The Medium is the Message

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan
February 24, 2013
Writers on Writing
March 25, 2013

The Medium is the Message

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

Last night, I attended the reading of a friend’s play at the Actors Studio. In addition to the work itself, which was impressive, there was much about the process I found fascinating. Although I’ve written scripts for different types of television programs, writing for the stage is an entirely different animal, and there’s a reason I’ve never attempted it. Penning the dialogue for my novel was challenge enough—the most difficult part of the process for me—but having to tell an entire story solely through the characters’ spoken words? Will someone be so kind as to get me a bottle of calamine lotion and an inhaler, because I’m breaking out into hives at the mere thought.

Then again, as the reading reminded me, writing for a performance-based medium is never solely about the words. The actors, the director, and all of the other behind-the-scenes collaborators bring their own dishes to the potluck dinner to complete the meal. (I was going to use a puzzle analogy here, but in addition to being a cliché, it also implies that there’s only one right way to fit the various pieces together, and that’s obviously not true for any creative work. It really is the result of what everyone brings to the table on any given day.) Listening to the language of Stephen’s play, seeing it interpreted by the performers, picturing in my head the many ways that set design, sound effects, music, lighting and costumes could amplify or hinder the playwright’s words—all of it opened a window onto a kind of writing that is a collaborative art.

As someone who spends much of her writing life alone, moving the metaphorical chess pieces around the board with impunity (“Bow before me, little pawns, for I am your ruler!”), it was thrilling to see a different kind of creativity at work. My inner control freak cringes at the idea of ceding that level of authority over a text (though that power is a bit of an illusion anyway, as readers always bring their own perspective to bear on your written words and shape them in their own minds in ways you never expected), but the team player in me appreciates that a truly collaborative process can generate a result that is much greater than the sum of its individual parts.

More than anything else, the reading made me appreciate all of the many ways we have at our disposal to express ourselves, regardless of our abilities and interests. I couldn’t help but recall something that a dear friend once told me; an extremely imaginative chef in Spain, he answered my question about where he drew his inspiration by regaling me with a long list of muses, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the fashions of Balenciaga, and the music of Erik Satie.

What do these different examples have to do with his chosen medium of food? Nothing, he explained, at least not on the surface. But though each one employs tools and techniques that are unique to their specific field, they all partake of the same creative idiom and intent.

As I was reminded during last night’s reading and the thoughtful Q & A that followed it, bearing witness to a vibrant expression of this shared vocabulary is a wonderful way of unlocking the hidden territories of your own brain. Like trying on a pair of someone else’s glasses, you may not want to walk around in them for the rest of the day, but it definitely forces you to see the world a little differently, and that is what true art has always strived to achieve.