Tag Archives: director

Tricky Definitions

definition

Happy Friday everyone!  I hope you’ve all decided whether to sit in the front seat or the back seat.  These are the kind of decisions that can really make or break the start of your weekend.

Today’s blog is about definitions, and why they can be really good OR spectacularly awful.  We use them all the time, perhaps without even realising in some cases.  Definitions are meant to provide clarity and make something that is unknown more imaginable, but in some situations they may do more harm than good.

Let’s start with the basics: a dictionary defines words for us.  This is a wonderful thing, except when people start a speech or essay with the words “The Oxford English Dictionary defines (insert random abstract noun) as follows”.  That needs to stop.

In terms of human definitions, the most obvious initial one is whether a person is male or female.  Without delving too far into the complex issue of gender politics, I do think that this is quite an interesting one.  Firstly, there are people who are biologically one gender who identify more strongly with the other, and some prefer an androgynous identity.  In literature, many authors have chosen to use their initials rather than gender-specific first names: P.D. James, for example, and J. K. Rowling.  Again, I really am not trying to start a debate about whether women are at a disadvantage in literary circles and anonymity is necessary, but I do think it’s interesting that something as arbitrary as gender definition has a role in somebody’s reputation as a writer.

Physical definitions are incredibly tricky, and they come up most often in life.  When you’re talking to a friend and describing someone they can’t remember, physical definition is the first thing you turn to: “You know Simon.  Tall, dark hair.  Always wears a leather jacket.”  That’s not a bad thing necessarily, because it’s an aide to memory, but in some cases it can get pretty nasty.  Online dating profiles, for example, or when discussing the pros and cons of a potential partner: “She’s nice, but she’s got a really big nose.”  “I’m a curvy, bubbly socialite with long, blonde hair.”  Cringe o’clock.  These definitions are more disturbing than the memory aides because they are not about reinforcing a previous observation: they are about trying to create a mental picture of someone that allows you to judge them.  Why is an appearance-based picture of someone more important than what they’re actually like?

Appearance-based definitions are absolutely huge in the performing arts world.  Casting briefs can be incredibly specific about height, weight, eye colour and all sorts of other physical attributes.  As a writer and director I understand that you may have a very clear mental image of what a character needs to look like, but my favourite thing about casting is when somebody surprises you by being like the character, not necessarily looking like them.  On a fundamental level, I resent the idea that you could go through life being an extremely talented actor who doesn’t look “marketable”, and therefore miss out on work.  What on earth is the point of investing thousands of pounds in your education at a drama school, working hard to develop your skills and repertoire, only to discover that you just don’t look right?

Sometimes definitions can be helpful.  In rehearsals, I encourage my actors to work out as much specific detail about their characters as possible: favourite foods, pet peeves, family backgrounds and more.  These definitions may never be referred to in the performance, but they help the actors to build up as complete a mental picture as possible of who they are trying to portray.  But here’s the thing: this mental picture is based on personality attributes, not physical, and it’s there to help them do their jobs.

The issue of relationship status definition is among the most prevalent in today’s society, particularly for people my age: as those of you who have read this blog post will know, I hate the entire damn thing.  “We’re just dating.”  “We’re sort of seeing each other.”  “We’re not official.”  FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, people who are “officially” together do not have a certificate from the government or a permit from their local council; they’re just together.  And whatever you are to someone, it doesn’t matter in the slightest how the rest of the world sees your relationship as long as YOU know what the terms are.  What good does it do you if you tell your friends that you’re “not exclusive” with someone if, when they go out and sleep with someone else, it upsets you because you secretly hoped that the relationship was more serious than that?  Well, you may THINK you feel emotionally betrayed, but actually your social circle can testify that your relationship definition was “non-exclusive”, so actually you have no right to be sad.  Oh, ok.  I’ll switch my emotions off, then.  Ridiculous.

The main thing about definitions is that, if we do need to use them, I think we should use them for good things.  Aides to memory – fine.  Character analysis – fine.  (I hope so, anyway, because I get my actors to do a lot of work on that!)  But definitions that reduce a person in any way, or encourage others to judge them for something completely arbitrary, are a no-no.

Have a lovely Friday.  May your trains/buses/flying monkeys run exactly to schedule.

The Polymath Problem

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Hello and happy Tuesday, lovely reader!

This morning I met up with an old friend from university.  We don’t get to see each other often enough, so inevitably our coffee mornings consist of work updates, living situation discussions, frank bemusement at the behaviour of men and excessive giggling.

Sometimes (not always), we get around to discussing our mutual passion: the arts.  This friend of mine has a lifelong passion for the arts in all its forms: she is a wonderful baker of lovely cakes, she dances, makes amazing craft stuff and is, of course, a fellow Drama graduate.  She co-runs a charity called Ingeenium which does beautiful and inspiring work with vulnerable people, she is a nanny and she currently works for the government in a top-secret, slightly scary capacity.  Oh, and she’s also studying for her PhD.  Superwoman?  I think so, but I’ve never seen her wear a cape, so it’s hard to tell.  The posh term for this friend of mine is a polymath, which sounds like something out of Red Dwarf, but is actually a real thing.  I like that word, don’t you?

This morning she and I were discussing the problem with being a polymath, although the terms we actually couched it in were more along the lines of “What are we actually DOING with our lives?”  The answer is, currently at least, loads of stuff: we are both trying to pursue careers which support as financially as well as challenge and inspire us, we feel very strongly about a lot of things but are not sure what exactly to do about them, and on top of everything the spectre of George Osborne looms menacingly, reminding us that whatever we choose to do, we will still never be able to afford a mortgage.  Do shut up, George, there’s a dear.

My friend was saying that she wishes she could just have one job and pursue one goal, but I had two concerns about this:

1) Sure, it would be amazing to know from an early age exactly what you want to do with your life, but what happens if that dream fails?  What if your one ambition in life is to become a footballer, and you contract Motor Neurone Disease?  What happens if an aspiring doctor fails their exams?  How does a person recover from the abolition of a life-long dream?

2) Pursuing more than one ambition is not only practical in terms of personal investment; it’s a really, really good idea.  Being good at lots of things is something to be proud of, and caring about lots of things makes you a more rounded human being.  Working in several domains can actually improve your skills in certain areas: having acted (a bit), I consider myself to be a more empathetic director.  Besides, there are many awesome people who can be referred to as polymaths.

Here are a few examples:

1) Mark Watson

An excellent stand-up comedian, Mark Watson has also written some brilliant books.  His writing style is engaging, unbelievably touching in some places and (predictably) very funny.  The stories are completely unique, but the characters are very true to life (terrible phrase, that, but it’s the best I can think of).  His books are novels with little or no relation to his comedy career, so much so that it took me quite a while to twig that the author of some of my favourite books was the same person I’d seen on Mock the Week.

2) Kenneth Branagh

The man can act and direct simultaneously.  I have no idea how he does it (especially given that I can barely walk and talk at the same time), but his adaptations of Shakespearean plays into films are intelligent, moving and spectacularly performed.  Since acting and directing technically fall under the same sector I suppose he’s not technically a polymath, but I think he should get bonus points for being able to realise his artistic vision (ANOTHER terrible phrase – sorry, I’ve no idea what’s happened to my cliché filter today!) within two separate roles.

3) Laura Lexx

Another friend of mine from uni, Laura is excellent at pretty much everything she puts her mind to.  It’s mildly sickening.  A formidable academic success, Laura is also an excellent writer (of blogs, plays and more), an hysterically funny stand-up comedian, a queen bee of baking and “one of those” actors.  By “one of those”, I mean those people that you see on stage and wonder how on earth other performers can bear to compete.  She’s also a very lovely person with an excellent impersonation of a dinosaur in her repertoire.

4) Hannah Barnett

Yet another superwoman that I am lucky enough to be friends with, Hannah is *deep breath* a producer, actress, stage manager, unbelievably talented guitarist and singer with the voice of a particularly well-behaved angel.  Hannah is simultaneously the most organised and most easily distracted person I know.  That takes a lot of skill.  Why do I surround myself with these sickeningly talented people?  Oh, yeah – because they’re awesome.

5) Josh Widdicombe

Putting aside the fact that I love Josh Widdicombe quite a lot anyway, he is a brilliant example of why it’s good to have many talents.  Well-known as a stand-up comedian, he is also a talented DJ who hosts a weekly show on Xfm, which he uses as a platform to promote his friends and colleagues in the comedy world.  I am a massive fan of “paying it forward”, i.e. using your experience and opportunities to help others in similar situations.  (One of my favourite things about my university year group is that even now, we still tell each other when we see jobs or opportunities on IdeasTap that we think others in the group would be interested in.)  Josh Widdicombe is substantially more successful than any of my lot are right now, but he still uses his multiple roles to help out his mates.  I think that’s brilliant.

There are dozens if not hundreds of other examples of polymaths around, including national treasures like Stephen Fry and Michael Palin, and they are all to be congratulated on their ability to pursue many dreams.  It’s wonderful to have a passion in life, but I think that being good at and enjoying several activities is a more realistic and open-minded way to live.

By the way, actors turned models and anyone turned reality television “star” (please read enormous sarcasm into the speech marks around the word star, there), do not count.  Being pretty, greedy for money or desperate for attention cannot in any way be classed as a skill.  That’s just sad, and those people need a hug/slap/stern talking to.

Have a glorious afternoon!