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Take Pains. Be Perfect.

“We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains. Be perfect. Adieu.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This morning, I ordered The Hollow Crown. I have, I admit, already seen it, and pre-ordered the DVD I could play in Canada the moment it became available. That’s for another post. (It’s excellent. All four parts. Buy it. Buy it buy it buy it.)

It will be clear to anyone who knows me, and any regular readers I have, that I’ve been going through a bit of a funk. This site is my professional face, so I won’t go on about the other facets of my existence not going right, but my professional playwriting facet hasn’t been going the way I wish either, which has compounded things.

About a month ago, I asked myself, “Why am I still doing this?” And for the first time in my life…I couldn’t answer myself right away.

I chose to devote my brain, my every moment really, to writing for theatre. I chose it because I love doing it. But WHY did I love it?

I couldn’t remember.

The wonderful Mr Simkins’ Guardian article gives one reason the majority of us (yes, I’m saying US) keep at it: “it’s a drug – and once it gets in your system, it’s difficult to break the habit”. When you do get a role, when a show you’re doing goes well, it is very like a shot of adrenaline. You feel great.

It’s the bite of the theatre bug. At the end of high school, where I’d been called one of the best actors they’d seen in a long time and an excellent writer, I asked my drama teachers if they honestly thought I could hack it in drama school. They said no. I wasn’t thick-skinned enough, I’d be eaten alive. Good, I thought, that’s that. So I did my English degree, intending to become…a journalist? …a teacher? Lying to yourself is futile, ladies and gentlemen. Halfway through my third year, I won a playwriting contest. I had been infected by the theatre bug when I was FOUR. No escape.

Take Pains. Be Perfect.

So. Apparently this is what I’m meant to do. I’ve worked my tail off at it. Other theatre professionals have told me I am good and should keep at it. And here I was, about a month ago, questioning at age 38 what the hell I’ve been doing. Ultimately I chose to write and keep writing because I love it…

But without remembering, even for myself, why I love it, I had my worst anxiety attack in years.

There were some shows in the last month I wanted to see. I didn’t go. One night I tried watching a movie at home, a movie I’d seen before and enjoyed, just to take my mind off things, and stopped it in a panic when I saw the boom mike in frame. I’m not watching the movie anymore, why is the mike…! I went to the house of my best friends, while they were feeding their kids dinner, and had a breakdown with them.

Now…we come to Shakespeare.

I was at home after a long day at my day job, watching cat videos on YouTube. I happened upon a review of The Hollow Crown series, and although I’d seen them already…I watched it.

A very brief prelude for all who haven’t seen it: the review contained a clip of the scene in Henry IV part 2, where King Henry — played by Jeremy Irons — is awake in the dead of night, wandering into the throne room of his blue-moonlit-castle, saying “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Stendhal’s Syndrome. I am not exaggerating.

Take Pains. Be Perfect.

Perfect script. Perfect adaptation of a perfect script. Perfect actor in that part. Perfect setting. Perfectly set. Perfect perfect PERFECT.

And when the last bit of The Hollow Crown was broadcast in Britain last year, and was pre-empted by Wimbledon…there was an outcry from the public. Over Shakespeare.

These films had the very best actors cast in exactly the right roles, and exactly the right crew making them, from the costumes to the swords to the direction. They were perfect, and the audience agreed.

I am still learning, in this, my long, rarely-paying playwriting career. Some tidbits I’ve learned:

– when to admit that a script I have worked diligently on is still not ready to be seen.
– when to leave the director and cast to get on with it, and when–because I’m the producer and coming up with the money–to step in.
– that the perfect actor may not always be cast in their role, sometimes for the stupidest of reasons, and so that show will not be perfect — and one must get on with life, and the next show.
– that audiences and critics are seeing your show with NEW EYES. Listen and weigh what they say…they may be right.
– that striving for the perfect show means getting hurt. Badly.

My fellow playwright Kim McCaw told me once about a good friend of his who’s been an actor in London for years. He’s been in too many shows to count, and after every show, his friends and family have come backstage and said “Well done, we really enjoyed that.” Then he was in War Horse. And everyone came backstage screaming “OH MY GOD! That was AMAZING!”

Many shows turn out badly. Some shows are good. A few are perfect.

I am taking pains to be perfect. I am hurting because I want my work not to be good, but perfect. Whenever I have written the best script, and gotten the perfect director for it, and the perfect actors in each part AND for each other, the show has been perfect. And on those few occasions, the audience, no matter how small, has loved it. I am selling only the scripts of Crushed and Take a Bite because I am that proud of them. They are, I daresay, perfect.

THAT is what I love.

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I hate being right.

I had a dread of reading this Guardian story, which a fellow APN member tweeted almost a week ago. I finally read it today. And I’ve just listened to this CBC Definitely Not the Opera podcast, which has left me seething.

In the wide world, I’m not much of anybody. So when I say “there is never enough money”, and a contributor to the Guardian says something similar, multiplied by a million, all I can think is I wanted to be wrong!

Mr Simkins says two things in his writeup that really strike me:
“People often ask me what the essential difference is between professional actors and amateurs. Their presumption is invariably that it’s to do with talent. But in fact the only defining difference is whether you have the stomach for the lifestyle – one in which rejection, disappointment and despair are part of your daily routine.”

Recently I’ve been trying to explain to people I know who aren’t involved in theatre at all what makes it so hard, and why I still insist on not giving up this whole writing plays thing when I still have to keep a day job. How do you explain that an actor who works regularly may be living at the poverty line? How does it make logical sense that a playwright can have a show produced, and then not have anything else done for years, and so has to keep working at something else entirely? If you’ve gotten there, haven’t you “made it”?

And here’s the second:
“The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it.”

Someone I know is an avid fan of reality TV, and one day was discussing, with genuine seriousness, how arrogant a particular contestant was. I burst out: “He’s on a reality show! Of course he’s arrogant!”

I am absolutely furious, I am stuffed to the gills with WTF, that although there seems to be widespread acknowledgement that the arts are cool and involve work, that this acknowledgement doesn’t translate to support for art. How, HOW is it that vain, brainless, arrogant people get to be on TV, while talented, hard-working people who wish to do something entertaining and important struggle to do so? Why is there a paying audience for vain, brainless, arrogant people on TV, at the expense of stories worth watching? WHY?

The DNTO podcast partly answered my question. There’s a section in it with an author named Jake Halpern, who’s written a book titled Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favourite Addiction. Please, do listen, and fear. When people say they would rather be a celebrity’s bag handler than a lawmaker, it tells me this:

audiences watch people who would otherwise never be famous, because it means anyone in that audience could one day be on TV too, and have their brush with fame.

Perhaps it’s an offshoot of my recent identity crisis from playwright to prose-writer, but I really want to do some research and write out my own ideas on this, as…an essay, I guess? Does anyone do that anymore?

For now, I feel a little less alone in feeling alone. I mostly write–and re-write–with no company other than my cat. And when a show (which I have produced myself) ends, once the joy wears off, I feel empty. Along with anger at myself for feeling self-pity when the shows of friends didn’t do so well. PLUS resentment, on behalf of us all, at morons who steal focus from us by being morons.

I will attempt to explain tomorrow just why on earth I still do this.