Learn it Through the Doing

Learn it Through the Doing

I’ve heard that when Meryl Streep first reads a script she’s got a red pen at hand. If she comes across a word or phrase of her dialogue that she intuitively flinches at or that doesn’t make sense to her, she circles it. Then she keeps on reading. Later, as she works on the character – memorizing lines, finding her own way into the emotional life – she resists the impulse to fight with those circled words. She just lets them work on her while she’s working on what she knows, what she understands in the script. But she remains conscious of them all the same.

Almost always, somewhere during the push me-pull you process of marrying herself to the character, there’ll be an “aha!” when the meaning of those tricky words suddenly clicks. When that happens, she’s said: I discover something true about the character. Something I couldn’t have imagined. I had to learn it through the doing.

A few caveats: a) that’s not an actual quote from LaStreep. I took a bushel of authorial liberty there; b) the overall story could be apocryphal but I don’t think so; I heard it directly from a straight-shooter who’s worked with her, and c) even if apocryphal, I like the story so I’m sticking with it. Particularly my made up quote – all of which she might be inclined to circle in red pen. (I think I made up the red pen part too. It’s possible.)

The story was offered to me as an acting lesson and, at the time my first thought was “Well, what if it’s just a crap script?” Now that I’m writing more, I’m not as quick to dismiss the writer’s work. Besides, if it’s a crap script I’m guessing she’s not circling the troublesome bits because, well, why bother?

I offer the story, notwithstanding my garnishments, as more of a life lesson because as all good acting lessons are, it’s that too.

Lately, while working through my own illegible life script, I’ve been identifying some unsettling, troublesome bits. Instead of gently flagging them and continuing onward, allowing the questions of “why am I troubled by that? What does it mean?” to just be there in the background, I’ve stopped in place, gnashing my teeth and wailing

“Why is this in my script?!? I don’t understand it!!! I don’t want it here! Give me something prettier to say! to work with!”

I can’t afford to give the writers a raise so this is the script I’ve got. For now. But it’s a perfectly fine script. And I know the work to do on it . . . I know how to do it. And on my better days (and there are many of them, something else for me to remember) I also trust that in those troublesome bits, those riddles, some potential for transformation lies. But I can’t go at ‘em with hammer and thongs.

Maybe personal revelation will come. Maybe it won’t. But in the interim, I’m getting work done on the rest of the script. And life goes on.

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