Sunday, September 9, 2007

DO NOT SUSPEND YOUR DISBELIEF - YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED (Penelope Fitzgerald, Sherlock Holmes, Harris Burdick, tesseracts, oh! and a cool weblog)

Odds and ends and one diatribe .

I started Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels yesterday as planned, but I don't think I'll be going there right now. I'll give it one more try. I did dip into another library find: The Beekeeper's Apprentice which is the first in Laurie R. King's series of books featuring 15-year-old Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, yes THE Sherlock Holmes. This was a recommendation from Kate's Book Blog, so far I like the way Holmes is reimagined, the book is framed three times, once by the original novels courtesy of Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson - this is the "original Holmes" known to most but since Mary Russell is meeting the "actual Holmes," this allows for a subtle differences. Then Mary writes in the introduction that this manuscript was written as she approaches 90 years of age. The third frame is Laurie King's - claiming to have been delivered these manuscripts by mail and re-written them - correcting grammar, etc.. King has built a series of puzzle boxes that allow for the differences any Sherlock Holmes fanatics might find, and adding to a sense of intrigue at beginning the book - I am finding it great fun.

It reminds me of one of my favorite books, a gift from Sheila, in fact, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsberg. If you don't know it - well I suppose it's not for everyone - but the "stories" are black and white drawings each with one line of text of the facing page. That's it. You do the rest. It's great to read before going to bed. I love this book, I've nearly destroyed it packing it with notes and carrying it with me everywhere, since I've used it for years when doing certain exercises I've created as an acting teacher. In fact, it's behind me on the shelf right now, it's jacket long gone, it's spine in shreds, but the birthday inscription intact. The introduction to the book begins:
Thirty years ago a man called at Peter Wender's office, introducing himself as Harris Burdick. Mr. Burdick explained that he had written fourteen stories and had drawn many pictures for each one. He'd brought with him just one drawing from each story, to see if Wenders liked his work.

Peter Wenders was fascinated by the drawings. He told Burdick he would like to read the stories that went with them as soon as possible. The artist agreed to bring the storeis the next morning. He left the fourteen drawing with Wenders. But he did not return...

I adore this book it accomplishes something I think all art must do in our self conscious age, invite the audience in and earn our trust in its artifice. Diatribe alert..............................................

Ok, you've been warned,
I think that the willing suspension of disbelief is one of the biggest crocks of s#%* out there. And I think the phrase is an absolute crime when artists claim they wish to accomplish it. When I director a play or opera I don't want my audience to disbelieve anything, least of all their own lives. What possible use can what I've made have if it cannot be experienced in the context of the audience's lives? It can never have resonance. Want I want is their deep belief in the micro-universe I've created. To do this I might woo them, cadjole them, strong-arm them, invite them - the techniques are endless. Through this process I establish my language and do what I need to do to earn their belief. But asking someone to "suspend disbelief" is like inviting them to forget that proverbial white elephant. It won't happen because you've asked it to. I believe it is the creation of belief or faith in a new world the artist is after, and that new world is nestled within the one the reader or viewer, or theater goer brought with them. Diatribe over.

Anyhoo, I think the introduction to Harris Burdick accomplishes this perfectly for the combination of its content and its reader and, so far, The Beekeeper's Apprentice seems to be doing the same.

Speaking of perfection of content for reader, I give you of this:
It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scuddled frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Don't you just want to get into bed and read on?! That's what I loved about Madeliene L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time which Cynthia Zarin called:
it is - depending on how you look at it - science fiction, a warm tale of family life, a response to the Cold War, a book about a search for a father, a feminist tract, a religious fable, a coming-of-age novel, a work of Satanism, or a prescient meditation on the future of the United States after the Kennedy assassination.

Zarin wrote a profile of L'Engle for The New Yorker in 2004 called The Storyteller, which I kept in my copy . It makes a lovely tribute for L'Engle who died this week at 88, going through her own wrinkle in time. I toast her, with a cup of jade oolong.

Oh, and I almost forgot... I've been enjoying my visits here a lot lately.


Anonymous said...

I love how much you love Harris Burdick - best gift I ever gave!!

And I don't think we've ever discussed the whole "willing suspension of disbelief" thing - but now I really want to. I REALLY see your point with this .. it's interesting - I posted a quote from one of Madeleine L'Engle's books yseterday (I think it was yesterday) - and it has to do with "belief". The simple belief of children - first of all ... and what they can teach us.

That's why I like to say I belong to the "bang bang you're dead" school of acting.

When kids pretend to shoot each other and go into a swan-dive of "death" - there is no "suspension of disbelief" - even though the gun is imaginary, and they are 5 years old and NOT dying from multiple gunshot wounds. They don't "suspend disbelief". They flat out BELIEVE.

That's how I've always wanted acting to feel to me - and I'm not always there, of course - and sometimes you need tools to help you believe - but, to me, the best kind of acting is when you see someone, an adult, in a full-blown state of make-believe. They aren't "pretending" to believe - they DO believe.

Hard to describe the difference - but it's so clear when you see it!!

And rest in peace, Madeleine. Thanks for everything.

Ted said...

I guess it's the old - you can't play a negative action thingy - not just in acting, in life in general, I think. That's not to say that we sometimes don't look back and discover that awareness of our quotidian world has been absent for a while, but we can't demand that that happen directly ourselves and we should assume even less about what we can do to manipulate others. Anyone who ever tells me about an acting or directing technique that involves their certainty about how they are influencing their audience is a BIG FAT LIAR. Not that I have any strong opinions on the matter. However we can, I think, learn to encourage our own belief, some of my students used to call it "soft effort" and that's what technique is all about. A director or painter or writer can also invite the audience into a certain kind of experience in which we establish some rules, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, and gently provide them entry into our universe, but the rest is up to them.

Eva said...

I looooove the Mary Russell series-so glad that you've started the first one! (note to self: must blog about it at some point)

I also loved The Mysteries of Harris Burdick when I was younger; I was in a gifted and talented program in elementary school, and we did a lot of neat stuff with the book. I've thought about it on and off for years, but I never knew the title. So thank you so much for posting about it!