I am expecting an award-winner to land on my doorstep at any moment. Anxious host that I am, I’ve spared no effort preparing for the arrival. I’ve spent the past few days getting up a little earlier and writing a little longer - I didn’t want my visitor to get here before I’d finished the initial draft of my screenplay, and I’ve done it. Just in the nick of time. Given that I will be the only one of us to know about or appreciate this achievement, it may seem an odd affectation, but by the time UPS rings my buzzer to present me with my copy of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries, I want to satisfy myself that I’m working hard enough, and in the right direction. The truth is that Ellie’s achievement makes me envious, in the best possible way.
Envy gets such a bad rap. As one of the seven deadly sins it is considered to be a ‘capital vice’, meaning that it is believed to act as a gateway to other moral crimes, in the same way that marijuana is accused of being first stop on the fast train to heroin, and Harrison Ford is accused of murdering his wife in The Fugitive.
In all these cases, I believe that a more sober revision of the facts could help mitigate fears.
Envy: A feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.
To me, the sin in that description is the word ‘resentment’. If I was making a list of gateway sins, ‘resentment’ would be close to number one, and envy stripped of resentment would be a cardinal virtue. I’d even argue that most of civilisation’s greatest achievements have been based in that emotion. In my case, Catton’ s honour has caused me no resentment whatsoever, but it has spurred what I believe to be a healthy “discontent… aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.” I would like to work as hard as her, to achieve a similar reward in my own field.
While expressing and justifying my envy necessitates a little word-play, I think it's a better description of my feelings than other contenders. ‘Aspiration’ is ‘a strong desire for high achievement.’ Too simplistic. Surely everyone desires to achieve highly, just like everyone desires to be beautiful, skilled and slim, but in an intellectual and somewhat passive way. What envy does is provide a boot to the buttock. ‘Inspiration,’ defined as ‘a person, place, experience, etc., that makes someone want to do or create something’ is also close, but it feels a too happy-clappy to capture the sense of hunger caused by seeing someone else achieve something you hadn’t even realised you’d like for yourself. Inspiration may make you want to do something, but envy convinces you that you need to.
Beyond envy, on the far end of the spectrum of excellence, exists a deadening influence: that of wonder. I find this to be a creatively sterile emotion, because while it is important for us to witness extraordinary pieces of dexterity, the sense of wonder, which is comprised of awe and astonishment, does not offer us the feeling that we could in any way match the achievement. I often experience wonder when I watch musicians and sportsmen, who operate at sublime levels of ability in fields in which I can never hope to participate. As a playwright, Ellie’s novelistic achievement should probably be at such a remove from my medium as to inspire wonder in me, but there is something about the fact that she’s a compatriot, and of a similar age and background, that fools me into thinking that there is some possibility that I could hope to emulate her success in my own way. This may be bald and naive optimism, but it is also a powerful fuel that stimulates the desire to better oneself, and in doing so, affords the opportunity to surprise.
Eleanor Catton - thanks for making me envious.
Some of my best friends are actors. I hold a tertiary degree in the craft, and I follow its evolution with great interest, so it gives me no pleasure to report that a midweek meeting with a major Broadway producer has led me to reflect that if acting were an animal, it would be a polar bear, stranded on an iceberg due to an unfortunate quirk of climate change.
Broadway is always looking for the next big thing, by which it means the next big money-spinner, and the model on every producer’s mind right now is Sleep No More. It’s a show unlike anything that has been seen on Broadway. In fact, it’s not even on Broadway. But excitingly for everyone, in an era of sharply declining theatre attendance and ageing audiences, Sleep No More is attracting full houses of hip punters who are happy to commute to an out-of-the-way part of Manhattan and pay at least $85 a head for the privilege of chasing a stray story through the nooks and crannies of a specially refurbished hotel.
From a producer’s point of view it’s a dream come true. The audience does most of the work to create its own fun, and it needs little bidding to flock to an event with almost none of the traditional overheads associated with mounting a show on Broadway, including, and this is the kicker: it doesn’t have to employ actors. Due to the nature of the work, Sleep No More can hire non-union performers, generally dancers, who to be fair, spend most of their time generally dancing. Still. It's the latest manifestation of a familiar process. Actors are an expense, and people have been trying to get rid of them for more than a century.
Edward Gordon Craig was the first to formulate an actor-free theatre. He was a designer who worked at the time of the industrial revolution. Filled with the spirit of the age, he became frustrated by the organic inconsistency of anything not machine-tooled. Actors can fluff their lines, quibble directions, deliver inconsistent performances and find endless nefarious ways of diluting the intentions of the show's all-knowing creator. EGC's idea of the theatre of the future was to use fancy lighting and pulley systems to animate large pieces of set in a mechanical ballet analogous to watching giant driverless dodgem cars bumping into each other at the fair. The turgid awfulness of his vision is best illustrated by noting that his work was warmly received in Germany and the USSR.
Actors are not blameless for the current state of affairs. The biggest misstep has been to cultivate the audience expectation that great acting is the ability to behave naturally in artificial circumstances.
Constantin Stanislavski pioneered the modern technique of helping actors to do this. His practice can be summarised as 'a method of distraction.' The actor learns to so whole-heartedly to invest in the reality of the artificial circumstances that she is able to forget about the fact she is being observed and behave ‘naturally’. This is a simplification, but a relatively accurate one. The technique came to America and evolved into the ‘method’ acting stereotyped by actors walking the streets as vagrants in order to get into character.
This is all fine and dandy and the results are fairly spectacular, but it is a technique that is more valuable the more artificial the circumstances. Stage is the most obvious example - intimate drawing rooms are transplanted into large theatres and performers operate within a few feet of hundreds of watching eyes and straining ears. On the movie sets of the past, large cameras, and the expensive nature of film stock and crew time meant that an actor who could do what had been planned convincingly, accurately and on the first take could save producers a lot of money as well as pleasing audiences. Some of those conditions are still present for blockbusters, but thanks to the reduced size and cost and greater mobility of cameras, anywhere can be a set. This means that the artificial circumstances can become less and less artificial and the level of distraction required to overcome the performer’s self-consciousness becomes commensurately reduced. In addition, digital film stock affords the ability to shoot piles of footage at no extra cost, allowing editors to sift through many hours of cheaply acquired content for a few seconds of gold. Over the last few decades, directors have also learned to apply methods of distraction to non-actors with a remarkable result: reality TV.
I don’t need to tell you that reality TV is in fact incredibly well-crafted by extremely competent people, but it takes a lot less of them and the talent doesn’t need to be trained or paid much. The distraction technique used on non-actors is a version of the one used by Stanislavski, and its origins lie in Aristotle’s unassailable contention that personality emerges from activity: character is plot. So, to get interesting performances from regular people all you need to do is to make them perform a distracting activity. Make Jenny cook a flan in slightly less time than is comfortable, or ask a known bigot and a progressive to work together to retrieve food from the top of a coconut tree for breakfast. The activity allows these people to display character less self-consciously, and lots of footage and clever editing allows the audience to witness the bits that were most interesting.
None of this would pose a problem for actors if it wasn’t for the fact that audiences draw little distinction between activities performed by actors and non-actors, and often display a preference for the latter, cheaper version. Look at primetime viewing figures and you’ll see that programming involving unpaid customs officers rifling through the suitcases of unpaid passengers draws at least equivalent eyeballs to shows that require vast staffs of highly-skilled story makers. In August NZ On Air agreed to subsidise two shows for screening on TVNZ. Each production company has been charged with making six television-hour-long episodes. The one that will use actors costs six million dollars. The one that won’t costs six hundred thousand. Without making any qualitative predictions about either series, it’s hard to think that the more expensive one will attract ten times the viewers or advertising revenue.
Skillful screen-makers have taken the time to adjust to the competition, and have been developing sharp and brilliant distinctions - look at the calibre of cable comedy and drama that’s characterised the last ten years. What has not happened in a particularly successful way until now has been for this competition between the ordained and the lay to creep into stage, which had been the unassailable fortress of the trained actor and the bull-pen for the great screen performers to warm into their task. On stage, it’s the actor who is responsible for live editing, lighting and framing of their role in the story in which they’re participating. Where they stand, how they speak and what they do when they’re not ‘in focus’ are all crucial to the audience’s reading of the tale. In Sleep No More all these responsibilities have been divested to individual members of the audience, and they pull it off just fine.
Like the polar bear, actors are the cute face of a greater extinction that threatens writers, directors, technical and production staff. By alerting the public to their plight I have every hope they will be plucked off the iceberg in the nick of time, and create the methodology to save some other creatures in the process.
"To wipe all tears from off all faces is a task too hard for mortals; but to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power" - Samuel Johnson: The Rambler Number 107
Poverty has caused an uproar in my condominium. Our building has been ticketed for littering by the sanitation department, after a trash bag was opened by a vagrant during the night, and the unwanted contents strewn all over the footpath. It’s the second citation we’ve picked up for something that happens throughout the city every garbage day, and my neighbours are disgusted at the injustice - of the ticket, of course, not of a situation that incentivises individuals to rummage through refuse in the hope of finding... ?
In so many places, misfortune looks you in the eye every day and asks for relief. It’s hard for the most worldly among us not to feel a bit like Young Buddah when he discovered age, sickness and death in the countryside surrounding his palace. YB was stunned to learn that these things happen to everyone. No less difficult to comprehend is that penury could happen to anyone. For those not blessed with caring and fiscally liquid support networks, an accident, illness or sudden job loss is all it takes for the wheel of fortune to steer you from the highway into an irrigation ditch. From the point of view of a more fortunate individual, it seems that both anything and nothing will help, and so energy must be devoted into formulating a strategy.
America’s most popular export is the myth that anyone can succeed through hard work and effort. The other side of this coin is that those who fail are also enjoying the fruits of their own labours. Given the cockroach-like ability of this perception to survive the most nuclear of contrary proofs, I’m pleased to say that I have never witnessed any bums being berated for ‘bringing it on themselves.’
Unfortunately, an almost more sinister attitude prevails. It’s the result of philanthropy being uprooted from the soil of its religious origins and transplanted into a decorative pot to be plopped in the main square of the capitalist citadel. For charitable individuals of bygone times, say a Rockerfeller or a Carnegie, charity was a benevolent reaction to the fear inspired by the biblical parallel drawn between the rich man’s chances of getting into heaven and the camel’s hope of squeezing through the eye of a needle. In Carnegie’s essay Wealth he asserts that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Now, the idea of charity for charity’s sake, and even charity for the sake of embarrassment has fallen victim to the same rhetoric of efficiency, outcome, supply and demand used in the manufacture and distribution of products. This filters into the general population through a preference for giving alms to those who ‘earn’ their charity dollar or give best bang for the philanthropic buck. This is a Dadactic gauge, used empirically and unwittingly by everyone including yours truly to the relief of absolutely no one. My own prejudice was for a good story, and those of you who read my last blog will have sensed my intrigue at the way subway stories seem to have organically assumed a form as rigid and effective as that of an elevator pitch. The solicitor has to tell a story sufficiently brief and emotive to not only encourage donations, but allow him (usually him) enough time to collect them from passengers before the train reaches its next stop. I gave generously to a man who claimed to have spent twenty-six years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and to both individuals who followed quick on each others heels with the same story of being dismissed from the armed services after testing positive for HIV. It was only when I met a man who began to mime-reenact the homicide he allegedly committed that I worried that I was confusing my charitable intentions with my desire for entertainment, and obliging the destitute to spend serious time learning stagecraft purely to offer ‘value’ to their auditors.
My current technique has been gleaned off a public health student at Columbia University, whose method of relieving poverty seems to best replicate the vagaries of the fate that caused it. She carries a fixed amount of change in her purse every day, which she parcels out to those who ask on a first come, first served basis. She then apologises to those who approach her after she’s run out. It’s not perfect - the amount could probably be more, and the early beggar becomes as privileged as the early bird, but I think it is morally superior for not asking or expecting any ‘return’ on the ‘investment.’
 Note to self: Great movie concept. Discover the whereabouts of Yahoo Serious immediately.
 Metrics Mania:The Growing Corporatization of U.S. Philanthropy by AlisonR.Bernstein
quoting Carnegie, Wealth.
"The opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected with equal disregard of policy and goodness." - Samuel Johnson: The Rambler No. 107.
The streets of New York are littered with losing lottery tickets, in the form of human beings. It's a constant, confronting situation for the better heeled, and one that contains all the necessary nutrients for a variety of approaches and attitudes to flourish companionably. As I was preparing this week's issue, I was inspired by a coincident that I witnessed on a downtown train. It has taken the shape of a short film script, and acts as a precursor for next Tuesday's issue. To read it, just click on the link below.
It is certain that, whatever be the reason, most men have a very strong and active prejudice in favour of their own vocation” - Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No.9
I’m not quick to quibble the word of God, but recent adjustments to my cultural milieu are suggesting that the adage of “do(ing) to others as you would have them do to you” is as well-intentioned and misguided an approach as Kevin Costner’s three-wood on the final hole of Tin Cup.
Unlike wooly mammoths in blocks of ice, adages are not preserved accidentally. Instead they tend to be polished and bequeathed from one generation to the next in the manner of grandma’s silver teapot. Like that teapot, I can conceive that the golden rule has been put to great use in the past. Homogenous societies (e.g. Sweden in the nineteen-nineties) seem obvious breeding grounds for homogenous tastes and expectations. In places like this, what’s good for the Sven is good for the Svenja.
In the twenty-first century there is nothing general about general populations, and hopes and expectations vary so greatly between different people that a walk down the street on collection day provides empirical proof that one man’s treasure is another’s trash.
I have been reflecting on this subject as the results of the once blossoming, and now wilting relationship with my street corner watermelon dealer, who also trades in pickled pigs’ feet. For the uninitiated, these are exactly what they sound like. They float in large glass jars and would not look out of place in the laboratory of a mad scientist.
My watermelon dealer genuinely finds them delicious, and chain sucks them. My insatiable appetite for watermelons has led him to view me as more than a customer, and he is forever trying to fling a free trotter my way. Here the golden rule has led us to an impasse. From his point of view, kindness is a free pickled pigs foot. From my perspective they are an abomination to the human mouth. This has led to something of a standoff, where he has stopped waving trotters at me from across the street, and I have stopped eating watermelons.
I suggest that the golden rule is best applied in its negative form and to strangers. We should not do things to other people that we wouldn’t like done to ourselves. This will help most drivers choose the correct course of action when deciding whether to mow down a slow pedestrian.
In its positive sense however, when deciding what we should do for another person, it seems the only way of avoiding solipsism is to somehow figure out what the other person would want done for them and try to do that. Anything less dooms us to forever feel as slighted as the cat that plops a mangled bird on its owner’s carpet.
Therefore I propose an update to the golden rule, in the language of the King James Version. From now on we should ‘do unto others that which they would like done unto them’. This will require compassion, communication, empathy, careful deduction and sacrifice. In short, I have to eat a pickled pig’s foot.
 Luke 6:31 NIV
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.