Last week, I attended a writing/performance workshop conducted by the inimitable Ann Randolph – award winning actress, and story, writing and performance coach. If you don’t know her work, she is one of the best solo performers in the country – singled out by Mel Brooks (who produced her show Squeeze Box) as “a genius.”
Watching Ann perform is a study in vulnerability, creativity, expressiveness and out-of-the-box humor.
Here are a few take-aways from our week together. I hope they’ll be useful to you even if you think you can’t write (which, of course, is not true!).
Appreciation trumps criticism
Ann is a master of encouragement. As one of my classmates wrote:
“How do you say strongly enough that she has the most encouraging face? She listens with her mouth and eyes wide open in awe and expectation.”
Her ability to convey strong support and appreciation works wonders.
Many of us came to class with memories of teachers or classmates who wanted to “help” us by taking our work apart. But the process of drawing from one’s inner core to create a story is tender work. Faced with the threat of judgment (heaven knows, we carry too much of that already within our own heads), we hesitate to take risks or bare our souls.
Ann’s class was a judgment-free zone. (Even a well-meaning: “that was very good” can send one down the path of self-criticism.) We learned to listen with curiosity and attention, encourage each other and give frank feedback about what inspired us, moved us, or we remembered about each other’s writing.
Without a cacophony of criticism blaring in my head, I paid more attention to what folks liked in my piece and what I liked about others’ writings.
Comparison kills creativity
Comparison is seductive especially when you’re sitting in a circle of 18 bright classmates, many of whom are experienced writers. I’m the queen of comparisons and the first time I worked with Ann, my mind kept spewing thoughts: “they’re so much better than me,” “how do I stack up?”, etc. But this time, without indulging that voice, I discovered I could enjoy what had worked in other’s pieces without feeling one down.
If Brené Brown gave the intro course on the power of vulnerability, Ann takes us to graduate school.
In the moments of pain, shame and emotions we’d rather forget, we may find the raw material we need to create a piece of writing that is unforgettable. Run towards the pain, Ann would say, not away from it.
The funny thing is that instead of being devastating, embracing the pain was freeing.
I wrote a couple of pieces based on my “Most Painful Memories”, the kinds of scenes that I thought I’d be too embarrassed to ever share with anyone. But once they were out of me, and on paper, (with the delicious support of my classmates), the memories began to transform. In those dark places, I discovered interesting and even goofy characters and (couldn’t believe this) opportunities for humor.
It was liberating!
We were never forced to share anything. Yet Ann created a huge space of permission, where we discovered that we could share what was risky, edgy or comfortable…and not die. And as each person took a risk, the circle of space expanded.
Great stories are not safe. Unlike packaged “branded” stories, great stories from memoir and real life have complexity, tension, uncertainty and conflict.
Performers, sharing personal stories in front of an audience, need to take risks. And Ann, when performing, goes to that edge again, and again and again.
She didn’t ask us to jump off any cliffs – just to be willing to go where our writing started to feel risky and our fears would have us tamp down the raw edge of vulnerability. And then to take one more step.
Find support and accountability
Ann’s story of succeeding as an actress is one of incredible resilience. (Working in a slimy fish packaging plant to earn money to be an actress in New York City; working in a homeless shelter while advancing in the prestigious Groundlings improv troupe in L.A.)
Her closing challenge to us was to write about “what we wanted with regards to our own creative life” and then “notice what pulls us off course”.
Now the work begins! It’s easy to feel like an emerging artist, when surrounded by colleagues on a similar quest. But, in returning to “real life”, the challenge is to keep going.
We were encouraged to create a plan.
Her final challenge to me: to create a 30 minute piece I can begin to share within two months – a step towards my own solo-performance. (OMG Ann, can we at least make it three?)
Her challenge sounds totally daunting, terrifying, and yet, seductively possible.
We create accountability by putting a stake in the ground. So, now you’ve heard it…I’m starting on my 30 minute piece.
Only, just to be sure, let’s give me three months…