling them?

The next level goes along with the cliche, "once more with feeling." In this scenario, the actor uses his or her own feelings and experiences to inform the performance. It's a relational thing. The actor has not been through quite what the character is going through. The character is upset about the death of a sister, but the actor isn't upset about the character's sister. The actor remembers the death of a dog,or a mother, or a friend in high school. It's enough to put real feeling into the lines about the death of the sister, but they're not the character's feelings.

One level deeper, and one gets to "being out of your head," as Richard Herd puts it. This is the level of controlled madness, or, perhaps, loss of control. This is the edge of, I suppose, the Method, but I've never read An Actor Prepares, only a short story by Harlan Ellison ("All the Sounds of Fear," I think it's called). The actor actually slips into the personality of the character, and maybe, in some fashion, experiences what the character experiences, lives bits the character's fictional life.

I'm not sure whether that really happens, or whether it''s just another way an actor chooses to look at the process. It may be that the line-sayer and the method actor are doing pretty much the same thing, but perceive it differently. It could also be that the idea of an actor becoming the character, however temporarily and vicariously, is just my flawed interpretation of what Scott Bakula and Richard Herd and others have said.

I'm not an actor. I took an acting class at the age of five or six, and appeared on stage in Syracuse in1965 in one of my mom's musical revues. In school I played a skunk, was a narrator several times, and beat Dan Cheney as "Bobby Fischer" in a sketch that marked my last stage appearance ever. I have no feeling for acting, no drive for it. The closest I get to acting is when, like today, I get to read a passage to the congregation in church, especially if there's dialogue in it, or read a passage from my novels aloud to a friend.

What I am, aside from a bookkeeper and student and wife and all the other things I am, is a writer. My creative process that isn't the same as what an actor does, but in away it's similar. Like the actor who has an inkling of what it's like to be an alien or a member of the opposite sex or Lee Harvey Oswald by virtue of playing and embodying that role, I have an inkling how a tengrem thinks because I've written from a tengrem's point of view. It doesn't matter that there's no such thing as a tengrem. It doesn't matter that Rani and Del and Crel and Fayubi aren't real. It doesn't matter that Scott Bakula and Willie Garson probably don't really know what it was like to be Lee Harvey Oswald,and that nobody really knows what it's like to have two hearts and twelve regenerations. It's still an important and valuable thing,bringing these people to life, on stage or page, big screen or small.Knowing how Crel feels about power, how Fayubi feels about playing the fool, and even how Rani feels about rabbits, gives me a chance to experience and feel and, most of all, think about concepts and principles and emotions that I'd never come across while balancing credit card accounts against vendor payables--at least, not unless my mind is seriously wandering at that moment!

There's one more level, one more step in the process. That's when the reader or viewer reads the book or watches the performance. If the creative people have done their jobs well, the reader or audience will also have some inkling what it's like to serve on a starship, be shot in Philadelphia, escape from Castrovalva, or catch a rabbit and eat it raw. Whether the experience itself is a good or a bad one, the consumer of the entertainment will enjoy it, be shocked or inspired by it, learn from it, or all of the above. Some of those consumers will then create or embody fictional people of their own, and pass those real emotions and unreal experiences to further audiences.

Neat, huh?


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