Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Want of An Understanding Ear

Jonathan Browning

Guest Blogger

"The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear."

- Stephen King - Different Seasons, The Body

This is one of the most beautiful quotes that I have ever read. The fact it came from a man who also gave us killer automobiles and blood soaked Prom Queens, shows that those who create darkness must also know beauty.

I posted this quote here because I believe it should resonate with artist in a deep and profound way. Anyone that creates should feel a special pull when they hear this quote. I believe that to truly create something special, you must reveal a part of yourself. Those who see, hear and/or feel your creation should also know the creator.

Over the years, I have immersed myself in a number of art forms. I've been lucky enough to do improvisation, traditional theatre, stand-up and short films. If you look at any of my work in these areas you will see a very definite set of “landmarks” that lead directly to who I am at the core. Currently I spend most of my time writing and directing short films. None of them are even close to being “autobiographical”; I am not a Day Laborer, a woman, a homeless man, a CEO, a Ninja or a super hero. Each short does reveal who I am and a little piece of that part I try to hide from the world, where my secret heart is buried.

While some of the films have received positive reactions, others have not. That is the cost of creation. To risk showing strangers, friends and family something that, inside feels so important and so revealing, only to have them shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s OK.” But that is their genuine reaction and the one offering his/her work can’t judge the honest response of the receiver. You have to accept the bitter with the sweet.

I said earlier that this is an important quote to any artist. This blog is mainly read by people at The Second City and I want to apply it directly to anyone that improvises or creates sketch comedy.

How different would a performance be if, in addition to playing “hilarious” characters on stage, we revealed ourselves as well? Instead of trying to be “clever” we chose to be honest. Instead of trying to get a laugh, we listened and reacted from a place of honesty. That is not to say that we can’t play characters or try on the skin of someone different than ourselves. (I encourage you to play a 90-year-old grandmother or a two-year-old boy and everything in-between.) But instead of playing your “idea” of them, what if you allowed them to share the same fears and hopes that you carry with you every day? What if these characters took a risk and shared their “secret treasures”? What would happen next?

That doesn’t mean that every scene would be a sad exploration of fear and loss, although I would take that over another scene where a bunch of people stand around talking about what they could do later that day. I generally find that I laugh a lot more in “real” life than I do sitting in a theatre or in front of the TV. Life is funny. Pain can be funny. Honesty is almost always funny, it is definitely more interesting. The shows that really make me laugh are the ones that capture what is real for me. (Extra's, The Inbetweeners, Modern Family and The Original Office are just a few examples.)

This goes for anyone working on sketches too. As an exercise try asking yourself, “What is a revelation that would cost me dearly if I revealed it?” That is what your next sketch should be about. You can exaggerate it or "heighten it" for comedic affect, but in its core it should be something that truly matters to you.

It’s funny to me that millions of people watch the same TV show, eat at the same fast food restaurants and wear the same type of clothing. But we think we are all alone in the world when it comes to feelings and secrets. You are not alone. People laugh because you said something that they have felt and perhaps, never shared. To quote Homer Simpson, “It’s funny because it’s true!”

That’s my blog for this week. I must admit that I feel self-conscious about writing something that could be called “sappy” or “self-indulgent”. But it is a revelation that I wanted to share and I truly hope it means something to you as well. Thanks for indulging me. Next week I shall return to tales of jet packs, over weight zombies and the dangers of dating 80’s rock bands!

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