Thursday, December 22, 2022

Lights Out

ephemeral nature of our work

hazy scene of a cabaret performer wearing a dress performing for patrons in a full venue under shafts of light
Cabaret by David August

I imagine these same questions are what the Twitter alums are dealing with right now. It will be difficult for them, too. But this [company closing and turning off all the servers] is a necessary step in the career for anyone who wants to arrange electrons for a living. Because the things we make, the ways we express our creativity, none of it is tangible. It can all go away with the press of a button. And we have to face that part of the bargain with our eyes open. Making something lasting of our lives is difficult, and very few of us will ever do it. But making something lasting with electrons? It might be damn near impossible.

(from When the Lights Go Out).

Projects fall apart. We hate it when they do, but they do sometimes. Blue Sky is a movie made in 1991 that spent 3 years in a vault after the production company Orion's bankruptcy. Then, Jessica Lang won an Academy Award for her work in it after it was later released. There is a story I've not been able to confirm that Brad Pitt, before Thelma & Louise, was in a movie that was going to be his star-making turn, and the footage was lost in the scramble to evacuate from Yugoslavia as it descended into war.

But less dramatically, sometimes funding falls out. Sometimes people withdraw, sometimes any number of things make a project stop, dead in its tracks. The lights go out.

What are we to do as actors, how are we to seek any sort of meaning, will our work even be remembered?

Even highly established actors may not be widely known in a generation. I once heard a story of a teacher in the 21st Century marveling that their students didn't know who James Cagney, Marlene Dietrich and other major 20th Century stars were. Their students simply hadn't been exposed to work by some titans of the industry, people who helped define what film is.

So what are we to do? If every project we are in can go into turnaround or stall out entirely at any time, and if our work can be forgettable in decades (or in the case of most films from the silent era, lost entirely), how do we cope?

How do we handle knowing our work is fleeting? We try to embrace it.

Life is fleeting. Don't stop reading worried I'm going into some woo woo jag, or worry I only mean "all we have is now." While life, and our work, does happen in the now, it changes everything. Everything. Our work changes everything.

The American people have spent more on entertainment than they do on food for over ten years now. More money than being nourished physically is being spent on nourishing our hearts and minds (with some distraction thrown in there too). People are arguing about media and entertainment's role in civilization as before, only now more loudly since the internet lets people's anger and joy find audiences like no generation ever before.

From the time when we all lived in caves and told stories around the fire at night, and someone stood up and acted out a sequence, we have needed entertainment. We have needed storytelling. We need it like we need air.

Not only is a whole hemisphere of our brains seemingly built to make narratives out of our experiences, but whole countries need stories to understand and invent who they are, their identities. A people need to have a story of how they are a group, and a person needs a story of who they are and how they're living.

We risk collapsing all of this into solipsism, saying that our mind is all that we can be sure exists. But story, the narratives of our lives, are central to how we do what we do, and how we understand the world. And actors are assistant storytellers.

 My occupation is assistant storyteller. It is not "icon."
- Harrison Ford

So maybe it is perfectly fine if in a few decades strangers don't remember us. We still help tell the stories, we still touch the lives of those we know, meet, work with and love. If we make some great work, really truly great stuff, and if the world doesn't end up noticing, it hurts. It does.

It is not fun to do amazing things and have that stuff go away and seem like it never happened. But that's the thing. Since an early human acted out a story around the fire, an actor's work has been fleeting. For centuries, live performance was all there was. It was gone when the curtain fell, save for the hearts and minds it touched.

There could be paintings or sketches of an actor's work, but the performance itself: vanished.

Then photographs could capture fractions of a second of our work more accurately. Finally, film could hold the performance over time. Then something interesting started to happen: everyone could think something can be forever.

But maybe even then we're missing something, risking solipsism again. The performance never had substance in a tangible way to begin with. The film is not us, it is a representation of us. A reflection or sorts. Sure, films made today can be preserved and seen by people not yet born. Time shifting is compelling, but our selves, our bodies and minds aren't on that celluloid or in that binary data stored on a chip.

We can go further. The live stage performances didn't put us actually into the audience so much as move their hearts and minds. The early human acting around the fire did the same. We have always been touching the minds and hearts of the audience. That's the work.

Commerce and technology make it seem like our lives and the lives of those generations of pre-film actors are fundamentally different. Our need to light things well for a self-tape audition, so we can capture and digitize our image and voice, and then send them off to far places, makes it easy to think we're different than other epoch's actors. It seems like we're different than other epoch's humans.

But here's the permanence of it, here's the everlasting part of our work. It's not the disk drives, or the database entries that hold our work, that give our work substance. It's not the reviews and moldering stage costumes in theatres around the world that make our work real and impacting. It is the fact humans are the only part of the physical universe we know of that are conscious of themselves and we, actors, tell that part of the universe's stories.

You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.
- Alan Watts

If you think being a wave means having no impact, just ask anyone who's experienced an undertow, or been in a city that's faced a storm surge.

Actors absolutely have substance and our impact echoes through the ages.

Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. Those people's performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment.
- David Mamet

Our power and lasting permanence is in our ethereal and unbounded possibilities.

One only needs to read Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley to start to grasp the folly of fixating on permanence:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Our work may be fleeting, even if the technology of film and TV lets it last for decades or centuries. But the hearts and minds we move, and the way those people then change the world, those things will ripple on through to the end of time. And that is the un-substantive substance of our work.

Like lighting in a bottle, an actors work cannot be held: it is intangible. That's sometimes scary, and hard to get our minds around. Especially when we've bills to pay. That's partly why acting takes more than our minds to do. It's why getting in our heads alone usually doesn't get the scene or the moment the life it really needs. We are the squishy, and that's more than ok, it's good.

People talk about content often using that word in part to try to put a handle on something that cannot be contained. Sure, cat videos are content too, but at its most moving: our work is meant to be hard to hold in our hands, our minds and hearts.

It is part of why accidental behavior caught on film is often so compelling. Which is why having the illusion of the first time and being in the moment can be so vital. It is part of why facing uncertainty with courage is often something good acting (immediate, authentic, interesting and fun) has as part of it.

So between action and cut, or curtain up and curtain down, amid fake danger, courage and life is the order of the day.

Let the realm of paying our bills, grocery shopping and other concrete things get our attention when we seek the tangible, purely physical and logistic. But when we're acting, let yourself fly.

And if you want help flying, I'd love to work with you. I'll use this corpuscle of the physical, tangible and concrete to button up this post: my acting coaching website, that I put together in like five minutes when a friend asked if I had one, is here:

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