Friday, June 20, 2014

Developing my Own Voice: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Part 2

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman:
My training at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art[2] had a profound impact on my attitudes to work and learning.   Promoting a process-oriented approach to a wide variety of actor’s tools, the training was rigorous and diverse.[3]  We were admonished not to ‘end-gain’, but rather to lean into each moment of an exercise without worrying about getting it right.  An excellent methodology and easier said than done.  Such attitudes to work and learning I imperfectly strive to maintain.  

One of my most life changing classes at RADA proved to be Contemporary Text taught by Lloyd Trott. [4] Lloyd assigned us plays, requiring that we write a monologue for a character within the play. Appropriating the style of the writer became a ticket to each writer's unique world. I was required to observe, intuit, react and expand on the playwright's emergent themes. Lloyd’s arranged marriage between actor-writer had potency: a solid practice which released our ability as actors to deeply engage in performance of these texts, resulting in some of our best work.

Developing my own voice was not something I thought about in conscious terms.   Looking backwards I can see that this has been central to my work since the beginning.  I can best understand the themes I am writing about by looking sideways at them after the fact.  During the initial brainstorming for Possession[5], the character of a shadowy woman emerged, a mistress of William Shakespeare, she told her stories to him in bed.  Appropriating her tales, Shakespeare put them in his plays.  Possession chose to manifest in a radically different way, and the idea was shelved.  But the idea of a woman who gives her words away, unable to speak them in the public arena as herself, reveals my preoccupation with ‘voice’ with all it’s layers of meaning. The need to be heard was held close to the surface.

"Welcome to a parallel universe…":[6]
 Having completed RADA, and out of acting work, I began writing my first play Alaska.   By happy coincidence, I ran into my former instructor Lloyd Trott at the party of our mutual friend, Cambridge Jones.  Lloyd encouraged me to write Alaska for radio and enter it in BBC Radio 4’s First Bite, Young Writer’s Contest, deadline imminent.  I submitted the play with no expectations.  I couldn’t have been more surprised to win, resulting in a substantial writer’s fee and production of the play on BBC Radio 4 with then rising actor Michael Sheen in the lead role.

Alaska is relevant to these articles thematically, the genre reminiscent of 1950’s science fiction.  In an icy world peopled entirely by men, two young men genetically engineer a woman, feeding her cultural information gleaned from women’s magazines.  The experiment is initially successful and Frank (Michael Sheen) falls in love with his creation, Winona (Nancy Crane).  When Winona, (biologically unstable from the accelerated growth process of her gestation) returns his love, the contradictory information she has assimilated (via the likes of Cosmopolitan Magazine), leads to her death.[7]

What struck me forcibly in my first experience in the role of playwright, was the respect I was accorded by everyone in the production process.  To an actor or director, bent on trying to crack open a play, the playwright is the mysterious keeper of secrets, arguably one of the main reasons for everyone else’s presence in the room. All actors on the other hand, have experienced feeling like a rich man’s fading mistress:  easily replaced. My status as a writer is enviable when contrasted to the way I have sometimes been made to feel as an actor. 

Turning playwright was like going over to the other side in an unacknowledged theatrical class divide.   Tentatively on the path of playwriting, I ricocheted schizophrenically between these two roles, returning to the US as an actor in the role of Kyra in David Hare’s Skylight at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.   I was never quite ready to say, “I am no longer and actor.”  In the UK, I had felt pressure to choose.  I found in California an environment in which duality thrives and is sometimes encouraged.  Once I had children, playwriting became the easier choice.  However:  "We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I'm not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for all that."[8] 

Beginning the MFA at UC Davis opened a door to revisit and improve my acting craft as a student for the first time in years.  I am humbled to admit that I had no idea how much I still had to learn.[9]  I was on the artistic fence, skirt hiked up over a small divide, and soon to redefine myself through hyphenation.

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