How Firesign Theater, Stanislavski, and I are (loosely and tangentially) connected….

Let’s start with the facetious, progress to the serious, and then wind down (or up?) with the point of my post for today.  It’s not a long post, in any case, but I hope to raise a few thoughts and speculations about how we bloggers go about blogging and adhering to a schedule of publication even when it’s a gloomy winter and our fingers are a little bit frozen as they peck the keys, and we really haven’t been reading much lately, so we have nothing much to blog about (or at least not if our posts are usually about literature).  What have I been doing instead of blogging and reading good literature, you ask?  Well, I’ve been trying to drag and haul and “unpack” (as Shakespeare somewhere or other would have it) words from my “word hoard” (the ancient Anglo-Saxon for “vocabulary”) to fill the pages of my novel.  I also took time out to watch an opera production over the computer from Met Opera On Demand, “Madama Butterfly,” to be precise.  So it’s not that I’ve been totally unproductive:  I’ve just not fulfilled my (self-appointed) duties as a blogger very well.  But I promised you something facetious, so let’s begin at the beginning.

For those who like comedy routines and have a memory which reaches back a few years, there’s the comedy team called “Firesign Theater,” a group of several talented no-longer-young comedians who by now have cut a number of records, of which I am the proud possessor of about four.  Those who have their spoofy take-down of Shakespeare album (and who still have a turntable to play it on) may well remember, I believe from their jests about weather conditions in “Hamlet” or possibly “Macbeth” on the heath, the immortal lines–delivered in the true ornate Shakespearean manner and accent–“Crack, cheeks; blow, wind,” and other such gems of parodic genius.  There’s also the school adventures of Porgie Tirebiter (a spoof of Archie and Jughead-style teenage fables) from “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus,” their parody of Sherlock Holmes entitled “The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra,” and the topical albums (they were popular in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s) “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” and “In the Next World, You’re On Your Own,” to name only the albums I’m personally familiar with.  There are more, which a search on the Internet will turn up.  These four inspired raconteurs of rowdy routines were (and I hope still are) Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor.  And here’s the nub of it:  though they had obviously had to rehearse their routines to get all the remarks and the sound effects filled in in their appropriate spots, they had a way of playing off each other’s jests which struck one as more truly like improvisational theater than planned writing.  It is absolutely delightful what they can do with words, concepts, events, and other people’s creations.  And the freshness is preserved by the sense of their being especially inspired on the instant to make their jokes.  And here (though of course “many a truth is spoken in jest,” as we know) we switch to the serious part of my post.  How does one access one’s inspirational genius?

One of the most interesting and vitally creative and worthwhile books I’ve ever read is the famous Russian director and teacher Konstantin S. Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares.  It’s all about how he went about training his students to act by the manner now know as “method acting,” of which he was the main inventor.  Nevertheless, though it is about acting and acting students and the theater and plays and playwrights, it is a work which everyone, painter, actor, literary critic, sculptor, academic, novelist or poet, or anyone in any other creative field should read, for its advice on inspiration.  Though there are many scenes and incidents in the book in which Stanislavski spurs his students to new heights of creativity by his advice and teachings, there is one key scene which I will have always in my memory, and which is the gist of my own thoughts on creation to the present day.  Stanislavski was reproaching a certain student for his slipshod work in the manner in which he portrayed his character.  The student, like many a student everywhere, earnestly (but perhaps a trifle lazily?) responded that he had tried and tried, but he didn’t feel “inspired” that particular day with that particular character.  Stanislavski’s response?  He lectured the student that it was not his primary job to “be inspired,” rather it was his job to develop his “technique.”  He believed that technique was the bread and butter (or the meat and potatoes) of the creative world.  Inspiration, by contrast, was something that came along where and where it would, and was more like the icing on the cake.  It could not be relied upon, because it was a will-‘o-the-wisp, likely to disappear if too heavily relied upon.  The best possible creative solution was always to have one’s technique at the ready and in operation, and while maintaining one’s openness to allow inspiration to come along, always be prepared to do a simple workmanlike job in the event that it deserted one.

And where do I come into this post, as I indicated that I would at the beginning?  Well, it’s only that I’ve tried day after day (like Stanislavski’s erring and excuse-making student) to come up with an inspiration for a post, and finally today while I was looking for something to post upon, my eyes ran across a book by a theater person named Sonia Moore, written on the Stanislavski method.  And a light bulb did indeed go on over my head, so I guess it was really a kind of inspiration, in a way, but before I could just take the improvisational moment and the inspiration and run with it, I felt it only fair to share not only my original reading of the book, but also to connect it up with all the ins and outs of the vexed question of inspiration and improvisation themselves.  And so, here it is:  a post a bit longer than I thought it would be, but one I hope which will repay your attention and give you too something to think (or read) about the next time your inspiration lags.  Toodle-oo! for now–post done!


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

4 responses to “How Firesign Theater, Stanislavski, and I are (loosely and tangentially) connected….

  1. Richard Gilbert

    I enjoyed this, Victoria. Stanislavski is so interesting. I had his book for ages and dipped into it occasionally—your post makes me want to find it and read the whole dang thing. The affinities between the arts are so interesting, and you’ve hit on a classic here.


    • Thanks, Richard, both for reading and for making me feel rewarded for having written the post. There are relatively few books that I’ve read almost all in one sitting, but that was one. Of course, I was a theater arts major at the time, but I wasn’t into acting so much as I was into playwrighting. It still seemed to be a big help when it came to the subject of artistic discipline, so I hoped others would find it of interest too.


  2. D. James Fortescue

    Inspiration and technique are universal concepts. Mister Stanislavski is absolutely right on always perfecting your techniques, and being receptive to inspiration.

    I hope your fingers begin to defrost sometime soon =)


    • Actually, today I’m in the middle of a winter storm, inside, but my fingers are quite frozen, and I’m wearing one glove (I couldn’t find the other one) with the fingers cut out in order to type–you’ve probably seen the kind. My point was of course that I (in addition to a lot of other people, I think) sometimes rely too closely on inspiration and forget how important technique is. I’m glad I rediscovered my lost skill, because I’m tired of having to wait for inspiration to drop around. Thanks for reading!


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