Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Blind Date Tightrope - It's worth spending time in awkward moments to reveal and develop characters

I like the fact that in ancient Chinese art the great painters always included a deliberate flaw in their work: human creation is never perfect. – Madeleine L’Engle

Fourteenth century Friar and logician William of Occam’s Razor advises simplicity in attempting to explain any phenomenon. But simplicity is deceptive. It does not mean, as some espouse (especially in mystery shows and police procedurals), “the simplest theory is the correct one”. It means the working theory should make as few assumptions as possible and any elements that shed no real light on the observable predications of the hypothesis should be eliminated from the theory.

As writers we are often going through our scripts shaving out dialogue or cutting scenes that don’t push our plot forward or somehow set up some revelation or twist that will appear later. We’re trying to make a lean, mean script that builds it momentum and carries our viewers to the emotional place we went them to end up at. We want them to have laughed out loud and been surprised, discovered whodunit was the one they never suspected or want them relived after watching our thriller on the edge of their seat, And ultimately, we want to leave them wanting more.

But often when we strip down our scripts to their essential elements only we can lose the things that make it watchable or readable; those quirky character moments that let people get to know a character, that panning vista that really tells us the kind of world our characters are coming from, or just spending time in an environment to let people immerse themselves in our world. We’ve all reached the moment when we’ve taken out everything that seems unimportant and read through the script, only to discover it reads as perfunctory, unrealistic and, gasp, dull.

I recently attended writer and actress Rebecca Northan’s brilliant, partially improvised play, Blind Date, at Harbourfront Centre and experienced the other side of this approach.

Northan’s moving, fascinating play could teach a lot of writers a lesson in where truly compelling drama and humour comes from. It’s messy and tense and delightful and surprising as two people fish for what they need in an encounter with another human being. I won’t even get into the questions it raises about the nature of the audience and viewing, and reality versus committing to a fantasy under unclear rules, et al. That will have to wait for me to start my psychotherapy blog, In essence, Blind Date is all about the things we might be tempted to cut out of our scripts in an effort to streamline and drop anything that feels potentially extraneous.

First of all, I should point out that improvisation and Writing are two very different animals. I spent the first fifteen years of my career doing live improv and though you are trying to explore character and narrative, the experience is very much communal. Rough patches, awkwardness and mistakes are forgiven because the audience is a part of the ride. You’re using their suggestions, building on their lives and sometimes actually bringing one up on stage to perform with you. The tightrope walk makes it okay.

In a scripted show you have to take responsibility for the writing. When there’s a wonky bit of dialogue or a scene that just doesn’t seem to work, it’s on us. You’re presenting something to the audience and they will let you know if they do not like. The forgiveness factor of improv isn’t there. Your script is the only net and you better weave it well.

That said, Northan’s hybrid play reminded me of the power to harnessed by embracing those awkward true moments we find so often in life and in people. In Blind Date Northan plays (and play is the key word here) Mimi, a Parisian clown who has just been stood up for a Blind Date and so she goes into the audience and chooses an unsuspecting male to be her blind date for the evening… on stage… for ninety minutes.

Blind Date is everything a real blind date is; awkward, full of shifts and turns and misunderstandings as two people to try to get to know each other and connect in a very short time. It soon became apparent, that much like real life, trying to make up interesting things about yourself is far less interesting than the truths. I hope I keep that in mind the next time I want to make a character who belongs in an insurance company cubicle into a Fashion Magazine editor simply because it seems more interesting.

After a drink date filled with pauses and moments of connection (Northan and the audience guide the “date” on being honest through coaching sessions and positive reinforcement like cheering and applause), Northan takes the date back to her “apartment” and then jumps forward in time to show the developing relationship. By this time most of her “dates’ have caught and reveal surprising things about themselves, often learning things even they were unaware of.

The fact that a person can be thrust into a situation they are completely unfamiliar with and discover things about themselves and hidden reserves is just the kind of thing we try to capture in our scripts. But the only way for the character, and for us as writers, to uncover those things is to explore unexpected moments and tangents. It’s amazing how much depth they can bring to the viewing experience.

Think of some of cinema’s most amazing moments and you’ll find examples of we can achieve by not struggling to be interesting, but rather embracing the discomfiting inelegance of real behaviour…

"I engage you a character? Exactly how do I engage
you? I engage you like a funny clown maybe?"

The seduction scene in the Graduate is compelling because of Dustin Hoffman’s sputtering, overwhelmed performance. And it’s played so well against Anne Bancroft’s hard-edged, weary woman so unhappy in a dead-end marriage she’s willing tii seduce her daughter’s fiancé.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen on the deck of his apartment, first getting to know each other in Annie Hall. Magical awkwardness used to be Allen’s stock in trade. And the growing attraction between the characters is as apparent as the intellectual divide that will eventually break-them up again.

I have to agree with TV Guide on this. There’s no better blend of humour and menace than Joe Pesci turning on Ray Liotta after telling a joke in a restaurant. People still drop into his “How am I funny? I amuse you?” speech at the drop of a hat. It’s uncomfortable, disturbing and riveting cinema.

Let’s call it the Blind Date Tightrope.

Our script is the audience’s blind date with all of our characters and the only way to get them interested is to find the truth of our characters, including the awkwardness, nervousness and self-image issues we all work through as we get to know the people in our lives.

Blind Date creator/performer Rebecca Northan.

It's interesting that most reviews for the show refer to it as unreviewable because it depends so much on who Northan chooses. The truth is, it will work almost every time, because she has done some writing in creating an adaptable framework to keep her partner's safe in that she's there to help them, but she's also there to keep them riding the edge, always forcing him to make choices. Sounds like great way to build a character.

Northan's own philosophy is summed up in this interview for the show in Calgary's Fast Forward Weekly.
I think an unsuccessful show is one where the audience leaves and goes, ‘meh, that was alright.’ If someone leaves the theatre and goes, ‘I loved that! I never thought of things that way!’ or ‘Oh my God, that really upset me, and I'm going to be fucked up for three days,’ or ‘I'm outraged! I'm politically outraged by what I saw!’ — that's all great. But if you leave the theatre the same as when you entered it, that's a failure. Otherwise, why tell the story?”
Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date will be remounted in Harbourfront’s Fall Season.

My next script will on your desk days before the deadline so we can go over some initial notes.

Live the adventure.