Monday, December 13, 2010

Actress, reviewer and writer Michelle Langstone talks about 'Escaping into Stories and Worlds.'

I’ve spent my entire life wanting to live inside books.  I became an actress so that I could escape into the stories and worlds that I loved.  I wanted to be the characters, really inhabit them, and feel how they felt, think their thoughts along with them. While I have always loved language it never really occurred to me until I turned thirty that perhaps I might try my hand at storytelling in a format other than acting.

I took six months away from acting last year to take a writing course with James George.  I thought I was leaving my profession behind, changing hats entirely. Actually what I discovered was that the two are one.  Or rather, that acting informs the way I write, and vice versa.  When I write (or try to write!), it is with my understanding of how to embody a character in the physical, with text as the leaping off point. I write from the same impulse that I act from – the feeling world. To date, my exploration of writing is very strongly through character driven narrative. I suppose that’s because I vaguely know how to do that, given that I spend my professional life creating character. What I’ve discovered, unexpectedly, is that learning to write is teaching me how to be a better actor.  Some of the same rules apply to both.

Something I have found very interesting in writing is how to find a voice.  I was surprised to discover that, much the same as with acting, I can’t write a thing, I can’t learn one single line of dialogue, until I can HEAR the way the character speaks.  By that I mean tone, I mean register, I mean rhythm. An example of this is that I recently completed filming a new show for South Pacific Pictures called The Almighty Johnson’s.  My character in that show is a very strong, very defiant and compelling woman.  She was a stretch for me, because she is fairly ferocious, and quite sexually forceful.  When I set to work on my scripts I found could not learn the lines because I could not hear her voice.  I had to experiment, to muck around with vocal resonance, and finally, to sink into a much lower register and feel the vibrating of sound lower in my body.  When I found that sound, the lines were in.

Similarly, in the Narrative Writing course last year, I was absolutely stuck and unable to write a thing until, during a class exercise, a voice popped into my head that I did not recognise.  I heard this voice, this sound unfamiliar, and I started to write for that voice. Or rather, I let that voice tell me a story, and I wrote it down the way that I heard it.  Now I think about a story I might like to write, and I wait to see who wants me to tell it - which character has something to say.

As an actor, I’m always looking to find a physicality that is specific to each role I play.  How my character holds herself, how she walks. Is she fast or slow?  Heavy or light?  Focused or unfocused? I like to find specific things that each of my characters do – my character in Almighty, for example, can hold a gaze like no character I have played before.  Her unflinching gaze was a way into a still and powerful physicality that was a key to finding her “front”.  In my writing I’m trying to find the little things in a character that may give them away, or inform the reader about them in a very specific way.  For example, in a piece I am working on now, a little boy whose story I’m telling likes to crouch.  He’s always crouching, and it’s for a number of reasons that become apparent as the narrative unravels.  It’s interesting to explore what happens when I put him in a situation where he can’t crouch, and see how he copes when his physicality is arrested.  Another character in that same story now has a swift deftness of physicality that I observed in another actor on set.  This actor is so light, he dances with his dialogue and with his body, and I’ve taken that trait and I’m trying to work it into the lightness of this character in my story, who is quite connected to musicality.

One of the exercises we learnt in class I have directly pinched for my acting.  “The Objects on a Mantelpiece” exercise is where you imagine a mantelpiece, and let your unconscious drop items onto it – like a pottery egg cup, a broken locket, one half of a torn photograph.  From there, you can embark on a story, either fleshing out the character that owns these objects, or telling a story involving them.  In The Almighty Johnson’s I sat and did this exercise as a way to flesh out the world and private life of my character.  I only had a small amount of back-story for her, based on what the writers had told me.  I wanted to make her as real as I could.  Her mantelpiece was interesting!  When I could see those objects and write how they belong in her world, how they make her feel, why she has them, where she got them – I began to feel fully dimensional.  It’s a great trick, and one I intend to use from now on.

Ten years ago I had a guest role on Shortland Street. It was one of my first professional jobs, and the dialogue coach showed me how to build a character arc for each episode, and how to plot the emotional journey for the character on it. This is helpful in shows like Shortland Street because you can pretty much guarantee you will be shooting your scenes out of order, and you don’t want to end up breaking down emotionally too soon, getting angry too soon, or just blowing your load before the appropriate build, pretty much.  It helps to plot an emotional course, to keep track, keep a reign on the beats of the story, and the beats of the character.  We learnt this in writing class too, and I’m now investing much more time in both my writing and my acting, to nut out the right course for navigation.

Happily, it also means I’m ok about writing an end before a beginning, in my stories, or writing a scene that belongs somewhere in an arc I haven’t created yet!

At the moment in my writing I’m thinking a lot about the feeling world of my characters and the room they leave inside themselves to let feeling grow and diminish.  I’ve always had a bad habit of cluttering up my acting with too much stuff.  I try to do too much, I’m too fast, and I try to cram too much in, too many facial expressions.  I do the same in writing and one thing I am learning in both areas is how to do less.  What one sentence can I write that can show the reader what I want them to see?  What one gesture, what one look can I give, what one sound can I make, that can convey everything I need to the viewer?

I’m simplifying.  I’m paring back, working on the maxim that less is more.  I know I have more in me, but if I can rein it in, and trust that everything is living inside the story, inside the role and inside me, then hopefully it will translate.  That’s about trusting in the world of the story.

As an actor I know how great it is to work with material loaded with subtext.  The emotional undercurrent, the true meaning, simmering away under the surface.  I’m trying to write like that.  I’m trying to imbue the dialogue in my stories with a greater subtext.  Stripping the dialogue back to the bare minimum, but loading it up, so the truth is shouting beneath the words.  I guess as an actor I’m always on the lookout for what my character is ACTUALLY saying, which is often working in opposition to what appears on the page.  The playwright Harold Pinter is a great example of subtext.  I did one of his plays – “The Lover”, earlier this year and it was fairly torturous trying to unravel the layers of subtext and truth.  What I discovered with Pinter’s writing is that in his characters, as in life, there is always ambiguity.  One choice is not the only choice; it is the thread
of many choices to be unravelled.

I’m thinking about that in my writing.  I’m resisting the urge to sew things up tidily; I’m leaving a bit of ambiguity, to allow the reader to stretch a little further to what the truth of the story may be for them.  We all resonate toward truth that is specific to our own concept of the world.  I’m learning slowly that I don’t have to tell anyone to how to feel in a story, they will absorb it and sift it through their own perspective. If I can reduce the clutter, the story is more accessible for them to reach.  It’s the same with acting – say the words, get out of the way, let the story come out, let the viewer come to meet it.  I think that has to do with trusting the writing.  I don’t trust my writing yet, but I know how it feels to hold a script that soars with excellent language.  I’m hoping I will know it in my own writing when I see it, if at all.

(Michelle has a weekly book review slot, Bookish and Awkward, on George FM.)

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