Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's Song Got To Do With It?

Picture this. You sign up to take a cabaret workshop in which you are going to work on a song with an acting teacher and a vocal coach during the day, and perform it at night. You choose a song. You learn it. You attend the workshop and sing your song. After you sing, the other attendees clap, but the acting teacher (the brilliant Alan Langdon from famed Circle in the Square) quietly waits for the applause to stop. He then smiles at you and says, “So how was that? How did it go?”

One by one, each attendee experiences something similar. The reactions to this question include wiggling, giggling, saying “Ummm” a lot, or “I don’t know,” or “Pretty good, I guess.” People talk about the notes they missed or the lyrics they forgot. The teacher presses on. “No,” he says, “I’m not talking about that. I want to know if you feel you expressed yourself fully.”


After moving past the initial discomfort, you start to answer truthfully. “I think I expressed some of what I wanted to, but not all of it.” Great. Then the questions get harder. They have to do with why you chose the song you did, what drew you to it, what is going on right now in your life that you can draw on to express what you really want to express. Is it pain, anger, sadness, joy, abandonment?

Sounds like character work, right? Some people answer “she feels this” or “he feels that,” referring to the character singing the song from whatever musical or show the song hails. No. “I’m not interested in what the character is feeling,” the teacher says, “I’m interested in what YOU are feeling.”


Well, that’s harder, now isn’t it? And what I have found is that this pertains to my writing—both fiction and nonfiction. The first, second, third steps, and so on, are learning as much about my character as I can, of course. But the gem I’ve taken from these acting/singing workshops is that if I can then extend the thought process to include discovering similarities between what the person has gone through and something I can relate it to for myself, I might be able to put myself in their shoes that much more. It can deepen my awareness of that person and understand somewhat more about their motivations.

Give it a try—the results can be illuminating!


Jim Murphy said...

What a great post. It gets to the core of why some nonfiction/fiction works, while others fall short (even though well executed). I think it's very hard to let the emotions go full speed; we're brought up to contain our emotions, to be civilized, etc. And letting go can make a writer feel very exposed. My advice is always the same: Take a deep breath, say exactly what you want, and worry about any problems after it's written.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Tanya, your post really strikes a chord in me (forgive the pun). I find that my writing flows better, that my voice is freer--literally and figuratively--when I'm singing regularly. Thanks for this lovely reminder.