Good stories are not remembered for the tales they tell of struggling characters who eventually find unknown abilities and use them to triumph over adversity. Good stories are remembered for how they are told. I’ve walked out of enough second-hand performances of Tennessee Williams’ plays feeling empty to know the difference. This is why I am obsessed with helping my fellow trial lawyers find their inner truth so that they can bring all of who they are to their work.
How do you know what is unique and different about you; that which separates you from every other person in the world? This question is as deeply profound as, “What is the meaning of life?” After all, the only thing you have to offer this world is you – your individual stories, your individual perception, and your individual humanity.
If you want to be a singer, there’s no point trying to sing like Elvis Presley. His songs already exist and are well-preserved in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Why listen to a second-rate imitation?
There is a story about discovering what’s unique about yourself that goes back as far as the nineteenth century. A young French man in his early twenties was studying in Rouen, France under the great French poet, Gustave Flaubert, author of the masterpiece, “Madame Bovary.”
The young man asked Mr. Flaubert how he could unlock his unique personality. Flaubert thought about it for a moment and replied:
“Go out to your garden and find a rock. Take the rock inside your house and set it on your desk. Every day, before you begin to write, pick up that rock and look at it for a minute or two. Do you know what will happen? One day you will see something in that rock which no other human being on this earth has ever seen before. And that will be your originality.”
And from Flaubert, the young man learned the importance of individuality, of originality, of that personal note that should be yours and yours alone. Flaubert was kindly and encouraging but he was a taskmaster. At Flaubert’s direction, the man gave up verse for prose, and for seven years wrote incessantly and published nothing.
The stories and tales and verses and dramas of those seven years of apprenticeship were intensely scrutinized by Flaubert, and then they were destroyed unprinted. That man was Guy de Maupassant, whose short stories are only second to Shakespeare in their inspiration of movie adaptations ranging from Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, Oyuki the Virgin and Masculine Feminine.
In art, the prized response is always the subjective response. This is what separates art from science. Artists are less concerned with facts than they are with what those facts mean to them. The following example from William Esper’s book, “The Actor’s Art and Craft” demonstrates how artists look at objects specifically, not generally:
“Ultimately, a painter doesn’t paint the bowl of apples on the table in front of him. He paints what the apples mean to him, how the apples impress him, how he feels about them. Maybe the apples’ deep, rich red color excites him. Maybe the fruit’s gorgeous natural curves provide inspiration. Therefore, that’s what he paints.”
In the same way that an artist paints what he finds most striking about an object and what gives him the most pleasure, performing artists must create every moment of their performance out of what it means to them; how they really feel about it. If you approach your work generally it will yield general results.
The next time you’re out for a walk, pick up a leaf. Take a look at it. What do you see? What type of leaf is it? How many details can you identify? The weight, texture, coarseness, smoothness, colors.
Through acting, I’ve learned that if you want to find the truth in your work, you must first find it in yourself. Your ability to see yourself realistically plays a large part in your personal and professional growth. By assessing your abilities realistically and preventing your ego from running amok you open the door to grow and learn.