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?