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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Year without Theater

by Paula Gaill Benson

Usually, my first message of the new year is a recap of the preparation and production of an original Christmas musical that I write and direct for my church’s drama ministry. A group of us have collaborated on a number of these projects and find they are both creatively fulfilling and a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays.

In 2020, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, not only were we unable to put on a Christmas musical, but in March, we had to halt the rehearsals that had begun for our biannual production of The Living Last Supper, a program we usually present the week before Easter. Thanks to our Pastor’s editing skills, we were able to put together an online service of Bible readings, monologues, and hymns that was presented midday on Good Friday.

The past year has been lonelier without the companionship of actors and backstage workers. I’ve missed seeing an interpretation emerge that I hadn’t recognized in the writing. Just as Auntie Mame sings, “We need a little Christmas now,” I’ve thought how wonderful it would be once again to enjoy the collective experience of watching a play and listening to the audience reaction.

During this time of social separation, I’ve found myself succumbing to binge watching televised series, some I had seen and others that were new to me. Following a season’s programs in rapid succession gives you a different perspective of the show. You make connections that weren’t apparent earlier and notice story arc structures. Sometimes, you even watch an episode again to verify how a theme or plot device was developed.

Meanwhile, in my own writing, I’ve found myself sinking more deeply into describing character reactions. My first drafts often have a lot of nods in agreement or shrugs to indicate not knowing or indifference. This past year, those have diversified into short, curt head bobs and throwing up one’s hands in frustration. I’ve considered the movement of eyebrows, lips, hands, and silence to express emotions.

In other words, I’ve become both actor and director, which I guess I always was, but the actor’s craft is getting a little more focus.

When Craig Johnson of Longmire fame spoke at Murder in the Magic City, he mentioned that his audio book narrator had complimented him because his writing made it easy to understand which character was speaking or acting. Craig said he aimed for that kind of seamlessness in his text in order to keep his readers engaged.

Acting brought me into the theater. I’ve always loved being on stage, creating a world with other actors.

This past year, I’ve renewed my joy in acting by bringing it to the page. In doing so, I’ve found new dimensions for portraying motive, passion, love, and even cynicism.

One of the stories I wrote this past year was my most complex yet for plotting and characterization. It took a lot of time to come together. I found the weaving of its elements frustrating because so much was conveyed through subtext, and that’s more difficult on the page than through body movement and expression on stage and in film.

I was delighted that the story has been accepted for an anthology. When I told a friend about it, he asked if he could read it. After I sent it to him, he responded with an email full of questions about the characters, their motivations, and his interpretations. I’m grateful he became so involved in the story and saw it on several levels. I truly appreciate his sharing his reaction with me. I very much needed to make that connection with a reader/viewer.

Hopefully, 2021 will give us the chance to experience theater and social gatherings again. Meanwhile, how have you found your writing, reading, and viewing influenced by a year of isolation?


Jim Jackson said...

I've found it harder to write -- I think that has less to do with social isolation as to the political craziness and wondering if the baby boomers will be remembered as birthing the generation that killed the United States.

My reading has morphed from mostly a combination of mystery, thriller, suspense novels and nonfiction to include a large percentage of fantasy and YA. Perhaps they are more straight-forward tales of good versus evil and character growth in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

My 2021 writing has been more focused again, and fingers crossed enough vaccines will be manufactured and enough people will accept them that the pandemic will be broken this year and closer social contacts can return to norm.

Annette said...

I've often thought of the connection between writing a character and acting, putting myself inside the character's mind and skin. What would they experience? How would they react? What do they see and how do they interpret it?

Nice to learn I'm not alone!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Congratulations on having a productive 2020. With no place to go, I've been able to focus on my work.

Kelly Brakenhoff said...

Congratulations on using a difficult time to improve another aspect of your work. I also binge watched TV over the holidays looking for clues to plot, story structure, and character development. It seems we can learn more about writing wherever we look if only we pay attention. Great article!

Shari Randall said...

This has been a tough year for theater lovers, and I can only imagine how rough it was for actual theater folk like you, Paula. I'm a huge theater buff and miss the communal magic of theater. Fingers crossed that we can get back somewhat to normal this year.
Glad you've been able to write, and to use some of the acting and directing techniques you've honed in your writing. That would make a cool blog!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

I've missed the creative reach of live theater -- watching taped performances isn't as good for me. Early on, masked, I went with two friends to the theater .. all safety precautions were in place, including spaced seating except with your own pod....but we immediately felt uncomfortable as people dropped their masks, etc. We ran to sit in the back row instead of our usual area.... and escaped quickly. Haven't been back since, but miss it terribly.

I wish I could say my writing has improved during this period of time, but I'm moving a little slower than before. Great blog.

KM Rockwood said...

Usually we attend several live theater productions a year (community theater, dinner theater, and we often get season tickets to a traditional "summer stock" theater, the Totem Pole Playhouse.)

Needless to say, all of this has fallen by the wayside this year.

I hope these will resume once the pandemic is under control. I think many aspects of our lives will emerge in a transformed state and some, unfortunately, may not emerge at all.

Kait said...

Fascinating how the pandemic has affected your writing. Except for making me a bit more prolific, I haven’t changed much else up. There was a blog, or perhaps it was a conversation on a list serve, that suggested treating each chapter as a television segment and a lead-in to a commercial. Your post expands this idea to character portrayals. Note made and taken.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thank you all so much for checking in and commenting. It seems that with each challenge faced last year, I found new discoveries. Like Jim, I found myself diversifying reading. When I felt isolated from people, I found it comforting to be able to delve into the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters I found interesting in authors’ works or sought to craft myself. Annette, you are definitely not alone in considering both movements and motivations to create characters. Thanks, Margaret. I’m glad you’ve been able to focus more on writing. Kelly, I’ve been so glad to have more control over my TV viewing so I can analyze what I find most effective about the writing. Shari, Debra, and Kathleen, I can’t wait until we feel safe about enjoying live performances again. I worry for the performers and production staff as well as for the audience. Kait, I love that thought about looking at writing like TV segments with commercials. Thanks for sharing!

Jackie Layton said...

I agree it's important to find the silver linings in the pandemic. I'm not downplaying the horror of COVID, but there are a few good things. Congrats on finding new discoveries!
My granddaughter is going to be in a play through her school, but we won't go to see it. It'll be online. Because we don't live close, I'm happy about it.

Paula Gail Benson said...

That’s wonderful, Jackie. I hope we can keep incorporating what we’ve learned about video productions to provide access to more people.