Politicians, murderers and feminists all have something to offer
Artists should always keep their ears open for advice from unlikely sources, lest their development becomes dependent on the same cotillion of friends, colleagues and kindly aunts. I’d suggest giving the critics the benefit of the doubt, but for most artists admitting that a critic might be right is a lot like someone on Fox News admitting the folks occupying wall street might have a point: it seems to go against something in the blood.
“If someone gets attacked by an elk, you’ll lose the audience.”
So where’s an artist to go for some good, objective advice? The first stop is other artists, which is why you should always read my column. Or you could talk to playwright Hannah Moscovitch, for instance, who recently told the Globe and Mail a secret to good drama: “If someone gets attacked by an elk,” she said, “you’ll lose the audience.” This is more then an offhand remark: in my mind, it’s right up there with the rule about never putting puppies or young children on stage. Over in Bossypants, a memoir by comedienne Tina Fey, several secrets about the entertainment world are revealed, all of which go into the list of things that artists should be told but usually aren’t. As a writer, producer and actress, Tina Fey has been on both sides of the camera and she isn’t shy about warning women what it’s like. In one typically blunt remark, she reports: "Network executives really do say things like 'I just don't want to fuck anybody on this show'". It’s a wry remark that can serve as either a warning or reasons for a battle cry for all the women who want to enter the world of entertainment.
But the best advice I’ve ever found has almost always come from non-theatrical sources. My favourite acting advice, for instance, comes from a 19th century politician. Roscoe Conkling was once the most powerful Senator in New York State and was a monumental force in the Republican Party for several years. These were the years before microphones and it was not uncommon for a politician’s speech to go unheard by most of the men in a convention hall. During the Republican Nominating Convention of 1880, however, Conkling gave an oratory that was so thunderous it was heard even by people in the back of the hall. When a reporter asked how he had done it, Conkling said: “By speaking very deliberately and carefully pronouncing the vowels.” Good advice for politicians; far better advice for actors.
Here we see the Bard as we rarely see him, not over-analyzed by the literary / theatrical elite...
In 2002, This American Life reported on a program which occurred at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Facility, where inmates worked with director Agnes Wilcox to stage a production of Hamlet. This episode (#218) should be required listening for anyone who cares about Shakespeare, and not just because it’s a literal rendering of Hamlet’s remark about Denmark being a prison. Here we see the Bard as we rarely see him, not over-analyzed by the literary / theatrical elite, but boiled down to his barest essentials by a group of convicts, some of whom are guilty of the same violent crimes Hamlet himself is contemplating.
Take this examination on Horatio, played by Derek “Big Hutch” Hutchinson:
“I think he’s a chump, for real….I mean he’s supposed to be cool
with Hamlet, they’re best friends but I think Horatio’s just a
sounding board for Hamlet. I mean the majority of his lines are
‘Aye, my lord’, ‘Yes my lord.’ I mean, if you’re friends, you’re
going to communicate better than that….you’re going to tell
me your deepest secrets. I mean, I want to know what you
and Ophelia did last night.”
“Big Hutch” also has problems with the usual vision of Hamlet as someone who isn’t sure whether or not his uncle really did kill his father. “If I’m strong enough to believe in ghosts,” says Big Hutch, “then I’m strong enough to believe what this ghost tells me.” To Big Hutch, Hamlet’s dilemma is that he has many reasons not to kill Claudius – for instance, if Claudius is dead, Hamlet himself may be crowned King, which means he’d have to sacrifice his freedom for the trappings of a political life. His debate is not a moral one, but rather one of honour versus personal desires.
The latest news cycle has thrown Gloria Steinem once more into the narrative, provoked by a new HBO documentary about her life. Steinem may be a proponent of feminine rights, but much of what she says can be applied to all artists regardless of their gender. In a recent interview with Jian Ghomeshi, she said, “The hardest thing is not being criticized for what you do wrong, but being criticized for what you did right.” Here we find a statement that all artists should hold tight to their hearts. Our reaction to criticism may be vitriolic, but we should always try to identify those critiques that are attacking us for doing precisely what we set out to do – in which case our work, whether reviled or not, should be marked as a resounding success.