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#1 me, watching an actor work.
photo: Geoffrey Wade

#2 Matisse's "workroom" The Red Studio, where there are no hands on the clock & most everything is unreal but the art.

#3 A letter from Tennessee Williams a few weeks after he cast me in his Vieux Carre at the theater bearing his name in Key West. He died about one week before we started rehearsals.
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#4 The cast of La Ronde, performed by my students in Antaeus' A2 company, directed by Young Ji.
photo: Geoffrey Wade

#5 The artist's studio from my production of Cousin Bette by Jeffery Hatcher, set design by Tom Buderwitz.
photo: Michele K. Short

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Monday
May202013

Owning The Role / 5.20.13

We leave our mark by taking -- as if it were a baton -- from our predecessors, & then making it wholly our own.
~ MARTHA GRAHAM

The ownership thing. I’m thinking about this a lot lately. How it works. Why it works. And when it works, how undeniable it is. How utterly irresistible.

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The word has positive & negative connotations. But for an actor owning the role = mastery / value / respect. The powerful feeling of ownership = the end of thinking & worrying & plotting & planning & the onset of the relaxation & confidence of just being.

How does it come about? How do you take an unfamiliar object: Blanche Dubois / President Lincoln / an ER doc / Marie Curie / a psychopath / or a cipher with three lines called “Man at Party” & claim it as yours? Possess it so completely that no one can imagine any one but you in the part? 

How you get from you, to there? 

To tease this apart: dictionary definitions + some quotes I found + some free associations of my own. 

Owning = “mine”  ... my wife / my bike / my house / my expectations / my past / my song / my city / my favorite designer / my opinion / my analyst / my garden / my journal / my taste / my hometown / my bar / my college / my thesis / my talent / my journey. 

Some 'my things’ we purchase. Some we hold a legal title to. Some we labor on. Some we affiliate with & some we associate with expertise & some with responsibility. Some things are ours just because we say so & some because we lavish them with time & attention. & some things we call "mine" are things we hold by the taut & unshakable claim of love.  

Ownership = legal right of possession, proprietorship.
“People who own property feel a sense of ownership in their future & their society. They study, save, work, strive & vote. And people trapped in a culture of tenancy do not.” ~ American scholar HENRY LOUIS GATES

(Actors know full well the feeling of being “trapped in a culture of tenancy.” One brave way is to take ownership from the outset by controlling the entire package. A wonderful actress & former student of mine Jocelyn Towne creatively owns the whole of of I Am I, a film she wrote, directed & starred in. It's now sailing out into the world having recently premiered at the Newport Film Festival. 

Jocelyn puts it this way, "The biggest thing I've learned about getting things going in my career is to create my own work. The day my film finally got off the ground was the day I embraced the fact that no one was coming to 'save' me. That was an invigorating feeling because it gave me the responsibility to do something for myself & not depend on the powers that be. No one believes in me as much as I do & no one else should. With each success it seems like things would get easier, but they don't really. Each step is a struggle, a challenge, a chance to grow as an artist & an opportunity to embrace myself even more. That is what ownership means to me. In some ways, there is nothing more daunting & at once, liberating."

Ownership = to have or hold as one’s own, to possess.

“I'd have walked on hot coals to get the part. I thought it was the best female role I'd read - ever. I was so impressed by Ree's tenacity & that she didn't take no for an answer. For the audition, I had to fly on the redeye to New York & be as ugly as possible. I didn't wash my hair for a week, I had no makeup on. I looked beat up in there. I think I had icicles hanging from my eyebrows.”~ actress JENNIFER LAWRENCE, on her role in the film Winter’s Bone

(“to possess” -- a phrase like “to own” -- is a term Shakespeare used to signify madness -- as in possession by the devil. As Lawrence describes, perhaps being slightly possessed / funnel-focused / utterly single-minded changes the figment of imagination that is a role into the tangible “mine.”)  

Ownership = taking responsibility for.

“I feel real ownership in this show. I feel very invested in it. I care very much about it. I don’t feel any more like a hired hand, you know? It’s a strange feeling -- I feel personally responsible for how the story goes. What happens. What the weaknesses are. And so in a way, some of the changes gave me an opportunity to have a voice in a different way.” ~ actress LAUREN GRAHAM on her role in the TV show Gilmore Girls. 

(That brain-shift from the “hired-hand” mentality just gives me goose-bumps.)

Ownership = I did it my way. 

“I am a writer, & there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone & in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn't have to be great writing, it doesn't even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine." ~ novelist RAYMOND CHANDLER (1888-1959)

(That feeling of relationship between yourself & the process of your work somehow makes for belonging. A claim forged through having your own way of claiming. Ground zero here is knowing & revering & accepting yourself for who you are.)

Ownership = to have power or mastery over.

  • Fashion designer MONIQUE LHUILLIER: “I think that glamour is about confidence & really owning the look. 
  • 1940’s glam movie star HEDY LAMARR: “To be a star is to own the world & all the people in it. After a taste of stardom, everything else is poverty.”  
  • American author O. HENRY: "She plucked from my lapel the invisible strand of lint (the universal act of woman to proclaim ownership.)”

(Confidence / Power / Mastery. We know that feeling well in quite a few situations, no? ((sports... cooking ... sex...what else can you think of?)) I’ve found when I work on a new accent it takes me hours & days & weeks to learn sounds, intonations, rhythms, & then...at some point, something takes over. I no longer have to think about it. I can do the accent in any circumstance, in any emotional state, in my sleep. I own the accent & the process of my labor now = mastery)

Ownership = to acknowledge to be true, valid, or as claimed, to admit. 

“It never felt real to me. I never felt I had complete ownership over Bond. Because you’d have these stupid one-liners -- which I loathed -- and I always felt phony doing them. ~ actor PIERCE BROSNAN

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” ~ novelist TONI MORRISON

(owning up to what’s real & what’s phony, fully acknowledging the truth of what is, somehow also confers the grace of ownership.)

Ownership = to hold with a claim of love.

“I wish I had [made that song]. No, I don’t. That would be to take it from somebody else.  But it’s mine for all that.’

‘What makes it yours?’

‘I love it so.’

‘Does loving a thing make it yours?’

“I think so, Mother -- at least more than anything else can...Love makes the only myness’ said Diamond.”  ~ Scottish fantasy / fairy tale author & theologian GEORGE McDONALD, from At the Back of the North Wind.

(And I’ll even stoop to relationship guru Barbara de Angelis: “When you make a commitment to a relationship, you invest your attention and energy in it more profoundly because you now experience ownership of that relationship.” & obviously, the same applies to a committed, loving relationship with a role, a script, a project.)  

Okay, so, all that said... 

Maybe let’s start backwards. Hypothetical: Your best friend from high school is now a successful screenwriter. You get an appointment to audition for her next project. You download the script & start reading.

By the 5th or 6th page you realize...OMG -- it’s...you! She wrote a character based on YOU. Exactly. Your father the marine. Your Irish-Catholic mother. That small town in Ohio where you grew up. Flash-backs to your first kiss, your gang of misfit theater friends. A phone call where you're simultaneously sobbing & laughing about breaking up with your college boyfriend. Your shade of lipstick, your brand of cigarettes. The character’s got your neuroses & wit & the things that piss you off & those you care about.  

Images, memories, feelings -- everything -- flowing as you read. Who was born to play this part?!? Was the role not written about you? Who does the part belong to? Hands down, of course: YOU! 

That’s actor-ownership in its fullest & purest form. 

Now let’s say that your best friend from high school wants to write a script about your life, with you (duh) playing the lead. You love the idea, but you want to protect the innocent! You suggest a changing a few details so that it’s not so blatantly recognizable as your life.  

When you read the script, it's easy for you to see how your controlling English teacher Mom is now the Mom who runs a birthing center. You see that your poster of Kurt Cobain is now the equally elusive Chris Martin. Your sister is transformed into your brother.  & so on. You see the camouflage & you see right through it. It’s still all you. 

Once you know how that feels, then you can see that your job is to make everything feel that way. Imagine that each & any role is actually written in a secret code that disguises your people, your emotions, your circumstances. All you've got to do is break the code, & it’s yours. Assume this even when you get roles that are diametrically opposed to who you are. Assume this when you are playing the Leslie, the human sized male lizard in Edward Albee’s play Seascape. Yes, you can take it that far.

I think ownership, like many components of great acting, isn’t a random occurrence. Yes, terrific if someone writes a role with me in mind, but I like to think they are all written with me in mind. Hopefully not solely due to my egoism, but to the fact that I “own” the whole array of human traits & situations & emotions & thoughts that belong to everyone else as well. 

Joan Didion wrote a haunting book & play about losing her husband & daughter in the same year. It’s called The Year of Magical Thinking and the opening of the play goes like this:

This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago, but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you.”

I’m here to tell you that that it has happened to you. The details may be different but you, & me -- and all of us who exist in human form & aspire to create art -- already “own” the entire canon.

Own who you truly are first. That’s a big deal. Own your process, your responsibility, your love, your truth & your entitlement to everything that is part of human experience. 

& along the way, own your role in society as an artist. So as to teach the next artist how to stake her claim.

PHOTO: THE ULTIMATE ROLE-OWNER MARLON BRANDO, WARDROBE TEST FOR A Streetcar Named Desire

YOUR TURN: Spitball / free associate with me. What does ownership mean to you?

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Reader Comments (2)

The Chandler quote gave ME goosebumps.
Funny, my 16-year-old daughter's English class is watching the film of Streetcar, and reading along in the text. She said tonight at dinner, 'Marlon Brando... he's... really good. He's just that guy. He's just Stanley, that's all. It's... amazing."

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEve

Thank you for posting this, Jeanie. It's so timely for me right now as I've just finished the first draft of my first full-length play. It’s based on my experience a few years back selling time-shares at a showroom in the Valley.
A little background: I spent about ten years as an un-produced screenwriter. You know the kind: Lot’s of optioned scripts, a little money, but ultimately, no third act... Due to family and health issues I hung up my Final Draft program for several years until recently when I began again, updating old work and starting a few new projects. The writer inside me was dying to get out.
Here’s the rub. Finishing the first draft of “Timeshare”, I sent it to two more successful writer friends for their thoughts. (I aspired to make it “Glengarry, Glen Ross” but it’s more, I think, lite-sitcom-y right now! Can’t run from my Groundling’s East background.) So the question now is, “Why?” Do I need approval or worse yet permission to create? Maybe. Your post on “Owning it” has made me think anew. I feel I’ve “Owned” most of the roles I’ve acted over the years but with writing, perhaps not. I must examine this now, the “Am I worthy” aspect of my writing. It seems, no matter how old I get, my journey to worthiness continues.
Thanks for the spur. I’m going to think on it.

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