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Actor Takes Script Into Own Hands

In addition to playing the morally bankrupt Richard Fish on Fox-TV’s “Ally McBeal,” actor Greg Germann has also appeared on- and off-Broadway and in numerous films, including the recently completed independent “Jesus’ Son.” But Germann’s interests go beyond acting. He also writes. In fact, he writes quite a bit, with plays and film scripts to his credit. His short film, “Pete’s Garden,” which he also directed and starred in, premiered in competition at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and aired recently on the Sundance Channel. So, with a steady acting gig on a popular TV show, why does he write? He tells us. . . .

It would have been much better had they asked me to write about acting. I could go on and on about the hazards of “the character walk”; why it’s important to fight for an “and” or “with” to precede your name as the credits roll; or, of course, the little known do’s and don’ts of memorization. Some may feel the art of acting is a frivolous endeavor practiced by narcissistic simpletons. The truth is, narcissism is underrated and ignorance is bliss.

Contrary to the adage, it is “brain surgery.” There are certainly more casualties resulting from brainless actors than from a slip of the knife. Admittedly, I’m guilty of slaughtering a few characters put under my care. But clearly this is why so many actors turn to writing. After years of slaughter, the desire to create life is overwhelming.

Still, how do I come off any better than a dilettante? I’ve published a play, written and directed a short film, along with a few unpublished plays and yet-to-be-produced screenplays. Then there’s the recently published letter to the editor of the New York Times, which I did write almost all by myself. That’s it, my Impressive Writing Credits.

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Am I a writer because I’ve written? God knows, just because someone acts doesn’t make him an actor. However, when you find yourself on the floor of the emergency room twitching with a brain aneurysm, you’re comforted because someone who’s done brain surgery must, indeed, be a brain surgeon. It seems that to practice doing a thing makes you a practitioner of the thing itself: I write, therefore I am . . . a writer.

The only thing I have in common with most of the writers I know, however, is that I hate to write. I like calling myself a writer. I like talking about what I’m writing. I like the idea of having written, but sitting down, alone, trying to make sense of all the brilliant ideas I had the night before guarantees only misery.

I have read a lot about the joy of writing, but the only joy I’ve experienced writing is when I’m done. These books have titles like “The Writer Within,” “The Inner Writer,” “The Insides of the Inner Writer,” or my favorite, “Wearing Your Insides Out for the Outside Writer Wanting to Get In.”

They all propose that by allowing the unconscious to take over, words will spill out freely, as in, “It just poured out of me, I was unconscious. . . .” Unconsciousness happens when someone hits you too hard. The only person your unconsciousness benefits is the guy who threw the punch.

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This whole concept strikes me as naive. The second my unconscious “just pours out of me,” I’ll be on the phone with that guy who practices brain surgery. Something that “just pours out” may do so from the unconscious, but the unconscious is loath to rewrite.

Someone overheard Picasso once say that he strove with his whole being to draw like a child. He wanted to be free, but freedom is an illusion. I’m certain I’ve had modest success with this idea as an actor, because I’m constantly told that I act like a child. The result, however, of striving to write like a child was a 17-second play using a vocabulary of eight words. It’s yet to be produced.

Once more this brings to mind, no pun intended, brain surgery. It shouldn’t be taken as a good sign if your brain surgeon says he strives with his whole being to perform brain surgery like a child. If he does and you hesitate finding a new HMO, you might wake up as a fourth-grader.

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Still, it’s obvious that writing, let alone acting, is far more difficult than brain surgery. We’ve all seen “Chicago Hope.” You look at an X-ray, which is essentially a blueprint. You put the patient out--here unconsciousness plays a positive role. You wash your hands, you dig in, so to speak, and you’re done. The whole time you’ve got a bunch of people helping you out and there’s great music piped in. Then the guy wakes up and you’re a hero.

When you sit down to write, there’s no blueprint. You’re forced to stare at an empty page, talk on the phone, play computer games and basically do anything but write. There’s a reason there are television shows about brain surgeons, but not about writers. Writers write those brain surgeon shows because it’s easy. A television show about writers would simply be too frightening. The public isn’t ready.

So if no one is holding a gun to my head, why write at all? The obvious answer is that writing is a last resort, when life’s real or imagined angst has no place else to go. Writing is an act of terrorism on myself, and I can’t be stopped. My dilemma’s the opposite of Picasso’s; forget the “child,” I strive to write like a “writer.” Currently, I do what I can, not what I necessarily know how to do. I can act--at least, I get paid to do so. I can write, because no one can stop me, not myself, nor apparently even the L.A. Times.

Greg Germann can be seen on “Ally McBeal” Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox-TV. Whatever Works runs every Monday.

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