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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Alec, Maureen and arts . . . oh my!

Lots of news happening this week! So in case you missed it, Arts Advocacy Day was this past Tuesday. Artists, arts administrators, and arts supporters gathered in Washington and stormed Capitol Hill to advocate for more money for the arts. One of the highlights of this advocacy push is always the Nancy Hanks Lecture. This year it was delivered by Alec Baldwin, who has been a tremendous supporter of arts over the years. He was introduced by the incomparable Maureen Dowd, who writes speeches that are every bit as clever as her columns for the New York Times, but are improved by her spectacular comic timing. She delivers a funny line with the kind of ease that leads lesser talents to think they can do it too. The kind that I am certain took lots of practice!

Actor and advocate Hill Harper (who has his own foundation to empower underserved youth) spoke earlier in the evening. I wish I could find a copy of his short but perfect advocacy speech to share with clients and students. He followed the Marshall Ganz formula of "Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now" to a T. A clear demonstration of why that model is the best for such speeches!

As I listened to the lecture in a full house at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, I felt tremendously empowered surrounded by people for whom art is not a "frill" but a way of life. I don't get to experience that very often. President Kennedy looked forward "to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft." But we're not there yet! I get so tired of being told the arts do not deserve "a handout" or "if they can't pay for themselves they have no place in our society," or -- my favorite -- "I believe in arts education for kids. But by high school they need to stop playing around and grow up." If I had a dollar for every time I heard such a comment, I could self-fund the upcoming production of my play Becoming Calvin.

The arts business is good for business, which Mayor Bloomberg is sure to tell anyone who will listen. But it's not just New York that profits from a booming arts economy. All communities benefit, in tangible ways. You probably know that art is good, and may already be a supporter. But if you want to counter the ignorance of nay-sayers like the ones I quoted above, you can arm yourself with facts from Americans for the Arts: 10 Reasons to Support the Arts.

Art: good. . . and good for you!


Lost in a good book

Here's a question: how do you become a better communicator, learn to pick up on non-verbal cues more effectively and take a low-cost vacation? Pick up a work of fiction!

Earlier this year I indulged in a flurry of novel reading activity. I found myself zipping through imaginative worlds that closely mirror my own reality. Chad Harbachs The Art of Fielding, and Helen Schulmans's This Beautiful Life described lives lived in places and situations that were not too much of a stretch for me. Conquistodora by Esmerelda Santiago and Suzanne Collin's ubiquitous The Hunger Games set me down in places I can only imagine and led me on adventures I will certainly never have. But as I mentally traveled back in time to 19th century Puerto Rico and forward to the dystopic Panem, I experienced foreign worlds conjured by authors who literally took me with them.

You may call it escapism, but it's more than that. Science now tells us that when we spend hours in a world far, far away, we are actually doing something very valuable; sharpening our empathy skills. In "Your Brain on Fiction" in the New York Times last month, Anna Murphy Paul describes research suggesting novel readers benefit from this activity more than we know. Findings by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, point to "substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others."

So I ache for Henry Skrimshander as he loses his gift for fielding and turns his back on baseball, his one true love. I get frustrated with Liz Bergamot and want to scream at her to stop being such a passive bystander in her own life. It is almost as if I were experiencing their pain myself, rather than observing it. And it is this experience, vicarious though it may be, that makes me a better communications coach, teacher, artist, wife and mother. I live in a very self-contained corner of the world, but by walking in a fictional character's shoes, I can go anywhere, be anyone. Which helps me develop greater empathy.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto summed it up: “Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. . . . novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So next time you want to unplug, close the door and indulge in a good novel - go ahead: you'll be a better person for it!


United we stand

Yesterday was historic for me and 130,999 other actors in the US who work in film and/or TV: our two unions merged into one. Yesterday at 1:35 PT Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists became SAG-AFTRA. After 80 years of sometimes feverish, sometimes tepid talks of merger, the membership of both unions voted to unite. In spite of opposition led by some pretty big names, including former SAG President Ed Asner (who says this plan will hurts the SAG pension and health benefits) most rank-and-file actors I know have been longing for a merged union for years.

We are proud to be union members! And now our One Union will be stronger to fight for our wages and working conditions.

You probably don't think about it, but it's not easy being a film or TV actor -- unless you are a star who can negotiate a separate contract. The rest of us are grateful for the protection of the union. When I work a shoot with non-union actors they begin the day thrilled just to be near the set. They can't imagine why we need to be paid for this, for goodness sake! By lunchtime they are dragging because our day has been "hurry-up-and-wait". Then, all at once, we are called to set and have to be brilliant on command. Again and again. Take after take. Fortunately we get overtime after eight hours (well, nine, but lunch doesn't count), but can't leave early to pick up our kids at daycare! It takes discipline and dedication. Often those non-union people don't show up the next day. They worked for their lunch and the excitement of it all. They never counted on the patience they would need to get through hours of waiting for lights to be focused, sound to be connected, camera angles to be set.

Movies and TV shows provide viewers worldwide with escape, relaxation, entertainment and enlightenment. But they are much harder and more complicated to create than you will ever know. The weavers of dreams are professionals who hide the machinery and the sweat of their hard work. I am proud to be among them. And now, with a stronger union, we can take on the producers who want to film offshore or in dangerous conditions, or claim that the rules don't apply to talent employed in "new media." And maybe the rest of the country will realize that - hey- if my favorite TV star or film actor not only belongs to a union, but voted to make the union stronger, maybe unions aren't such awful, subversive things after all!


Aaah-choo! Speaking while pol-undated

March came in like a lamb here in Northern Virginia, and the month quickly progressed to something resembling the dog days of summer. Consequently, here in the land of flowering cherry trees, all the tree flower pollens and those of other flowering plants have been released much earlier than expected. And my peonies are a month ahead of schedule! In my house, this early onset allergy season caught at least one of us by surprise. We are "pol-undated", inundated by pollen.

I have had a few clients who are encountering their very own SSDs --- seasonal speaking disorders. That is when your sinuses are congested and blocked, and your throat gets scratchy. There is so much pollen floating through the air it turns your blue car green. Think how hard your nasal cilia have to work to filter the air that goes through your nasal passages, your throat, and finally reaches your lungs. They try their darndest, but just can't keep up. Of course some pollen and other irritants get through!

It gets rather hard to speak through all the "crud" that collects in your throat and chest. But of course you can't block out all of allergy season on your calendar and say you won't/can't do a speech or presentation for three months. So what do you do?

You need to do your regular 7-10 minute vocal warm-up (you do have one of those, right?), starting off with breathing exercises to center you, articulation to make sure your consonants are crisp, and resonance awareness. Be sure to spend extra time on the resonance exercises, and do them a tad more slowly and gradually. In case you need a refresher on these: massage your face and gently hum up and down your vocal range to get vibrations going in your sinuses. Hot liquids and steam help move some of the mucus out of there. So warming up in the shower is a good thing, as is drinking hot tea (which for some reason is better than coffee). Avoid the impulse to just plow through. To force the sound out. That would only make things worse. Don't do it! You can stress your vocal folds that way, which can lead to all sorts of trouble down the road.

Take care of yourself. Keep hydrating so you can more readily flush the offending stuff out (the cilia, after all, do sweep it into the digestive system so it can be eliminated). And support your voice. You may not be as tiptop as you would like to be, but don't use that as an excuse to collapse into bad posture and shallow breathing. Let your voice vibrate through clogged sinuses as much as it can, but don't force it.

You'll thank me later.


When artistic license expires

Playwrights don't often make news, and when one does, the rest of us hope it is something worth celebrating. This week, I, for one, was angered by the cowardice of a fellow practitioner who made us all look like liars and cheats.

This American Life, a weekly public radio show that I love, devoted a whole episode this week to exposing and explaining the errors in its previously most-downloaded show. That show aired in January of this year. It was an interview host Ira Glass had with writer and monologuist Mike Daisey about his extremely successful one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  Coincidentally, Mr. Daisey's monologue closed today at the Public Theatre in New York, where it had been running since October 17th.

The show, as I understand it (I have not seen it) deals with the tension between Americans' growing dependence on everything Apple, and the harmful, abusive working conditions at Apple factories in China. Mr. Daisey, whom The New York Times called “one of the finest solo performers of his generation” is not a journalist. However, he presents his onstage story as something that really happened, and much of the power his story holds for audience members is because they believe he is revealing Truth (see opening night NYTimes review). But his script does not square with the facts.

This week, in his extraordinary interview,  Ira Glass takes Mr. Daisey to task for passing his show, this piece of imagination, off as true. Mr. Glass rightfully feels duped, since he and his This American Life staff went out on a limb and vouched for it as such. Mr. Daisey's defense (this is really what makes me mad): ''Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means."

Puh-leaze!!! Even in the "context of theatre'' this guy is lying!

I write plays. I write plays based on fact, on history. And yes, sometimes you have to conflate a small detail or two, or make up a character to serve your needs.  I can see the temptation, after all... you can't footnote a play, so how scrupulous do you really need to be with your facts?

You need to be very scrupulous. You need to have integrity. Honesty. Artists aren't liars; they interpret the truth. They shape it and create a new way of looking at it. So people will really see it, and come to an understanding of themselves, of each other. If they need to create a world out of whole cloth to do so, there is no shame in that. Sometimes it is even easier to set a play in a fictional world than the real one. But you can't have it both ways and still be an artist with integrity. You can't play fast-and-loose with facts and then cry "artistic license" when you are called on bogus fabrications. Even if -- no, especially if -- you are successful, you have an obligation to readers, viewers and other audiences to either tell the truth or signal that not everything in the story is exactly as it seems. Other playwrights do it all the time; it is not hard.

Mike Daisey took a good long drive down the road to success. But he didn't play by the rules, and his artistic license has expired.