Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 12, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Candy, Easy Pieces, Acting, and Bel Canto
Ah! It's autumn, when the tap water turns cold again and weekend
traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway is bumper to bumper. Joggers' cheeks are
red from the cold rather than from heatstroke. And Santa invites you in to
shop for Halloween candy at Eckerd's in the mall.
My wife and I stopped in at the Great American Candy Store at Four
Seasons Mall last week. Since she has sworn off sweets for the nonce, she had
a small bag of hot roasted cashews; I had milk chocolate cashew clusters.
After chatting with the candymaker on duty, we found ourselves
performing a taste test on European chocolate bars. My personal favorite was
the Black Forest milk chocolate bar from Germany -- sweet, but not overly so,
with a rich chocolate flavor and none of the waxiness you get in American
The candymaker's favorite -- and my wife's as well -- was the milk
chocolate bar from Valor, a Spanish company. It was a bit less sweet, so the
chocolate flavor was even purer.
But the real richesse of the Great American Candy Store is locally
handmade chocolates and the selection of nostalgia candy. Check it out -- in
Greensboro it's on the middle level of the mall, in a side corridor near Penney's.
Sometimes I don't get through the books stacked up by my bed as fast as
I wish. And I can't figure out why I was putting off reading Walter Mosley's Six
Easy Pieces -- after all, his Easy Rawlins mysteries have offered some of the
best writing in America in the past twenty years.
Maybe I procrastinated because the book consists of six short stories
rather than a continuous novel. In my experience, mystery short stories rarely
work well. Either they're novels that have been cut back way too far, or they
are story ideas that the author didn't have room to fully develop.
I should have trusted Mosley. Because when I started reading last night,
I couldn't put the book down till I finished at four a.m.
The six short stories are indeed self-contained, but they also carry along
three common threads: Easy's wishful suspicion that his friend, the dangerous
man named Mouse, may not be as dead as he seemed to be in the hospital
where Easy last saw him; and his sense that he simply can't measure up to the
other men his beloved Bonnie meets in her world travels; and his relationship
with the principal of the black junior high school where Easy works as head
In other words, it reads like a novel with really clear chapter breaks. Full
of wonderful characters, beautifully simply writing, and mysteries that plunge
into the depths of the human heart, this is actually a pretty good place to begin
reading Mosley, if you haven't been lucky enough to read his work before.
(There is some rough language and more sex than Agatha Christie used
to have -- but relatively little compared to many other modern mystery writers.)
These days, when George R. R. Martin has achieved phenomenal
popularity with fantasy series that began with A Game of Thrones, it's easy to
forget that he established himself first as one of the great short story writers in
the history of science fiction. His Sandkings is regarded by many as the best
short story ever written, and he also won awards (and great reviews from me)
for "The Way of Cross and Dragon" and "Portraits of His Children."
Now, long overdue, comes a massive collection of all his short work --
including filmscripts and teleplays -- along with Martin's own commentary on
GRRM: A Retrospective is nearly 1300 pages long. The deluxe
hardcover edition is a beautifully made book that is well worth the $40 price; I
assume there'll be cheaper editions soon.
When I studied acting in college, I read Stanslavsky's An Actor Prepares,
but soon abandoned his methods as being ineffective. Over the years, many of
the most embarrassing performances I've seen, on stage and in film, owed their
ineffectiveness to the madness of The Method.
Over the years I learned that I could walk into an audition and in a cold
reading, play with a script and do really wonderful things. But over the
process of rehearsal, I not only didn't get better, I got worse. I thought I was
still doing all the things that worked so well in audition, plus everything else
that had come up during rehearsal. Instead, over the run of a show I'd get
fewer laughs and less emotional response from the audience.
Now I know why. I've read two books on acting that opened a window
and let in some light.
Patrick Tucker's Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original
Approach is the result of the work of The Original Shakespeare Company in
performing Shakespeare's plays as his own troupe of actors would have
performed them -- almost without rehearsal.
The trouble is, to tell you how and why this works so brilliantly I would
have to write a review almost as long as the book. Suffice it to say that nobody
should ever act Shakespeare again without having read this book, because
even if you don't mount your production as abruptly as Tucker's experiments
suggest, he provides a way of reading and responding to the texts that is far
superior to the academic approach that is far too often used.
Then I read Harold Guskin's How to Stop Acting and realized that many
aspects of the Original Shakespeare Company's approach in fact apply to
acting in general.
Guskin, an actor who has also directed and taught -- and coached such
great performers as Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Peter Fonda, and many others --
speaks from practical experience, and absolutely answers my question about
why my auditions were always better than my performances.
It was because in auditions I made no effort to analyze, but simply
responded to the words on the page; but in rehearsals, I intellectualized and
then quickly locked myself into a set routine which I then repeated lifelessly.
Guskin's method is to let the words of the text guide you to impulsive,
spontaneous ways of playing, not a scene, but a phrase at a time. From the
start, his method frees you to draw your character from your unconscious
mind, where your greatest understanding of human nature resides.
This book especially rang true to me because in fact I was following a
method very close to what he describes -- but in two different arts.
As a writer, I realized early on that I didn't so much compose my fiction
as improvise it. I made up the actions and thoughts and dialogue of each
character as if I were an actor playing the part, trying out many different
responses until I came to know the characters.
In fact, Guskin's method is so close to what actually produces powerful
scenes and believable characters in writing that I am tempted to teach a
writing and literature course using his book on acting as the fundamental text.
And as a director, I have shunned elaborate preparation. Having
mastered the tools of blocking for focus (rather than to compose preplanned
"pictures"), I respond to the script improvisationally as I guide the actors
through the blocking.
Of course, I usually work with untrained actors, and in essence I direct
them as if I were acting their parts, coming up with business much as Guskin's
When I work with a skilled actor, I back off almost completely and
respond to what they bring to the scene, as they improvise using an approach
akin to Guskin's.
And in any case, I always direct with alertness to even the slightest hint
of a spontaneous impulse on the part of the actor. Even the most untrained
amateurs will have moments when they feel an inchoate need to do something,
and I've found that if I notice those vague, barely-formed movements and
encourage the actor the expand on them, I start getting real creativity from
The difference between what I've been doing and Guskin's approach is
that he keeps the improvisational feeling alive well past those first rehearsals.
I'm eager to try directing a play with skilled actors using his full approach.
Having read this book, I'm done with Stanislavsky forever. The
Stanislavsky Method frankly does not work as advertised, and Guskin's take on
acting is an illumination of an approach most great actors have obviously been
using, whether consciously or not.
Together, Tucker and Guskin present a vision of acting as, truly, play.
And I suspect that, for artists who have mastered some fundamental
skills, his approach is actually a universal one -- a way to invent compositions
and performances far beyond what we could ever have thought of.
I had a chance to attend Bel Canto's opening concert of the season -- a
program of choral music by American composers.
Since America had no distinguished composers until the twentieth
century, this means that such a concert is bound to be filled with "modern
music," which far too often means "ugly meaningless sounds designed to
punish the concert attender for daring to expect beauty."
When I hear musical "experts" conversing, they often speak as if the only
alternatives in American music were John Cage and Stephen Foster. But
there's a lot of beauty and power in the vast musical space between Nixon in
China and Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.
Of course, such conversations are always in the context of complaints
about how the lowbrow American audience just won't attend live performances
anymore. "It's because of CDs," they say. "Why go to a local concert when you
can get great performances on your stereo?"
Maybe. But I think it's also because many times when we ordinary
people go to concerts, we're slapped around by ugliness and made to feel
stupid for not "getting" why anti-harmonic slapdash music is somehow better
than the stuff we actually like.
This concert program, however, was well chosen -- both the composers
and the lyrics. A long setting of poems by Robert Frost had many lovely
moments, and a lively arrangement of Appalachian folk tunes gave the concert
a cheerful ending.
The highlight of the concert, however, was Gwyneth Walker's inspired
setting of "Harlem Songs," three poems by Langston Hughes.
Hughes was a fine poet, but in some of his poems he did not so much
evoke an experience as refer to it -- so if we hadn't had the experience, we
weren't going to gain much of a sense of it from the poem. This is not a flaw --
what poet doesn't rely sometimes on references to shared cultural experiences?
But Walker took these poems and, in a way, annotated them, bringing all
the underlying meanings and references to vivid musical life.
In short, I have never heard poems better served by a choral setting than
these of Hughes by the music of Walker. My favorite was the dreamy, dancy
"Harlem Night Songs," where she drew into the song all the moods of Harlem,
and all the dreams of love that are shared by people wherever they live. It's
hard to take the words "I love you" and make anything out of them musically,
but Walker did it over and over in this song.
If you've never attended a Bel Canto concert, then do. Certainly you
can't miss with the upcoming Christmas concerts on Dec. 5,6, and 8.
I wish I could tell you that the new Bel Canto Christmas cd, What
Sweeter Music ..., is up to their normal high standards. But to my surprise,
not only were some of the selections too weird to really belong on a holiday cd,
there was a surprising lack of precision in some of the recorded performances,
and some of the recording was done in a room that was acoustically too lively.
But there's no disappointment in their concept of a cd Christmas card.
Sold in packages of five, these cards include a cd with selections from previous
albums -- a wonderful idea for turning a card into a gift. Check it out at