10 October 2012

In League with Liars: Storytelling and the Actor

Photo by Andrew Lloyd-Jones.
Last Wednesday, I was a bad husband and father. Well, maybe not a bad husband and father, but an absentee one. But only for a few hours. But it was in the evening. But it was for a cultural event. But it was at a bar. With a bunch of professed liars. And it was my daughter's nine-week birthday.

I am the lowest of the low, and have done little-to-nothing to earn the understanding of my wife.

The Liar's League is a very cool organization that specializes in public readings of short fiction. Their motto: "Writers write. Actors read. Audience listens. Everyone wins." It is, in my opinion, the perfect venue for someone of my stripe - thirty-something, recent father, pragmatic (somewhat) actor who nonetheless occasionally needs to stretch his performing legs. This, too, is how I justify my flagrant negligence of wife and child. The household's psyche is better off for my occasional jaunt back to the boards. Plus: the venue is relaxed, the work of high quality, and the time commitment is very reasonable.

I was introduced to the Liars by Friend Natalia Zubko back in July, mere weeks before Daughter J. would enter the world. Natalia was prescient enough to realize the perfection of the League's match with my new time and mental-space restraints, and when we attended their Public & Private themed reading she took it upon herself to introduce me to the organizers. We enjoyed the evening, and an interesting discussion began about finding the balance - as a performer - between presentation and representation. Or: telling the story versus embodying the moments.

This is a classic conundrum for an actor, in large part because it has so much to do with that horrid convention of casting - the audition monologue. Most audition pieces list toward storytelling, having as they generally ought a beginning, middle and end. Conversely, the point of an audition piece is not actually to tell an effective story (though that can only help) but rather to demonstrate an active, intentioned character who is experiencing things in the present. It is most important that the actor know who they're supposedly talking to - their invisible scene partner - and that said actor is trying clearly and convincingly to persuade their opposite of something. The story if there is one is actually what's happening in the room, not the narration it may involve.

I've a long-held fondness for actual storytelling. That and stand-up comedy were my first real performance opportunities as a kid. Along with reveling in what John Ritter could do with a long phone cord, I spent many an early-eightes Saturday morning watching this one storytelling series on UHF channel 50 (the name of which is long-lost to the annals [ew] of my gray matter). Just a guy with that distinctly awful grooming of the time talking to some kids in a carpeted "activity room," with the occasional prop or puppet. I ate it up, and continue to admire people who are adept at unwinding a good story at cocktail parties and the like.

Fortunately for me I had good, written material on Wednesday last. Don DeLillo, by C.D. Rose, is a slightly abstracted, but generally straight-forward story of a romantic couple who may - or may not - fall apart over certain personal failings; not the least of which might be the fellow's intellectual insecurity. I love the story and the writing, and felt like I could uniquely identify with its narrator in a way that would help the performance. (One of my favorite little things about of the approach of the League is that when they emailed me to ask if I was interested, they attached the story; it should not be as rare as it is to be offered the opportunity to survey the material when someone is asking something of you as a performer.) But here I was, presented in fact with the formerly hypothetical problem I discussed so idly with Natalia months before. To embody, or not to embody?

The answer is of course: To embody. Everyone wants some in-the-moment transportation, even from a cocktail anecdote. If only it were an on/off gradation, however. The difficulty is in choosing the right timing and intensity for capturing the moment. It's a balancing act. Keep both eyes straight ahead. That way, at least if you fall you might be aware of it for a few seconds fewer than you otherwise would.

I'll save some suspense and report - and this is after a week's time, feedback and listening to my own recording on the League's podcast (possibly several times [possibly not solely for critique purposes {how's this for allaying suspense?}]) - that I believe I did OK-fine. I'd say I was in the neighborhood of 75% on-target. That's safe, I'd say. I'm saying. I said.

It's tricky. It takes precision, and it's a precision that can't even be complete after months of rehearsal, because the final information comes from the audience and how they're responding to particular moments. This can be said of acting in any live respect, but the consideration takes on such a unique dimension when it's a little more layered as it is with storytelling, involving a kind of meta-balance of story and moment. As an actor in a play, you generally have this rule to guide you: Believe in it, no matter what, and live there. As a storyteller, you're something of an actor/director, steering as much as riding, based on the charts you sketched out in your rehearsal. And you can get lost.

I got a little lost, I must admit. It was disorienting; a new medium. I never lost my place in the words, but there were certainly moments in which I thought well I'm not sure where we are just now I think this moment needs a little examination no? no we have to keep going? all right then we're going and I guess hey when did I last inhale...?  My tendency, and it shouldn't have surprised me (but it did), was to revert to being the actor, feeling the moment. If anything, I over-did on that side. Somewhat. My priority was to serve the writing, which kept me from going overboard outright, but my tendency was to be an actor. Interesting conflict, that.

Also interesting, coming from my experience, was just how effective it was to detach from the material at the right moments. Perhaps it was the audience, who were made up severally of writers, but there were several times when I reported something written and the words did the work better than I could have with any special interpretation. And - in spite of what Mamet may posit - this is not the general rule.

Also fun was the audience interaction. In this milieu there's a blend between what an actor does, and what a stand-up or orator can do. Even before I learned about the commedia dell'arté, I was obsessed with effective moments of breaking the fourth wall, and at one particular moment toward the beginning of my tale I got to do that with a facial expression in response to an audience member's applause. It was a moment in which none of us could be sure I was in character. My reaction was appropriate to the voice of the story, but obviously there was no [Pause for silent response to audience.] written there. It doesn't carry over on the recording, having been visual, and I rather savor that. A gentle nod toward the ephemeral nature of live entertainment.

I think serving the words as best one can is probably the closest thing to advice we can offer an actor stepping into the storytelling arena, at least when it comes to scripted storytelling. (Perhaps aptly enough, this is also popular advice for performing Shakespeare.) That's subjective as all get-out, but getting much more specific risks hampering the unique abilities an actor can bring to the story. I might rephrase it, though, to give it a little more impact for types such as myself:

The story is for you, but not about you, and similar to something as unique and rare as a piece in a museum the story is to be shared. You are the one who gets to share the story with the rest of the world. Be sure to be moved by it, be sure to explore it to the breadth and depth it merits. Do not drape or gild it, though. Let it speak for itself, through you.
Something like that. It really is a precious thing. Fun too! But precious. If they'll have me, I think I'll be back.

Photos & layout by Andrew Lloyd-Jones.