Sunday, July 31, 2016

Behind the Curtain

Before I was a sociologist--and maybe even before I was a writer--I was a theater kid.

I loved watching performances--music, dance, theater. I still do. But when I was about eight, I decided that I wanted to do more than watch performances. I wanted to be part of them.

Insert The Little Mermaid reference here.
So I took acting classes and did theater camps. I helped local community theaters on their work days, and I started following actors, composers, and playwrights. Where before I had only seen the finished product--the play unfolding on stage--I started to see all of the bits and pieces that go in to creating the spectacle in front of me.
It's hard to explain to someone who's never been back stage at a performance the (sometimes barely)  controlled chaos that's required to keep a show moving. It's a little like watching a duck swim from underneath. It slides smoothly across the surface, but below is a bunch of unattractive though necessary flailing. Now and then, though, there's the opportunity for people outside the theater community to get a glimpse at what it's like.

The Tony's are always great for this. Last year, especially.
 This opportunity to look behind the curtain has changed the way that I look at performances--which is a good thing and a bad one, depending on the day. I'm able to appreciate a well crafted illusion. I'm also more likely to notice when things go wrong or don't work. Someone who's not familiar with how a particular change is supposed to go won't notice if, for instance, a piece of costume is missing or a prop doesn't make it to where its supposed to be or if the people responsible for the effect don't know how to accomplish it properly.
I am occasionally (often) a pain to watch plays, television, and movies with precisely because I notice the little hiccups. The kind of stuff that folks generally are able to overlook. I'll be the one to point out that a change in the lighting was off or that someone wasn't where they were supposed to be. And comments like these are almost always met with the suggestion that I just ignore the flaws and try to enjoy whatever I'm watching.
But that's not easy. It's hard to ignore the strings once you've seen them.  
I've learned over the time I've spent trying to figure out how to be a better writer, that this applies just as much to my experience of reading as it did to my experience of performance. 
I don't just read things anymore. There's an ongoing critique that runs under everything that I read now. Most of it isn't a planned thing--I don't set out to read a book with the intention of picking it apart or trying to figure out the author's exact intent and the type of tools they had at their disposal (though sometimes I do, like when I read Kieron Gillen's writing notes for The Wicked + The Divine). But I inevitably end up doing the same thing I've done with performance for years.
And I tend to get the same response-- "Just try to enjoy it."
The thing is, I don't think being critical of the bits and pieces of a thing and enjoying that thing are mutually exclusive. I read the writer notes, which frequently point out flaws and lumps that I didn't notice on my read, for each issue of The Wicked + The Divine, and it's still my favorite comic series. I'm able to reread the Harry Potter books--which were pretty formative for me--and track the ways the writing changed and improved over the course of the series. It gives me a little thrill to realize at what point Rowling learned a new tool or what Gillen thinks he should have done differently with a character's dialogue.
It humanizes the people I look up to. It tells me that it's not going to hurt me or my work to acknowledge when I don't do things as well as I'd like or as well as I could. It suggests things that I need to think about in improving my own work. 
It makes me better.
So I'm going to continue to look behind the curtain, to try to see the work and the pieces that go into the things that I watch and read. 
My apologies to the people that wish I'd just sit back and enjoy.

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