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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I Carry the Story with Marbles in My Mouth (originally posted 06-02-11)

A letter was sent to me today – to many people in the “Annie” cast – from the director, Terrence. It was about clarity and simplicity, variety and art. But what struck me was in the last paragraph, where he talked about the thought that “good art is what you cannot understand.” (he didn’t like this thought either, so no throwing tomatoes there.) but it got me to thinking… of course…. (cue Sarah Jessica Parker voiceover….)

My mother and I (she being the famous painter and me just her kid) used to argue about art all the time. She was a visual artist who had tried many mediums, but her favorite was watercolor. I didn’t care for it. Yes, it was simple to work with, but hard to control. The result was that I would too many times watch artists paint in her classes for 30 minutes, then turn around with an elaborate doodle and name it after their old childhood stuffed animal, and all the world was great and wonderful, and fantastically obtuse.

Yes…. well.

Watercolors – it’s easy to let the paint get away from you and then when you are done, look at it and say, “yes, that of course is what I meant” or use the old (but in my world, hated) phrase “the viewer finds what they want in the art” or variations. But I have always believed that all art – visual, musical, theatrical, etc., it all is communication. It’s your chance to say to me, “This is what I’m thinking”, or “Yes, here is this new idea.” or “I know you think you know this, but here is something different about what you know.” So I’m appalled by the prevailing and rather recent idea that it’s okay for you to communicate to me in a completely ununderstandable way and when I don’t get it, somehow it’s my fault. There’s a contempt for the audience of the work.  Particularly in visual art. Sometimes in music. Most definitely in theater. (Don’t believe me? I have a script from the play “Ice Cream” that my sister and I saw in London about 19 years ago. [You're welcome to borrow it] How did I get the script? Because they handed it out to each person as they came in along with the playbill. Look, if you have to give me the script to your play when I come to see it, then, yeah, you might want to consider a rewrite.)

In my stubbornness to stick to what I believe, I have always thought that the failing is in the artist if s/he can’t get his/her point across. You are the one who picked up the brush with an idea, or sat behind the piano with a vision, or in front of a keyboard with a plan. I wasn’t there. I don’t know. You have to tell me what you mean. Don’t make me go on a scavenger hunt. Yes, taking me through in a new and different way might make you see something new and different, but if your message is garbled, what have you really done but put marbles in your mouth.

As a writer – and particularly a technical writer by day (yes, I have a cape. What of it?) - I spend hours reorganizing information so that people can digest it more quickly and succinctly. Clarity. I’m not there to show off the massive number of features I know in PowerPoint. I’m there to move like a well-trained dancer does – without you noticing the effort. My best days are when someone looks at my work and doesn’t notice it at all. And
they shouldn’t.

As a playwright and a fiction writer, I carry that story. I am the one who decided to sit in front of you and claim I have something interesting to pass along. I can’t get in the way of my story.

The best advice I ever heard was from Amy Tan, the author of “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife”. She said she looks at her work in progress and she finds the sentence she has written that she most loves – the most writerly phrase she can find. And then she deletes it. She says she gets in the way of the story because she wants to impress you with what a good writer she can be.
I agree.

We get in the way of the story. Whether on the page, on the canvas, or on the stage, we stand there and say, “Pay attention to me. I am more important than anything else on or off the stage.” Not the character, but me. Not the painting, me. Not the story. Me.

Artists, we can be selfish. I am one of the worst. Even in a small part, I want to be seen. I think we all do. In every day life, we want to be seen. We want to be noticed. We want to be credited with something wonderful or at the very least good.

But Irving Thalberg said, “Credit you give yourself is not worth having.” He said that. And not just once. He said that and variations of that throughout his years. And he believed it. He never took an onscreen credit for the films he produced.

After he died, MGM gave him a screen credit for The Good Earth. And that’s what he wanted. (For those of you who don’t know who Irving Thalberg is, he produced Grand Hotel (1932), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934 ), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), China Seas (1935), A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers, San Francisco (1936), and Romeo and Juliet (1936). And he died when he was only 37. The Academy Awards has an award named after him. Listen for it this year.)


The story goes like this…

Stop worrying about who is going to see you. Start thinking about what you want to say, in whatever format you’ll be saying it. Take the marbles out of your mouth. The audience really does want to hear you. But play on the same team with them. Pretend for just awhile that you want them to understand you. They are listening.

Cass Van Gelder

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