Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Moment Before

In theater, you can choose to direct with something in mind called The Moment Before. This was developed as a "guidepost" out of the experience of the casting director Michael Shurtleff.

In his book Audition, first published in 1978, wherein he explains his theory of the guideposts, he writes:

In the audition situation most actors come onstage to read for a role with very little moment before. The result is that it takes them most of the reading to get warmed up. By the time they are, they've lost the attention of the auditors. Never before does an actor need the moment before more desperately than in the audition situation. But an actor needs a fully developed moment before every time he steps onstage to start a scene. You've seen many of these performances where we say, "He wasn't so good at first, but after he got going he was fine." A good actor doesn't wait to get going; he comes on with it because he already had it going in the wings."

So Shurtleff wants to help an actor remember that before anything happens in a scene, something happens. What was it - go there, be that, do that, have those memories, play that action -crowd the guy - or whatever it was, center yourself on what came before the scene, now you're ready for the scene. (That is a gross abbreviation of his idea)

Not commenting on any of the other plays, because I didn't see any of them all the way through, in this weekend's drama I got to use this once for my own - when Eddie comes out onto the stage to talk about his invention. What happens the moment before he comes out? He gets stage fright. So what does he think of? His wife, his home, his pets, the weather, simple things. We translated these things into psychology and then into actions. And it went over well.

Let me back up to the GAP ads from August for a moment. Ignoring the first GAP ad for a second, and writing a bit about the second one. In advertising what we often recall, if we recall anything, is the label or brand of the product, and the essential function of the ad. We remember that its the GAP and that the function of the ad is to sell their pants and sweaters. If we're paying a little more attention, we can be impressed by the content of the ad, the cheery people -even if its a manufactured, "acted" cheeriness, or the choreography. And, we might even recall some college text we read about advertising, the medium is the message, and so on.

But, if we had any kind of liberal education whatsoever, we more likely remember something about corporate power. Maybe we read Chomsky or Adbusters, or we might have even done some research on our own as a journalist and discovered enough ethical question marks in the legacy of corporate business entities to warrant suspicion of any product or service produced by such an entity. We could, for example, default to a kind of rump dismissal of any message sent to us by such an entity, as offensive to our aesthetic sensibilities in the least. Or, we may wish to be pragmatic about it all, and act as though there's no real distinction between a corporate power and an independent one, other than how much money is in the respective bank accounts.

GAP ads are difficult to view in the non-pragmatic way, however, because they do not lack aesthetics! Looking at it over and over you have to admit there is an aesthetic quality to them.
Now if I want to say something about the advertisement, I need to go to the signs and the symbols within it, and the elements of production that allow the ad to exist. And what are those?

There is the subject within the ad, the model who dances. Ok, but if I go there my critical discourse may become locked in an issue of a body, and the beauty of that body. Does my listener/reader have that body, or do they not? Do they have some aspects of that body but not others? Is there a disagreement about the beauty of that body, statuesque v. rubenesque, too tall or too short, etc.?

There is the product, then. In the ads themselves, we often never get to see the product too closely, it is usually just suggested to us. But this can be a trouble spot also, because we might ask, even if we can discern what the product is, well, where's it made? How are their labor conditions? What is it made out of - are those all-natural products? And how do I know I can really afford it unless I walk into the GAP itself?

There are the results of the ad that allow someone to look at it statistically, objectively. Did it increase business, or did people contact the company to say they liked it or didn't like it? Did sales of the displayed items, khakis or whatever it was, go up? Likely though we as consumers would not be privileged to that information, so we can only declare how the ads themselves make us feel. Out of this kind of small-scale market sample, however, we can't much evaluate the quality of the ad from hearing of my point of view versus yours, assuming those are even oppositional views.

We can imagine that the postmodern extrapolation is an expression of a certain urban fantasy, not to say the fantasy is exactly false, there may be much that's true in it, but it appears as a kind of collective myth that assigns guilt or glory, or even neutrality, by association. (That is, if I understand the concept of postmodern fantasy correctly). Going to the first ad for a second, you can watch the skateboarders, hear the music, and imagine a technologically-sophisticated body moving the machinery and controls that's putting everything in motion, and that body, as you have just imagined it with me, is likely a caucasian body, isn't it? Or, I can hear the voice of the recording artist and see the dancers and recall a certain drumming session I witnessed, seen outdoors, elsewhere, and now -maybe-I have an image of an african-american body, do I not? I could say - well, so what? Its harmony! But is that a true harmony, or does this harmony only exist because of the magnanimous overlooking of the corporate entity known as the GAP, and their desire to offer their products as a racial solvent? Once again, arguments about the body, the city, and positions of subjects within certain fantasies that are set in motion by a powerful force can appear. (The point about "false social solvents" has been made before in studies on advertising) Fie on this approach.

We can then observe an eschatological choice offered, at least by the first ad. In the second one, the choice is clear - if you want to have a merry Christmas, you'll shop at the GAP, won't you? But in the first ad you can present yourself with the problem of how do I launch myself into space, and outfit my dominion with designer wear at the same time? We know its an advertisement, because no one wears pants like those when they're on a ramp. But the question presents itself not so much in 97 or 98, or whenever the ad came out, but in hindsight, since we know so often that the two goals are becoming mutually exclusive. Its like - how can I eat whatever I want, and never gain weight? Well, you can for thirty seconds if you're part of a GAP ad. The ad ends, we go back to our regularly scheduled programming, and its like you never ate anything! Or did you? Is there an uncomfortable narration about sacrifice that can walk through the back door of this approach -? yes it can.

When it comes to any media analysis, I'd like to simply drop-kick these rationalizations and consider The Moment Before, by itself. The Moment Before the ad is produced is where the energy is, creatively and otherwise. Once the ad is made, we can only look at it through one of these filters I mentioned above, see if it checks the boxes on our list of political correctness items, or dismiss it with a neo-marxist wave of the hand. "Bah! Corporate conformity!" etc.

In the moment before, there is a vast territory. We don't have to worry about being right, we only have to see what actually happens, from our own point of view. We have to be there in order to know the moment before, we can't download it. We may see conversations about what's for lunch, we may see the mind of the producer or the dancer or the casting director, we may just see the set and that's enough to tell us what's going on, if we seek reportage, or to inspire us, if we seek an aesthetic transmission.

It may not be literally necessary to be there, or even physically possible, maybe we can merely remember what someone tells us in conversation, but to be believed we should try to be there at the moment before the ad, or whatever it is that's moving our art, happens. There is so much more information, more tension, more romance, more possibility, in the moment before than in the detached, cerebral analysis of the moment after. All that narration - who cares? I want to hear about a day in the life of a dancer. I want to see the sweat on their brow, their humiliation when a higher-up dismisses them, or when they look across the aisle at someone in an equally noncreative blue sweater and think what's happening to my life? Everything that happens the moment before someone tells them to take their places and says "standby - lights ready, lights up."

The rote commands that get an actor to turn left or right on ice skates, pirouette etc, the directives of the production itself, those are necessary for choreography, but they are not as interesting for writers, at least not for me. By choosing to see a creative opening in the process of the production and not the product, the moment before the product itself is made, we not only give ourselves more freedom creatively but we may even notice a pivot or statement wherein something in the process itself is apparent to our critical boxes, and then so checked in our minds as such. I seldom notice such a thing in my own journeys, but there are people paid to notice these things. If my creative work is relayed after the fact of whatever moved me to write, I'm much stricter about what I write, because I understand this then to be an effort of journalism first -reportage on my experience- and expression second, in which case I ought to have something really groundswelling or distinct to say.

Ah the perils of idealism.

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