Thursday, December 30, 2010

Inhabitation

My many jobs: erratically chosen, it would appear, far-reaching on the scale of demands and skill requirements. But no! Let me connect them, if not for you, for me.

Gym fitness. I see a guy doing tricep push-downs and know he's putting too much stress in his back. I'm not mentally comparing him to a chart of proper form; rather, for that moment, I am him, I inhabit his body and know how it works. As a newcomer I struggle to quickly pinpoint the solution for him, i.e., "pin your elbows in." But as for the knowing, I know.

Writing. Entering a topic, stepping into someone's shoes, hearing and staying true to a voice. Allowing yourself to walk into another world or the perspective of a reader makes writing come alive. Stay there. Inhabit that place. Don't wander off for a brief journey to a joke if the mood is somber, no matter how good the joke is. Don't show off a large vocabulary where a simple line will do. Stay in the world. This is more difficult than discerning a guy's shoulder raises are being propelled by his trapezoid muscles, but well worth the effort.

Theatre. Of course an actor must inhabit a character, but I've always been on the directing and teaching side, which still requires this. On more than one occasion I've given an actor direction, stopped, and realized I hadn't a clue what lines she was speaking. None! Yet my direction, checked against the words and their meanings, was appropriate. I could sense where she needed to go if not why. The director can be more inarticulate about this than the fitness coach, and certainly moreso than the writer. "Give me more (sound effect) there," I might say, and the actor understands. You can see why I'm having a little trouble adjusting to, "Place your feet shoulder-width distance apart on the middle of the footpad, your knees at a 90-degree angle..."

There is more to each job than inhabiting, of course, but I see that this is a skill I draw on often. It links together all my work, which is helpful to know on weeks when I'm at the gym, conducting phone interviews, and prepping a script for rehearsal (this week). It's not as voodoo as I might make it seem, but instead is the essence of being human, being present to your surroundings, and, above all, to empathy.

Currently, I'm working on a staged reading with former prisoners, and at our last rehearsal, I pushed the boundaries of what was helpful to these men, in a moment much like the directing-unawares occurrences. The instinct was good and, ultimately, what was needed; the intervening struggle was, however, unnerving. What right have I to step into the shoes of an ex-con and make a judgment call? In this case, the right of the artist/coach/writer who relied on instinct, and was rewarded. A story for another time, maybe, but it's highly personal; I'm hesitant, stepping back, observing the men and wondering what is best.

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