It seemed innocuous enough — a British film comedy about a funeral where everything that could possibly go wrong, does. It would mean two-hour television escapism from my couch, which I rarely allow myself. But once again, it turned into homework.
I’ve spent most of my life involved in the arts in some capacity. Acting classes in NYC began at age 14, then I was a performer until my early 20s, then I held arts administrative jobs through my mid-30s, and since then I’ve been a playwright.
Through these many years, I look to other bodies of artistic projects as something to study, analyze, and take mental notes — I hardly ever relax and allow myself to be taken on an escapism journey. I haven’t been able to turn off the homework part of my brain.
From observing acting moments to theatrical scenic design to stage direction to cinematography to occasionally closing my eyes just to listen to a script or screenplay, I simply can’t hitch a ride on the escapism train that others board. This is a particular problem regarding comedies. One scene in this British comedy involved a casket accidentally being knocked over and the body falling out. I’m sure in the theatres this was an uproarious moment for most of the audience. But from my couch viewpoint, I couldn’t crack a smile because I was wondering how many takes it involved so the body landed in just the right comedic position.
I recently discovered Russian Ark, a film shot in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. My initial interest was the Hermitage itself, a museum I’ve longed to visit. I didn’t know until 10 minutes into the film that it was shot in one long, unedited sequence for 87 minutes. Once I made the realization around that 10-minute mark that it was a one-shot film, my homework brain took over. I marveled how the actors in each room of the museum were already in place when the camera arrived, that nobody dropped a line, not one actor or crew person incorrectly stepped in front of the camera, and the film seamlessly weaved its way through the winter palace’s history.
With the swirl of the camera moving through hundreds of years of art, I thought I had initially been taken on a journey, but realized that, no, my homework brain had never let go, once again. I wondered how much of the narrator’s dialogue was scripted, how much was improvised, how many crew members were silently following the steadicam operator. The escapism journey? Not really taken by me on the first go-around. I was grateful to later find a documentary on how the film was made, which answered all of these questions. I’ve since revisited the film a few times. I can happily report that by the third go-round I was able to board the escapism train.
This seems to be the trick for me: watch a play or film the first time — study, analyze, wonder. Do research on that project: read interviews, watch documentaries, or if it’s a local theatrical production, engage with the cast and crew about their experiences. Revisit the same play or film with all my questions answered — and then I can escape.
Where escapism is not a problem for me is in my own writing. Once I get rolling and I’ve boarded that train, I keep chugging along and don’t stop to look out the windows to watch the scenery go by — I’m fully immersed in the story and how the characters behave with one another. I’ve had moments where I look at writing from the previous day that I have no memory of typing — it’s a mystery to me where it came from.
Just where did it come from? The homework, of course. Years of exposure to all-things-artistic has seeped into my brain, allowing my own creative cells to magically take over when need be. Cells to brain to fingers to keyboard, I’m able to escape into a swirling world of my own creation.
I consider myself lucky to have a vocation to the arts since a young age. It’s a community that’s provided me extraordinary life lessons and exposure to alternative viewpoints, and I’m grateful to be a part of it for so long. But the homework. The homework!