As Lester Bangs (played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman) said in Almost Famous: “I used to do speed. You know, and sometimes a little cough syrup. I’d stay up all night, just writin’ and writin’. I mean, like 25 pages of dribble. You know, about The Faces or Coltrane. You know, just to fuckin’ write.”
I can relate. Not about the cough syrup. I’ve always been decidedly square and I'm at peace with that. But about the writing. When I write, it’s like dipping a ladle into a deep well. And the more I write the deeper I can reach, to bring up the good stuff that runs deep like Stillwater (see what I did there?).
I think that’s where the magic lies in art. In exploration.
I’ve spent many hours watching recordings of other actors. Breaking down their scenes and mimicking them. Their movements and expressions and cadences. My personal favorite was during the pandemic watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the creature in National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. Which ALSO had a fantastic version where he and Jonny Lee Miller switch roles with Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as the doctor . It's pretty cool, check it out!
It’s truly breathtaking to watch a master, which Cumberbatch is on the stage. There’s a wholeness to a masterful performance. A complete immersion. Like how children play. Most immersion is very good but is still missing something, some unnamable element that I think has to do with the ego and an unwillingness to release the self completely. To me, a truly excellent performance gives me tunnel vision: All I see is what’s happening in front of me. Like when I get sucked into a writing project. I resurface for air and dimly realize time has somehow passed.
On the flip side of that, a full embrace of technique can be magnificent. The documentary Sing, Dance, Act: Kabuki featuring Toma Ikuta is a gorgeous example of this. Kabuki (a classical Japanese style of theater originating in the early 17th century, for you non-history nerds) is highly stylized, with specific expressions and movements, where even just walking into a scene takes ages of practice to get it just right. It takes years to train at this specialized form of storytelling where every tiny movement must be perfectly executed to just the right order or it pulls the viewer right out. It’s a sort of mechanical immersion, a very different plan of attack from the raw, instinctive style I’m accustomed to. There' s something poetic about taking a thing and breaking it down to the smallest, most basic elements. Refining them. Crafting them together again in a pure form. Japanese culture does this a lot, with the language, the food. Everything lovely is a ceremony. Focused. Built upon experience and skills and technique to make it look seamless and simple when it’s anything but. Japan is full of artisans.
Many masters of art do this. It’s so very, beautifully human.
I think the way to really embrace this immersion in one’s own life and art is to find pleasure in the world around them. In the small things, the elements and atoms. In repetition and refinement. In movement and the poetry of time. To step out of oneself and focus so wholly on something else–whether in watching or in doing–that the rest of the world falls away. That’s why I started this blog. To get myself more into the habit of stepping back and viewing and cogitating. I’m reminded of a lovely French novel I’ve reread several times that does just that.
This is the (artist’s) way. Keep it real.
Va the Vo
Actor, Vocal Pro, and Writer Extraordinaire!