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The Craft

Stop Focusing on Yourself and Start Telling Great Stories

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As artists who are working, and trying to get work, in our industry, it is easy to become—and stay—focused on ourselves. For actors especially, the endless barrage of celebrity culture can lead to constant comparisons: wondering if you measure up, if you are hot enough, charismatic enough. Unfortunately, staying aware of the industry often means taking in both the bad and the good aspects of it on a regular basis, from witnessing the work of the most accomplished artists, who have worked for years on their craft, to reality TV stars who have no craft at all. In the public mind, we are somehow all lumped into the same profession: entertainment.

As great acting teachers have pointed out, you are at your worst as an actor when your attention is on yourself. I would add that no matter who you are, you are ultimately isolated and often extremely unhappy when your focus is only on Number One. It's hard to completely resist these traps and comparisons—we are human—but where can you put your artistic attention when tempted to obsess on your career, credits, and looks?

You can focus on people's constant, deep, organic need for great stories. Playwriting, screenwriting, directing, and acting—no matter how glamorous they can appear to be when they are celebrated—are service professions. As dramatists, our job is to examine what it is to be human, to face the great questions of existence, to explore how we are conducting ourselves and treating each other, and also to invite the audience to join us in laughing at how ridiculous we can be sometimes.

Going Barefoot

I have just returned from Clarksdale, Miss., a place of incredibly rich stories as well as the home and birthplace of the greatest blues music and musicians. It was also the childhood home of Tennessee Williams and is the location of an annual Williams festival, coming up Oct. 14 and 15. There is a documentary film workshop taught there twice a year (as well as in Marfa, Texas, and Cape Town, South Africa) that I have found to be life-changing because of its emphasis on story.

Barefoot Workshops was founded by Chandler Griffin in order to make documentary training as personal, thorough, and hands-on as possible. In each workshop, he and his fellow teachers attempt—and achieve—the impossible: In 12 days, a small group of students goes from zero to a public screening of their short documentaries. The subjects of the documentaries are the people and stories in the surrounding community. I have taken the Clarksdale workshop a couple of times and have returned to work as a visiting artist on subsequent film projects—using the skills I learned in the first workshop—because being around the group is so inspiring and energizing.

Actors I know who have attended Barefoot Workshops in Mississippi, Texas, and South Africa have not only loved the creative and storytelling challenges and the personal connections they made with their subjects, but they have also been empowered by learning camera, sound, lighting, and editing techniques. These tools enable them to create not just documentaries but their own reels, audition videos, and films.

After the teams of two or three Barefoot students have chosen their subjects and learned their equipment, something magical happens as they are forced to communicate and work with each other in order to tell their subject's story—on deadline! Each must put aside his or her personal fears and agendas in order to listen—to each other and, as a team, to their subjects. The looming deadline of the public screening lends urgency to each day and makes clear which issues need to be addressed and which must be put aside. It is pressured and often very frustrating, but then absolutely exhilarating as the stories start to emerge. It is fascinating to see and to experience what falls away and what stays. What must stay are only the most essential story elements, and what must fall away are the precious, the gratuitous, the redundant, and the superfluous. The (mostly first-time) filmmakers are transformed into storytellers who honor their subjects. When this is accomplished, the story shines through at the screening, and all are transformed—subject, artist, and audience—into one.

The problem with our business is that as soon as a film, a play, a performance, a production achieves this kind of unity and enough people notice it, that writer, director, or actor is often then immediately pressured—by him- or herself or by agents, producers, family, the public—to do it again as soon as possible, but in a different way, of course. Maybe a newly successful artist is invited to better parties, paid attention to, given things, constantly told he or she is important. These perks can easily obscure the original path and make the artist forget what it was that gave rise to his or her astonishing story.

The Catastrophe of Success

No one has described this phenomenon better than Tennessee Williams in his essay "The Catastrophe of Success," included in many of the published versions of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Every artist should read this essay. When Williams was about 30, the first professional production of his play "Battle of Angels" (later to become "Orpheus Descending") opened in Boston. It was a big flop. Not only was it critically panned, but a fire broke out onstage and the audience fled the theater. It took him about five more years of barely surviving financially, and exercising his unbelievably fierce work ethic—he wrote seven or eight hours per day throughout his life—to produce "The Glass Menagerie." After that play hit, the world suddenly knew who he was, he was celebrated at every turn, and he was raking in royalties. His obstacles had been removed, and he found the lack of struggle devastating. How he emerged from it and created his second masterpiece—"Streetcar"—you can read about in his magnificent essay.

One of the reasons I returned to Mississippi was to work on a documentary about Williams' years there as a child. From about 1916 to 1920, he lived in the rectory of Clarksdale's St. George's Episcopal Church, where his grandfather Walter E. Dakin was the beloved priest. Tom (young Tennessee) lived there with his grandfather; his grandmother Rose (or "Grand"); his mother, Edwina; his older sister, Rose; and their nurse Ozzie, while his father, Cornelius, was almost constantly on the road as a shoe salesman. While in Clarksdale, Tom absorbed the stories, locales, and characters of the Mississippi Delta. Many Clarksdale names are embedded in his plays, as well as local spots like the Alcazar Hotel, Moon Lake Casino, and the angel in the water fountain employed in "Summer and Smoke." Some details in his plot lines are said to have been inspired by the lives of the local people.

Cornelius was eventually promoted and given an office job with the shoe company in St. Louis, which was where most of us picked up Williams' story. The move from Clarksdale—which meant leaving the beautiful open countryside for the dark city, the tight-knit community for a neighborhood of strangers, and the status of being the priest's family for the alienation of being "nobodies" teased for their Southern accents—was miserable for Tom, Rose, and Edwina and can be deeply felt in "The Glass Menagerie." The move to St. Louis also set the stage for Williams' writing, which he commenced at about age 12 on a typewriter given to him by his mother.

During this trip to Mississippi, I had the pleasure of interviewing professor Colby Kullman, who teaches a hugely popular class on Williams' plays at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) in Oxford. He believes that Williams would have been a writer no matter what kind of childhood he had, that the drive and need to communicate—to tell stories—was deep inside him.

To listen to others sincerely and attentively, to take them in as Williams did, and to tell their stories—whether in documentary or fiction—in a way that speaks to the audience on the deepest human levels is the ultimate job of any writer, director, or actor. As we know from Williams' plays, this can be done with a huge amount of humor, as well as with great sensitivity, passion, tragedy, and sometimes violence.

It is very easy in our time to lose touch with this storytelling impulse, because it seems that more forces than ever conspire to bring our attention back to ourselves—to how good, beautiful, liked, successful, or recognized we are. Williams experienced great failure and personal struggles as well as extraordinary success, but he kept on writing plays, stories, poems, and essays. At a time when his newer plays were not being well received but he was still being honored for his earlier works, he said that the most you can hope for is a good day's work. My other favorite quotation of his is:

"I want to go on talking to you as freely and intimately about what we live and die for as if I knew you better than anyone else whom you know."

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