Author, actor, and teacher Alan Sincic, The Furnace artist-in-residence and winner of Big Fiction’s 2014 Knickerbocker Prize, will be teaching a performance workshop at Scribes, Hugo House’s teen writing camp, on August 12. He’ll be performing “Sugar,” a new short story, at Hollow Earth Radio on August 13, with a soundscape designed by filmmaker Stephen Anunson.
In anticipation of these two events, made by possible by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, we asked him about the mysterious shadow wall, which will be a part of his workshop, and about the intersections of theater and fiction.
-Corinne Manning & Anca Szilágyi
What is a shadow wall?
Well, you shine a light on an eight-by-fifteen-foot sheet of fabric, gather an audience on the far side, then step between the light and the fabric to paint—head to toe—your own shadow up onto the screen. Nothing fancy.
But whether you’re creating a frozen tableau, a writhing monster, a lyrical dance, or a shoot-em-up buzzing with action, when you step behind the shadow wall the light erases everything in the universe except your own silhouette. This is the theatrical equivalent of what what happens when, in fiction, the character steps out onto what was—up until that moment—the blank white page and defines himself by some significant gesture.
I think of those sentences that seem to stand out in vivid isolation from everything around them—the snapshot images captured on the fly that somehow contain within themselves everything we need to know about the character at particular moment. Take, for example, a little sampling from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood:
“The driver put his hands on the window and gripped it. He looked as if he intended to pick up the car.”
“He pulled Haze toward the cages. Two black bears sat in the first one, facing each other like two matrons having tea, their faces polite and self-absorbed.”
“He overtook him halfway up the hill. He caught him by the arm and swung him around and then he stood there, suddenly weak and light as a balloon, and stared. Hazel Motes grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.”
“The child turned her head, slowly, as if it worked on a screw, and watched his car pass.”
Of course the snapshots accumulate in any good work of fiction, echo and harmonize with one another as the story progresses, but until you’ve mastered the snapshot, your efforts to capture a larger world will always fall short.
So … as you play with the shadow wall, you discover how the language of gesture—largely nonverbal—informs other choices you make as a writer, how even the simplest gesture can define character, build suspense, advance the plot, and establish atmosphere.
Does your work in theater feed into your fiction writing, and vice versa? How so?
In dozens of ways, of course, but perhaps the easiest aspect to comment on is the nonverbal behavior that conveys character onstage, but which, on the page, must be rendered in words. I’ve always felt that, whether you’re writing a story or the script for a play, the best dialog is less like a chat and more like a duel: characters that contend with one another in the here and now for something of great value. The fiction writer is the God of the Page, who controls (for good or for ill) everything that happens in the story, whereas the playwright—theater is a collaborative art—must depend upon the kindness of strangers.
This is where things get interesting: the actor takes the “sheet music” the playwright gives him and then—with some guidance from the director—proceeds to play it. He gets to experiment with the lines as he responds to the other actors, looking for different angles of attack, deciding how, for example, he’d receive the cup of coffee offered him as he rises from a drunken nap (I once played a debauched professor in a production of Bus Stop). Do his hands shake? Does he conceal the shaking or does he flaunt it? Is he distracted by it or intently focused on it? Does the cup rattle or do we merely see the tremor of the liquid inside? And how do the others react—is he conscious of them watching him? Does he execute some practiced trick to steady himself—bent up into a ball like Rodin’s The Thinker, the arms folded double as if to warm himself, a single finger sprouting out to, just barely, hook the handle?
How strange that all this exploration—such a crucial part of the production as a whole, and consuming (along with similar encounters) hours and hours of rehearsal time—proceeds, by and large, without any words at all. But look at all the words I’ve expended just trying to describe it—every one of those words, one by one, wrestled down onto the page, for a gesture I could demonstrate in five seconds. Is it any wonder writers walk around with such tortured expressions? Do we have any choice? Until somebody invents a motion-capture app married to a language generator, we’re stuck with the old-school method. First, find a convincing gesture. Then, if you can (and without turning to drink), conjure up some fresh language to describe it.
So … it’s in this search for the convincing gesture that the stage and the page seem to intersect: insofar as I have to imagine (even act out) the behavior of my characters before I can capture them in words, the acting, even though it doesn’t necessarily make me a better writer, leads me to ask the questions every good fiction writer should be asking, moment by moment, as he daydreams his way down the page.
How does a live performance differ from a solo “studio reading”?
In a live performance, the audience members—if you can manage to engage them—become co-conspirators in the event. This is particularly true when the piece includes some comic elements, when people laugh—as often happens with laughter—in unexpected places. You sometimes feel as if you’re the kite and they’re the wind you have to play to stay aloft, or maybe they’re the kite and you’re the wind that—almost inadvertently, as if by accident—suddenly lifts them. There’s that wonderful moment when you discover that you’re not alone, that others feel the same way about this absurd universe over which we have so little control. As the narrator in Sugar puts it:
Gotta be a word to capture the flavor of this whole enterprise – and by that I mean not Sugar alone, but every last one of us here strapped onto this whirligig of a planet. Rusted? Busted? Not broken irreparably – that would be too easy, no, but stuck. Stuck with a promise of perfection that’s always and forever just short of the means to fulfill it — the bow without the string, the crippled wing, the rowboat stuck out there in the middle of the meadow. It’s like we all been permanently epoxied into a shape that bears no resemblance to the dashing photo on the front of the box, to the set of instructions – Japanese, English, Hottentot, Urdu – slid up under the lid with (like a Gideon’s Bible at a stripper’s retreat) such a touching naiveté. A kludge, that’s what we are, every damn one of us