acting, creative inspiration, Life in General, New Novels, writing

Leap of Faith

Jumping in.

And so…I find myself beginning a new book, which leads me to the question, “Where does inspiration come from?”

The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know who the characters will be, what they will say or do. I don’t know the plot yet, I don’t know if the message I want to get across is worth a plug nickel. Hell, I don’t even know what a plug nickel is.

Which means that the simple answer is— The best place to find inspiration is to start with what I don’t know.

Powerful words. “I don’t know.” That simple phrase means that the world is open, that you are ready and eager to learn. It means that you have questions and curiosity, that you are still open to be filled with wonder, to be surprised, delighted, to not judge, to wait and see.

To take a leap.

If you already know everything, or pretend to, you can learn nothing.

In truth, those words, “I don’t know,” have been a game changer for me. Earlier in life it seemed so important to know everything, to be right, to be knowledgable, to appear wise. Which meant, I wasn’t. “I don’t know” set me free.

I know of one author who titles every new work, “Shitty first draft.” This gives her license to just get it all down, then she can go back and make it an ‘acceptable first draft’ and finally, ‘a really good first draft.’ After that, well, as we writers know, the editors will have at it.

I don’t label my drafts, I’m still too timid to put the word ‘shitty’ at the top from fear it might seep down into my work. Silly, I know, but there it is. Words mean something, they have power, so when I start listing ideas for a new novel, I put them in a file titled, “The Best Book Ever.” A girl can dream.

I learned so much from the acting process about improving, enriching and ‘fleshing out’ characters that I don’t fear my first tentative, feeble efforts will not improve. As I learn a part, let’s say, Viola in Twelfth Night, I begin to understand what the words that were written by the great bard really mean, to me anyway. As I go through the rehearsal process, I absorb the emotions and feelings of the other actors and as their characters come to life, they inform mine. My homework and history inform me, the stage informs me, the words themselves inform me, and mostly, the emotion takes hold.

It’s the same with writing. Though in this case, it is the emotions that are finding the words and story to express themselves. Either way, I must leap, dare, jump and throw myself into the ether, from which all things come. And I trust that, while I might hit the ground really hard and roll, I’ll probably land safely, in a new place, unknown to me before now, and if it’s a good place, a place worth visiting, I will share it with others.

This is like life, whenever I think I need to change or try to understand someone and their (to me) bad behavior, I have to remind myself that I haven’t lived their childhood, I haven’t woken up from their nightmares, I haven’t listened to whatever abuse was heaped upon them, ergo…I cannot, ever, understand them. All I can do is honor their journey, understand that their limitations are not the same as mine.

We all want to connect, to be understood. It’s why most of us write, or act, or play music. We want to connect, to be heard and understood. But in truth, we don’t. We relate, we appreciate, we sympathize, but we do not ever fully understand. Our adventure belongs to us, it is unique, and so is theirs.

And that’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s brilliant. It’s what makes us unique and more than that, it’s what makes us need each other. Our journeys and our paths are different, but our need for other humans binds us all.

We are alike, but we are not the same.

Isn’t that wonderful? It feels like it to me, but then I don’t know how you feel about it.

Shari, October 15, 2014

Acting & Experiences, creating character, creative inspiration, mental illness, writing

Trigger Happy


Did you know you have pathways in your brain? Learned reactions to physical and mental stimuli? Isn’t that fascinating?

Here’s how it works. When your senses perceive something, (and perceive is the operative word, as we all perceive things differently) Certain chemical and electrical responses trigger in you brain and receptors open up, creating a kind of path that becomes the path most traveled. These receptors create different physical results, fear, tension in the neck, nausea, well-being, whatever it may be. We learn these responses, in fact, we memorize them, and if we don’t alter them, we loose the ability to take the path less traveled.

Now, I’ve reduced this to a ridiculously simplified version of the science, but being neither a physicist nor a neurosurgeon, I have to use the cliff notes, as it were. And here’s where it gets interesting for writers, actors, and well…humans.

For both writers and actors, these reactions to stimuli are what we would call ‘character traits.’ As an actor, you can use this to develop a much more rounded character to fill out your role. As a writer, you can actually explain, or intimate how past reactions control your character now.

For a human, to change those patterns we have to un-program and retrain ourselves. And this is difficult, we’re dealing with long term chemical and behavioral training. Pavlov’s emotions, let’s call them. In the case of the famous doctor, he would ring a bell, and the dog salivates. In someone who was abused as a child, the sound of people shouting may trigger an intense panic that has nothing to do with the actual situation at hand.

Our triggers are many, but every once in a while, we hit one that rests at our core. For me, the idea that I never can do enough, be good enough, that I should have to take care of everyone and everything that comes up, and if I don’t, I’m not good enough, that I’ve failed, is a biggie. Of course, it’s impossible, I’ve set the stakes too high to ever win at that one, so that particular ‘bell’ is no longer useful to me. This response is too ingrained to fix with conscious reasoning, knowing I have this issue doesn’t stop the reaction. I’m a puppet and the strings are tight.

So I went to someone who could help. I worked with a woman who does a procedure called ‘tapping.’ She is a therapist, and versions of this therapy are used to help soldiers with PTSD and people with childhood traumas. We talk about what the frustration or feeling is, identify where it is in my body, name it, and then she proceeds to talk about it, by having me repeat and reaffirm a different thought process while ‘tapping’ at different random spots on my face, hands and arms. The tapping interrupts the programmed response, allowing new pathways to open.

It was amazing. And I think it helped me quite a bit. But the point of this blog is to talk about those pathways and how they define characters, just as they define us as people. Isn’t that what we want from our performance or our fictional characters? I know I want them to ring as true as possible, and to be distinct from each other.

Let’s take some examples. Let’s say I’m playing a character who has a certain phobia, say, fear of dogs. Now, something, at some time, triggered and trained this character to behave that way. So, when I create my history of the character, (and this is acting homework, it has nothing to do with what is written in the script) I would include one or more experiences where I was bitten or other wise frightened by canines, and my body learned the response of breaking into a sweat and tensing for battle every time I hear a dog bark.

Or…let’s say….I’m writing a character in a book who is loving and motherly. I create a history for her where she grew up around lots of siblings and extended family and there was constant laughter and noise. This woman would sit at a restaurant and hear children bickering at the next table and it would create a real warmth in her chest because her conditioned response to the sound is happiness and safety.

Those are simple examples, but do you see how this kind of thing is influencing your life? How can you use mental triggers to round out your characters? Try an exercise where you have two people meet, and they both have very different reactions to something that happens to them. If you stick with the ‘why’ they behave this way, you will find that they are distinct from each other, and it will open new avenues of how they understand, misinterpret, or relate with each other.

This process will also help you deal with difficult people in your life. On of the hardest things to do is to not take it personally when other people treat you badly. But it isn’t about you, it’s about them.

When people can sense the restrictions that their emotional past puts on them, they can sometimes, through exploring it deeply and feeling it fully, change it. This is called an epiphany, and it is one of the peaks of a character driven story. And that is a very useful tool. But stay aware, it’s not going to happen just because someone else tells them they are wrong. Oh no. People will die rather than be wrong, so they will fight to justify and prove they are right, even if it means continuing to be deeply unhappy. People have to come to life-changing revelations on their own, from inside.

So for today, be quiet for a moment and feel what’s going on inside, then ask yourself what that is, the first answer will not be the one, keep asking, and you’ll find it. Then notice how that reaction, physical sensation responds to different situations as you go about your day.

Fascinating stuff. I love acting and writing, but mostly I love being human and connecting with others. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all understood the strings that bind and control us, because only then can we cut them and braid a stronger connection with ourselves and others.

If you stick with this, not only will your characters fill out, but you will begin the process of understanding that greatest paradigm in your life. You—and all that has gone into making you unique.

Hey, maybe you should write your story!

Shari, September 11, 2014

Acting & Experiences, Theatre

A Brief History of How to Cry.

ImageThere are scripts that aren’t good. There are days when we’re just a bit flat. There are times when even the best actor can’t ‘get into the moment.’ Sensory work for an actor means this; you spend a considerable amount of time locating and creating feelings that that, in a pinch, or when you are acting something badly written, you have a backup.

A sensory exercise might go like this. You are asked by the coach to bring in a picture of a relative who is gone. Someone you loved and knew. You pick your grandmother. You spend time looking at the picture and thinking about that person, the joy they brought you, the love that cannot be replaced, but mostly about specific memories. It is best to back these memories up with senses, that is what you are going for. Remember a specific time your grandmother was making cookies and you felt safe. How did it smell? Was it raining outside or sunny? Was there music playing or the dishwasher running? Was the Christmas tree up, did it sparkle with light? All of these things will bring the emotion of that moment into fullness in you. The sensation of feeling safe and loved can overwhelm you and fill you up, now, years after the event.

Now, you are on a set working with an actor you just met this morning, who is playing your sister and the scene calls for you to share a loving moment. You look at her, she’s a stranger and you feel nothing. But because you have done this specific work, you can take a moment, or prepare before time, to recall that sensory exercise and let the feelings you nurtured for your grandmother well up in you. And before you know it, a real, heartfelt smile is lighting up your face, and tender tears are in your eyes.

The same thing can work for fear, sadness, anger, etc. And it doesn’t have to be a huge, traumatic moment. In fact, better if it isn’t, those are hard to control and your body doesn’t like to feel bad, so it will shut the sensations down after a bit. For years my best recall sensory memory for anger was a time when I was maybe three and my mom took my tricycle for some reason. I recalled it, and remembered her standing on the back ledge, hands on the handlebars, scooting it along. My whole little body was filled with pure, three-year old fury, tense and vibrating, as I ran toward her screaming. I remember the grass and then the sidewalk under my shoes, the smell of honeysuckle in the south, and the sounds of the tricycle’s wheels on the cement. Even writing this now, makes me a bit tense with anger.

I will never forget, when in acting class, the coach worked up through our chosen emotion and then told us to improve from there. I looked at the actor across from me, balled up my fists and screamed, “Get off my tricycle!” There was a moment of stunned silence, and then we all dissolved into laughter.

It seems a silly thing, but it was a moment of pure, unadulterated emotion that I have been able to re-use. A note of caution— Never use something you cannot control. I once worked with a director who told me that he was filming a rape scene with an actress and she had really been raped as a young girl. She got so emotionally upset that he had to stop the filming and send her home. And he thought that was impressive. I was appalled, that is not acting, that is abusive. A director’s number one job is to protect the people who work for him. He failed that day.

I had someone ask me recently to talk about a film I did called, “Hot Child in the City.” It was a fun little thing, made, if I remember correctly, by HBO? during the whole music video craze thing. Now in that movie, I played a bitch record producer who is killed and her sister becomes her to solve the crime.

My work for that was more subtle and harder to narrow down. It was not one of the five emotions. I was raised to be nice to people. Never make them uncomfortable, be a good hostess, encourage people to talk about themselves, and I like living that way. But this character, Abby, I think it was, was not that. So, I had to find ways to think about what I was doing that would work for her. Anger doesn’t play for very long, and bitchiness is not an emotion. So, we go to replacement.

In one scene have to tell a recording artist that his music sucks. Not something Shari would do, but I might tell off someone who had promised me to fix my car, didn’t do it, took advantage of me and ripped me off. So, I look at Tony Alda, who is playing the artist, and imagine him as the slimy mechanic who put substandard parts in my car and charged me top dollar. Now I say the line, as though I’m telling him off. Low and behold, my voice drops, my face hardens and I get through the line with some genuine background.

Making movies and being other people is hard work. Not the glamorous, red-carpet images that most people see and think of. It’s getting up for a four a.m. call, sitting in makeup to look beat to hell for three hours. Waiting on set for ten or twelve hours before you are called on to produce raw emotion. being freezing cold or burning hot and trying to look completely comfortable.

Not soaps, I have three things to say about soaps—level floors, air conditioning, and secretaries. Easy peasy compared to swimming in freezing cold water in a cave, or dragging a body through a muddy rain storm. (I still have back problems from that one!)

It comes down to this. Be prepared, know your lines, be on time, and then…let go, be present, listen and most important…don’t act…react.

Of course you have to be ready before you can let go. Just like in life. Unless you can be okay without something, you will never really have it, it will have you.

For those of you who don’t act, but write. Next time, I’ll turn it around. I like to call it “Acting for the page.”

It’s the same process, but backwards.

Like so much in life. Good advice really, slow down, back up, take a look, leap.

Happy flying,

Shari 10-15-2012