Monday, July 25, 2011

The Core of The Arts

by R.S. Mellette

I was a junior in acting Seminar Class. The production that year was The Merchant of Venice, so we did nothing but Shakespeare five days a week, two or three hours a day, every day for two semesters. By the end of the first semester we had each rehearsed and polished a two-person scene, four monologues, and a sonnet which we were to present to the class in a two day marathon for finals.

Ed, my scene partner, and I spent one evening working on our piece and then helping each other with our monologues and sonnets. It was a rehearsal that would change my approach to acting, the arts, and everything.

It began with our scene, Oswald and Kent from King Lear. I was Kent, Ed Oswald. The scene wasn't working. It just laid there. Here we were, two actors trained to the level of Navy Seals in our craft, and yet we couldn't make a scene from Shakespeare's greatest play entertaining.

It was Ed who stopped. "This isn't working."

"Yeah, I know."

"What's wrong?"

"No idea."

We refocused and tried again. No help.

"What would our teacher's say?" asked Ed. "Let's get back to the basics." He quoted from freshman acting class. "What do I want?" Then he answered his own question. "I want to get from here," where he was standing, "to there," the other side of the stage.

"And I want to stop you."

Without another word, we started from the top.

The scene popped. It had energy, humor, character, tension—all the stuff the same words were missing before. Why? We got right to the basics of all art: Objective and Obstacle.

The universe is a funny place. It only has three colors. In paint, these are Red, Yellow, and Blue. In light, they are Red, Green, and Blue. From those three colors alone, you can make every other color there is. With paint you mix down to black, with light, you mix up to white.

In the Arts we have Objective, Obstacle and I add Tactics as a third variable. With these three primary nouns you can create every interaction between all living things.

A writer turns blank paper into believable characters by giving them clear objectives. Their story is made exciting with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and their characters defined by the tactics they use to overcome those obstructions.

An actor breathes life into those characters by personalizing the super objectives, and like a fractal equation, pushing down, down, down, down, until every moment of the performance has a clear objective, obstacle, and tactic for success.

Traditional dance is the same as theatre. Modern dancers and choreographers sometimes like to think they can create "moving sculpture," where there is no story or reason for the performers to do what they are doing besides the beauty of the movement, but I maintain they are wrong. If a single dancer is on the stage, then we, the audience, wonder what he or she is trying to tell us. If another dancer joins, then we begin to guess what they mean to each other. In that case, I suppose you could say that their objective is to have no relationship other than parts of a human sculpture, and their obstacle is our natural desire to find a story. Their tactics then become wearing ever increasingly ridiculous leotards.

In music we see the same writer/actor dynamic in the form of composer/performer, but each performer is also his or her instrument. Paul McCartney decides a standard trumpet doesn't achieve his objectives in Penny Lane, but heard David Mason's piccolo trumpet on a BBC TV show. Composer, performer and instrument all came together to overcome the obstacle of the perfect mix. The notes play with each other, or counter to each other, to achieve their mathematical place in the cords.

Traditional painting and sculpture clearly show the three basic elements. Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina is a perfect example of objective—soldiers on one side attacking others who are bathing in a stream, while the surprised naked defenders struggle to find weapons, get dressed, and fight.

In sculpture, Bernini is a great one for capturing the conflict of objective and obstacle.

In modern visual arts, Jackson Pollock is probably the best known artist to try to escape all forms of tradition, and yet his work is a symphony of conflict. Colors and patterns fight to be seen above the chaos.

So whether you are facing the blank page, or editing a third draft, keep the basics in mind. Ask yourself, are the characters' objectives clear? Are they doing everything in their power to achieve those objectives? What tactics are they using—and which ones will they refuse to use—to obtain their goal?

Answer those questions for every sentence in your work, and you'll be well on your way to a good story told well.


Jemi Fraser said...

Nice! I'm getting better at this in my writing - making sure each scene has an objective. As a beginner, I found myself getting caught up in stuff that didn't really matter - now I know better :)

Stephen L. Duncan said...

Excellent post. For all the "What's my motivation?" jokes, there is a lot of truth to it. Great observation!

JeffO said...

Nice post, Mr. Mellette, a very good reminder. Thanks!

RSMellette said...

I'm glad you guys are getting something out of it. I know I do just by reminding myself of the basics.

J. Lea Lopez said...

I love this! To boil it down to something seemingly so simple is just brilliant. But meeting these objections in your work, every step of the way, is much harder than it looks.

RSMellette said...

Yeah. If it was easy, we'd all do it.

Leslie Rose said...

As a former scenic/lighting designer your comments about the primary colors of each discipline really hit home. Love the way you boiled writing down to a similar triad. Thanks for the reframe.

RSMellette said...

:) I've done my fair share of lighting design out here in LA. It's one my favorite art froms - if it weren't for all the ladder climbing and low pay.

Ruth said...

I love the simplicity of this quote:
So whether you are facing the blank page, or editing a third draft, keep the basics in mind. Ask yourself, are the characters' objectives clear? Are they doing everything in their power to achieve those objectives? What tactics are they using—and which ones will they refuse to use—to obtain their goal?

Great advice!

RSMellette said...

Thanks, Ruth. As I'm going through edits right now, it's advice to myself as much as others.