Friday, 22 June 2012

Why Faking It Is Better Than The Real Thing

Recently the True Love series ran on television, but I didn't watch it despite the impressive cast of actors.  The advance publicity was flagging up that the actors had improvised the scripts as if it was a plus point, but I've been an actor and I've performed in improvised plays and what it's taught me is that 'actor' and 'writer' are different words.

Improvised dialogue feels right.  It feels natural.  It comes from a emotion that feels real to the actor.  There appears to be an authenticity, which is the Holy Grail in acting.

But do we really want to watch (or read) real life?  No - because we're living it ourselves.  I suppose there must have been some Big Brother afficionados who watched every second of footage from the house, but they must have been thin on the ground.  We watch and read fiction instead.

Fiction isn't real.  It has structure - which real life often doesn't.  It has purpose - which real life often doesn't.  It has meaning - which real life often doesn't. It has an ending - which real life doesn't (even if you die, life carries on).

The trick is to make fiction appear like real life.  It's real life but with purpose, structure, meaning and an ending.  That's what the writer adds.  So don't tell me it's improvised - I can do that in the comfort of my own home.

When we write fiction it isn't about us and how we feel, it's about how we make the reader feel. And that takes craft.

That's my blog post.  And now:

A Boring Anecdote To Prove The Point from when I was an actor...

I was playing Ruth in The Silver Sword, a play about a group of Jewish children fleeing Poland and trying to get to Switzerland where they hoped they might be reunited with their parents.  Ruth is the oldest, and leader of the children.  In rehearsals, the reunion scene always made me cry (shades of Jenny Agutter crying 'my daddy!' in The Railway Children) and several of the other actors congratulated me for feeling the emotions, for living the part.

Come to the performances, and my group of children has gone from the two other professional actors to a troupe from the local stage school.  In the big reunion scene they were all fidgeting and whispering on stage behind me.  I couldn't get into my emotions!  I didn't cry!  My whole performance was ruined.  For three nights this was a problem.  The children fidgeted and whispered, I didn't cry, it was a disaster.  (For me as an actor.  The play was fine.)

Then I got over it.  I would have to act, instead of 'being there in the moment'.  That night, the children fidgeted and whispered, and I acted my Jenny Agutter moment instead of living it.  To my surprise, there seemed to be a lot of white things waving in the audience.  As I'm hugging my father and mother on stage, I'm also squinting at the audience trying to see what was going on.

It was handkerchiefs.  People in the audience - and quite a lot of them - were crying. I was AMAZED.

And that's how it went on. night after night.  When I genuinely got caught up in the moment and cried, the audience didn't.  When I acted, the audience did.

So as a writer, I ask myself - who do I want to get emotionally involved?  Me?  Or the reader?  Both is best, but if I have to use craft and not my own feelings to get the reader going, then that's what happens.  The reader comes first.  Always.


Philip C James said...

You are so wrong, Sarah.

It was by no means a boring anecdote.

Liz Fielding said...

Definitely not boring. It reminded me of a very sick Lawrence Oliver's response to being waiting for Dustin Hoffman to "run" himself into his part in Marathon Man. "Couldn't he just act..."

Liz Harris said...

A far from boring anecdote, Sarah. I'm so glad that my love of the theatre inspired you to relate it.

I loved The Silver Sword when I read it. It's such a shame that I forgot about it, and failed to get it for my sons - they would have enjoyed it, but they're too old for it now.

Your anecdote and the reference to Lawrence Olivier reminded me of the amusing account of the filming of the original True Grit, with John Wayne, whose approach to acting was the antithesis of method acting, and Kim Derby, in her first main film, and a great believer in method acting.

At the end of the first day of filming, JW was incandescent with rage at her tremulous approach to her part. Happily, someone wrote a very funny account of the filming, and if you get a chance to read it, I'd thoroughly recommend it.

Liz X

Philip C James said...

I thought Liz H was going to relate the story of John Wayne as the Roman Centurion at the Crucifixion of Christ in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'.

You know, the one about John Wayne being told to inject more awe into his performance for the second take: "Aaaaw, surely this man is the Son of God!".

Alison Morton said...

Great anecdote! Ditto, the awesome one from Philip.

In TL, we all act. Not professionally like you, Sarah, but in our own little ways. We are pleasant to the grumpy cashier, we wheedle information out of bored bureaucrats, we feign interest in a relative's boring tale we've heard ten times before. More than anything we act to our children, pretending the tooth fairy or Father Christmas exists. And then there's our partners...

As you show, faking it can be extremely plausible. It's a talent all writers should hone. How else an we produce such a diversity of characters, all with their own voice?

Sarah Duncan said...

Glad you didn't find it boring *trots off happily to dust off ancient acting stories*.

And love your acting stories Liz and Phil.

Alison, you're so right - we act all the time. In fact, we're probably only really 100% ourselves when we're on our own. I wonder if writers are better at faking it in real life than other people? I mean, we often write cross scenes when we're happy, happy scenes when we're sad etc.

Jane Henry said...

You PLAYED Ruth?!!! The Silver Sword was one of my favourite books, and I always loved Ruth (still do).

I know exactly what you mean, but I did watch the first two episodes, and if anything found them rather slight. We were meant to believe in ep 1 that when David Tennant's ex turned up out of the blue after 17 years and NO contact, they'd just fall into each other's arms. I just didn't but it all. Despite David Tennant being lovely and angsty about it. Joanna Froggatt was amazing, but perhaps because it was only half an hour, the ending was a bit abrupt. I wanted to know what really happened next.

Second episode, again, I couldn't get on with the premise - Guy is bored of marriage, so he spots girl at bus stop, pursues her, they have an affair... Do these things really happen?
(Actually I guess they do - I met someone recently who walked out a 17 year marriage after a snog, & is still with the other guy).

I think the premise is wrong though, I felt both episodes were more about lust then love, so haven't watched the rest. I take your point about faking it, but as I didn't feel either scenario was very realistic to begin with, neither film felt anything like real life!

Liz Harris said...

I'm having a second bite of the cherry, and going back to the improvisation point.

I dislike improvisation intensely for the reasons you give, Sarah. I didn't watch True Love because of that. When I watch something, I want to know that's it's a fully rounded script.

Add to that the fact that some actors can be boring and narcissitic (Watch The One Show if you don't believe me!) so I can't imagine them improvising anything worth hearing

The theatrical improvisations that I do see, and usually feel are very satisfying (usually - I disliked 2000 years and can't believe that it received the plaudits it did) are the plays directed by Mike Leigh. He famously spend two months in improvising with the actors before beginning the production, whether it be a play or a film.

He takes, however, the improvisations the actors have come up with, and shapes them into a finished script before they go into production.

This is very different from what happens with most improvisations, and I think it's the only way that this mthod can successfully work.

Penny said...

Really interesting post, Sarah! The 'faking' aspect of acting is what bothered the Puritans and got theatres shut down. I actually thought they might have a point, at one time! But then loving a good play myself, I realised that was dishonest. In fact, 'faking' is a legitimate craft - and a pretty useful one if it means an audience can join in too.

Despite some grace in the tv improvisations you mention, sadly I never quite felt that involvement.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jane, yes, I played Ruth - tho I was about 10 years older than she was!

Liz, I'm not a great Mike Leigh fan, but he's def got the right balance between actor improv and the writer's role.

Penny, I hadn't realised that faking it was what the Puritans objected to. Fascinating stuff.