All the World’s a Stage

By Brett Battles

I search for inspiration in almost everything I come across in life. It could be in the emotional tension of a well made, and some times not well made, movie, the turn of phrase in a favorite book, the colors or lack thereof in a thought provoking painting. But I also find it in the more common things. The kindness between two strangers at the counter of a coffee shop, the way the leaves blow across the sidewalk in the fall, the sound of music being played by someone just learning a new instrument.

As writers were are artists, and by definition creative. But that doesn’t mean the creativity is flowing off us from the moment we wake up until the moment we go back to sleep. For most of us it ebbs and flows depending on our mood, how much sleep we’ve had, or maybe what we’ve had to drink. But for me, more than anything else, creativity is often stimulated by outside influences.

As a creative type you can’t always know when or where inspiration will hit you, but you can sometimes put yourself in a position it can find you if it wants.

That’s what I did on Tuesday night.

A very good friend of mine who I’ve known for over twenty-five years has become a successful theater director here in Los Angeles. So much so that he has been able to do something many of his colleagues only dream of doing, and that is directing full time. Doesn’t mean he’s make tons at it yet, but he is doing what he loves. He’s also starting to make a very good name for himself. And I couldn’t be happier for him. He is a great guy, and a loyal friend. If you ever get a chance to look at the acknowledgments of any of my books you see the name Jon Rivera or Jon Lawrence Rivera…same guy, and they are both him. Jon will always be in my acknowledgments because he has proven to be a better friend to me than anyone ever has the right to have. For that, I’ll never be able to thank him enough.

Jon directs several plays a year at theaters all over town. He’ll occasionally be asked to also direct a play at one of the local colleges. In addition, for the past year, the faculty at USC asked him to teach theater directing at their school, something he’s been doing for over a year now.

Anyway, the play he is currently working on is a world premiere called LAWS OF SYMPATHY. He’s doing it though the theater group he formed called Playwrights’ Arena, whose mission is to produce plays written by people who live in the Los Angeles area. A pretty cool idea.

Tuesday night I went downtown to the space they were rehearsing and watch for awhile as Jon and his actors worked on two of the scenes from the play. Since this piece has never been produced before, they were working out a lot of the issues that established shows would have had worked out years ago. Things like “Why is this scene set in this location?” or “Why are you having this conversation now when you could have had it on the phone earlier?” or “What is the emotion behind what you are saying?”

It was absolutely fascinating to watch. Plays, as you may are may not know, are a writer’s medium. Whatever is on the page is what the actors have to say. It’s not like the movies where often the script is more like a guideline. Here, if a director or an actor want to make a change bad enough, they must consult with the playwright, who may very well just say no.

What I really enjoyed as I watched was the first scene they worked on. In the script, the scene starts in the middle of a conversation…a pretty intense conversation, by the way. But even as they began rehearsing it there was some question as to how the characters would have gotten to this point, and why the conversation was occuring in the location indicated in the script. I watched fascinated as Jon and his actors, Ahmad and Celeste, talked it through, Jon often asking the actors why their characters where doing what they were doing or saying what they were saying. Then Jon had them act out the whole seen, not just from the middle as it was written in the script, but from the beginning, improvising so that they could explore the backstory, if you will, and reach the point where the playwright had begun. This was not stuff the audience will ever see on stage, not directly anyway. They WILL see it in the way the actors will be totally comfortable with characters they are playing, making the audience forget they are watching actors at all.

It was great to see how the Ahmad and Celeste handled this. Both were excellent and really seemed to know who they were even while they were still figuring out things about their characters. What was also great was seeing them working together to explore the relationship between the characters, because that is just as important as knowing the characters themselves.

In many ways I found it to be just like what I go through as an author, and what I assume most authors go through. We are the playwrights, directors and actors of our own stories. I often act out parts, looking for motivations, and emotions. But sometimes it’s actually harder when it’s just one brain playing all these parts. I envied the fact that Jon and Ahmad and Celeste could play off each other, and not just themselves, and even daydreamed about having actors come to my house and play out scenes from my whatever I was working.

When I left the theater, I felt like I’d been mainlining creativity. I couldn’t wait to get back to my keyboard. I’m sure this jolt will be with me for several days. But the great thing is once it’s gone Jon has said I can come back any time I want to observe again. I will definitely be taking him up on that.

So what are some interesting things that have inspired you recently? Did you stumble upon them, or did you put yourself in their path?

No song this week, but something even better given our topic. A little piece of incredibly inspired creativity I came across on another blog. Enjoy!

11 thoughts on “All the World’s a Stage

  1. Steve

    Brett, enjoyed your post. Super video you found. Very creative. The snow we have received over the past two days has inspired me to learn to use the snow shovel better.

  2. Stacey Cochran

    I am humbled and honored to have had the opportunity this past year and a half to interview Michael Connelly, J.A. Jance, Mary Kay Andrews, Jeffery Deaver, John Hart, Margaret Maron, Garth Stein, Carl Hiaasen, J.D. Rhoades, Alex Sokoloff, Vicki Hendricks, and over 35 other authors for my TV show.

    Many of you have probably seen some of these interviews on YouTube.

    It has been an education, an inspiration, and a “master class” in learning what it is to be a writer.

    I totally am inspired by y’all, by everyone on this blog, and by everyone in the very cool family that is our writing community.

  3. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Battles,Great post! For me, I am inspired by my students pretty regularly. And having to come up with inciting ideas to get their minds rolling has really helped me with my own inspirations.

  4. Alli

    Brett, what a great post. I find my most creative moments are in the shower. There’s something about running water and steam that clears my head and helps me work out the aha! moment in the WIP when I’m stuck.

    That video is absolutely amazing. Who did it and who is singing the song? Very, very impressive. Thanks for adding it to your blog.

  5. Alli

    Nevermind, I just noticed the name of the artist. Ooops. Guess I wasn’t paying too much attention to the world around me a moment ago. 😉

  6. Gayle Carline

    I love the line in “Desk Set” where Spencer Tracy is giving a sort of IQ test to Katherine Hepburn and she says, “Many things remind me of many things.” I write a weekly humor column, so inspiration must strike on a regular basis or I miss my deadline.

    Great post about the way a director works with a first-time play. It never occurred to me that they would go into such depth with their actors, but it must only make the play better. I’ve often thought a playwright’s job was the toughest. In books, the author’s words point the reader down a particular path. In movies, the director points the camera so that the viewer focuses on what is necessary. But on the stage, the focus has to be commanded at all times, to keep the audience’s attention from wandering.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    Loved the video clip. The constant positioning of the shadow from the window is particularly clever.

    And I’m with Alli – so many answers to plot problems arrive when I’m in the shower that I keep threatening to hang a Chinagraph pencil in there, so I can make notes on the shower screen without having to get out.

    Failing that, loud music and fast cars.

    Gayle – I’d have to say, respectfully, that I think the author has a harder job, because they have to hold the reader’s attention for the time it takes them to read the entire story.

    If you make the decision to go and see a film or a play, you are invested in it. Unless it’s awful, you will give it your undivided attention, sitting quietly in the dark, for the length of the performance.

    But with a book, the moment the author’s skill falters, the reader’s attention drifts and the book gets put down, perhaps not to be picked up again …

  8. EC Sheedy

    Great post. Great video. I think I’m becoming a regular on this blog.

    As to finding those creative sparks, they often come as a surprise. Often at dinner parties over a glass of wine.


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