For the Actor: Butch or Femme?

men.take.spaceA young actor recently asked me for advice about a role he was playing. And I was reminded of a long-ago college student, to whom I gave the same advice, and who ended up playing lead roles. I told him to remember the male/female exercise we did in his freshman year–and to butch it up.

I prefaced my advice by saying that none of this has anything to do with how we move in real life. What actors need to do is have many character choices available to them. (Many women end up playing male roles—especially in Shakespeare. They need this stuff!)

The exercise:

Enter, sit down, wait, give up waiting, exit.

Do this as if you were your twin sister (or, in my case, twin brother.) What you get at first is a lot of stereotyped behavior–sashaying, crotch scratching–until the audience is giggling.

Then I say–is this really how people move? And don’t we all move on a sort of continuum? Me, I’m a little butch for a female. I take up space. But I can get all sweet and fluffy if needed for a role (and if no one laughs too hard!)

So here’s what I tell the actors once they’ve realized the error of their ways.

Skinny-Runway-Model-01Stereotyped female: take up less space. Feet together, arms close to body, narrow shoulders. Flexible–soft neck, delicate arms, soft upper body. Low center–baby-making hips.

(Not Toshiro Mifune big hara/power in navel, that’s different–a Japanese approach to butch.)

Femme attitudes: Smilling, no matter what. Flirtation, sweetness, or–oh, gosh, thinking of secretary-style-women I’ve known, a kind of head-ducking powerless thing. Ew. But I can do this if the role demands it!

Stereotyped male: Take up space–legs apart, wide shoulders. Everything stiff and muscled–strong shoulders, neck too thick to move much. Ditto arms—and they may stand out from the sides a little, to make space for muscles (and be read to sock someone!). Not flexible. High center–more weight in upper body than lower body. Narrow, inflexible hips. (This is tricky for me, but I can do it—it’s just a matter of imagining them strongly enough.)

Attitudes: can be sneering, can be I’ll-take-care-of-you-little-lady, can be don’t-mess-with-me. I use this physicalization when I’m in a big city; I call it my meanest-s.o.b. in-the-valley walk.

For butching it up, I love watching the guys in the gym who are pumping iron. Or Grace Jones, telling the sweet young girl how to get a man. This little video chunk, from Conan the Destroyer, is a great contrast in butch and femme.

Most people are a little of both. I know straight men who are a little femme, and gay men who are a little butch. Same with women. Practice the stereotypes; then use them carefully.

As Tom Stoppard writes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people.”


It’s All In The Stories

I love stories.

I read them.  I watch them.  I even write them.

You know the Breast Cancer website, where you click on half-a-dozen good causes to help them out?  Hunger and Literacy are the two I always click.  Then there’s Child Health and RainForest.  After viewing those big problems, Animal Rescue might seem less essential to the welfare of the planet.

But Animal Rescue has stories.  Stories about how a rescued animal becomes a cherished companion.  Guess where I want to click first?

Some research even indicates that we’re hard wired to love and respond to stories.

Storytelling, therefore, has become important to marketing and business writers.

Annette Simmons explains it like this:
“The business interest in storytelling is riding this crave wave, as well as a parallel realization that designing messages that create emotions like desire, craving, and/or trust towards a product requires that the message tells a story. Nothing is important or unimportant to someone except for the story they tell themselves about it. You want your product to be important to a consumer? Inspire them to tell themselves a story about it that makes it personally relevant.”

Key word here:  personally.  Too often, my clients think of telling their stories in lists of accomplishments and impressive statistics.  So I ask for the individual stories of their customers and staff members.  Those draw the reader in, motivating them to go on to learn about the company’s accomplishments, products, or non-profit needs.

How to do this?

  1. Listen for the good stories.  Ask for them.
  2. Include images and emotional content.
  3. Connect them to your organization’s mission.

One screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge,  boils all stories down to three elements.. They are
1. character;
2. desire;
3. conflict

Here’s how that might work.

A local nonprofit that serves uninsured people in health crises got union workers to donate labor to fix up the nonprofit’s building.  But where’s the story?

Imagine a large, beefy guy ripping down crumbling walls with a crowbar, covered in dust and sweat. (Character)
He volunteered to help out (Desire), but he feels weird about the breast cancer literature that’s lying around.  (Conflict.)  He makes boob jokes for awhile. Then, in a break, swilling water and slurping coffee, he says:  “My mom died of breast cancer.  I didn’t know what to say to her.  It was hard.”

Next day, his buddies show up to volunteer their labor.

Okay, I embellished this a little bit in order to make a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that connect to the wonderful work this nonprofit is doing.  But I didn’t embellish it much.

And it’s a great story.

Why the Note Taker?

Why am I The Note Taker?

I write plays and novels. I direct plays. And wherever I am, I take notes. Rehearsal notes. Blocking notes. Production meeting notes. Notes about ideas for novels or plays.

If I don’t take notes, I don’t remember anything. Not because I ever look at the notes, but because it’s how I learn. You know, we are aural, visual, or kinesthetic learners. I am not an aural learner.

What did you say?sb10067155j-002

So I’ll be writing about the business of writing, the art of writing, the selling of writing, and the horrible fun of writing.

When I get sick of writing plays and stories, I’ll write about the plays I work on as director, producer, and—in fits of total insanity—as an actor.

A rude toast to all my hats.

Rude Mechanicals
Rude Mechanicals