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Book review--opening impressions of Kazan on Directing

April 16, 2018

One of my goals for this year has been to read 24 books. It has been a fun and challenging goal as I have had to set aside deliberate time to try and read. Attending acting classes at Playhouse West in Philadelphia has been a nice catalyst to insure my continued pursuit of reading. Every month, our teacher, Tony Savant, encourages/requires us to turn in a book report of our most recent read. Not only does this emphasis on reading inspire me, but also the practice of discussing/articulating thoughts on paper. I wanted to share what I wrote for this month's report as marker to reflect on later in time:

 

I am currently in the middle of 3 books right now, in addition to the scripts that I am reading for class/work. I would like to address my opening impressions of Kazan on Directing, by Elia Kazan. Looking at the numbers, I’m only 15% of the way finished with this book, but there has been quite a bit I’ve gleaned from it. It’s probably more directly relevant to artistic  craft than the other two books that I'm reading, but I'm enjoying all three. I’ll touch on that a bit later. 

First, just on an academic level, I find Kazan on Directing to be a fairly dense read. It’s style of going from journal entries to script notes, to other’s comments and back to journal notes, isn’t something that I as used to reading. Whether this difficulty is because of the limited amount of “non-fiction,” or biographical work, or something else, I’m not sure. From the forward, introduction, and Kazan’s first section discussing PLAYS, there were moments described that I felt like I had to go back and re-read a number of times to think: “who is this talking about, and what year?” I realized that a number of these moments, joining and dispersion of the Group Theatre, relationship/opinions with Strasberg and Clurman, etc., had been repeated a number of times or were discussed out of chronological order. Or Kazan’s opinions and relationships with the people were constantly changing: one year is great but in the the next year, two people who had a thriving friendship were apparently hating each other and being very publicly critical of their counterpart’s work. Seemed to be a lot of ego involved in the interworking of Clurman, Strasberg, and Kazan’s relationships. 

 

But beyond that initial (and current) challenge of the more difficult reading style, there have been some excellent moments within these first 40-60 pages. Some nuggets that have really sparked my interest. On page 16, there is a journal entry discussing Kazan’s regrets about being a part of the production of Hot Nocturne. I loved his frustration with the action in the story being inferred rather than shown—“this is not PLOT,” he exclaims in his journal. You can almost feel his passion as if he is yelling at himself as he writes. He has an unrelenting, unapologetic passion for what he believes truth to be: “Art is created through commitment—every production should be a matter of life and death. The experience out of which art is created— and acting is an art— must be an intense one, and the result of intense involvement in something may be elation or depression, victory or defeat. For myself, I know no other way.” (page 14).

As much as this book title has been on directing—granted, I know I’m just starting it—it is apparent as to how much directing is based in personal choices and script analyses. This relates to my desires to create full stories as a director and my exploration in writing. Just the specificity Kazan uses in describing what he views as working or not working puts into perspective what he means. Just like we do in class, specificity is king. For instance, on page 23, he is discussing a work that he thinks doesn’t have much of a story, it’s “dull,” But not just dull, he describes the action as not being “inevitable.” As I think of really compelling stories, I think about how they have been constructed in a way that the given circumstances have created a point of attack that can only result in something inevitable. Maybe it’s a word that I don't find myself utilizing in my vocabulary frequently or what, but what a great description. Side note: vocabulary is something that I want to continue to grow and have recently begun a habit/study of vocabulary through a variety of "word of the day," type applications.

But, back to Kazan--this particular description made me think of how a play/story story worth watching is like something that has already been brewing—the brewing doesn’t take place in the story. I guess since I’ve started this brewing analogy, I might as well continue; no one wants to sit and watch a whole pot of coffee brew, maybe the last little bit because you know it’s hot, but you just want to enjoy the coffee. 

As he continues on to elaborate how the characters are in a relationship with deterioration or improvement that is “unstoppable,” he begins discussing “spine.” We’ve been talking about script analyses in class, and the “spine” of characters and scripts. Kazan also uses this terminology quite a bit, as to describe the "core desire of a character." Kazan gives a great visualization for how the spine of a character operates as a function within the whole story: the “spine should be the motor.” (page 34)

Maybe a resounding impression from what I described earlier, but I think Kazan takes most things personally—like--in all aspects of his life. Maybe he can turn it off and on, but at least within the artistic community of the Group Theatre, he seems a bit touchy. Perhaps his reactions are even more evident and unfiltered considering that a lot of this content is from personal journals or notebooks. I think this quality has helped him, as he sees the power and necessity of taking things personally for creating. He believes the biggest part of directing is casting—knowing whether or not there is a seed of truth in the actor that relates to the character and how he can pull it out. He is not concerned with planting a seed. Where I am currently at is a section where Kazan is directing and dissecting All My Sons, in his journal. He has a meticulous way of combing through the core of these characters, and how he relates or doesn’t relate to them. That’s about it for now—but I think I’ll probably write about this book again, because there is so much in it. 

I did want to reflect, briefly how this ties into the two other books I’m reading. For the last couple of years I’ve certainly been in a season of searching and growing. As a young married man with constant change in my life, I have really been trying to figure out, what I want, what are my priorities, and just navigating life. I love storytelling, but often am frustrated by the lack of control that an actor has in the process. Disillusioned with the business. I have had walls of emotional control that I’ve so desperately tried to manipulate that have just brought me farther from what I was trying to achieve creatively. Within the last 2 months at PHW, it has excited me that my craft of acting has undoubtedly been growing and changing, and I have experienced some amazing cathartic moments that I have been searching for, for a number of years. In addition to that, I feel like I know myself better, and feel more grounded in life. So I mention these two books because I’m thoroughly convinced that actors/writers/directors/other artists have to intentionally examine and know who they are—so they are the most current other influencers on how I’m exploring me. Getting to know me. Which I think, as Tony has mentioned in class, is honestly one of the biggest payoffs of coming to class at PHW for me. In a challenged, safe, intentional space, to explore the things that make me tick.

Living away from family has been difficult on my wife and me. I’m reading Kingdom Man, by Tony Evans, as a bible study and a way to intentionally have meaningful conversation with my dad once a week. I’m reading The Art of Work, by Jeff Goins, that discusses career, and fully exploring skills and interests, importance of mentorship, and intentional exploration of interests. Having not been a big reader until my early twenties, it’s an intentional thing that I sent up for my goals this year to read 24 books and am on track to exceed it. It is noticeable improving and sparking more desire to do creative things too, which is just really exciting. I’m also getting faster, and can comprehend more quickly. 

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