Puppeteer or poet, all paths lead to the page

Special to The Times

I’ve been lucky enough at one time or another to be an actor, singer, puppeteer, magician, poet, film critic, playwright, screenwriter, theater director, movie director, opera librettist and book writer. What’s the advantage of changing one’s vantage point so often, besides the obvious one of keeping boredom at bay?

I’d like to be able to say I pursued these activities with a clear sense that each would inform and benefit my art, whereas I suspect I keep trying new things in vain hope of finding a consistent means for ending the restlessness, the discomfort of needing to express the inexpressible. I keep running my hands over the rock face, pressing cheek to stone, looking for a way out. As a result, I think I have come to possess a working knowledge of the rock face. What meaning this implacable, immense, stone surface might possess is beyond my ken. But I’ll tell you a bit of what I’ve picked up along the way.

As a young man, I entertained at children’s birthday parties with marionettes and magic tricks. A child will instantly and without embarrassment ascribe human properties to a crude wooden object on strings or delight in the magician’s miracles. Adults are the same, except they have learned to show embarrassment to escape the scorn of peers. Critics perform an essential function in telling people when to skip the embarrassment and applaud with gusto.


Performing for children is brutal. You’d better get to the point, and you’d better not give too much away too soon. Even when they love you, they will reduce you to a machine for achieving diminishing jolts of pleasure. “Do it again! ... Again!” You are their heroin; you’re never as good as the first time, the only difference being they will stop needing you soon enough. This can be an invaluable lesson if you want to be a playwright in America. “Do it again! Again! ... What did you write?” I went for a stress test the other day and the cardiologist asked what I did. “I write and direct.” “Huh,” he said. “Should I know your work?” Apparently not. That was my stress test.

The best audiences are high school students. They can see a “surprise ending” miles off. Themes, characters and all manner of subtleties that evade adult audiences are readily grasped by teens.

It is behavior that interests people young and old. They go to the theater to learn how to live their lives better, for the spectacle of people striving against insurmountable odds. They tell themselves it is to be entertained, but what they seek, on the deepest level, is a map for how to live. Catharsis is not strictly a purging; it is “There but for the grace of god go I.”

My first job as a writer was as a movie critic. I learned that fear of being exposed as a dupe or sap leads people to cut themselves off from true experiences, to live in their heads, be afraid of the unknown and establish a false knowingness. I learned that you cannot have an experience at the same time as forming an opinion. Here too critics perform a service: They take the job of making opinions so we can give ourselves over fully to the joy of experience. (Except in New York, where the only joy permitted anyone is pronouncing and promulgating opinions. It is more important to know the prevailing opinion than to see something. If you don’t believe me, go to the preview of a new musical, stand outside at intermission and watch the cellphones fly.) People who think art is about understanding fail to understand. It’s not.

In college, I was a poet. My teacher Anne Sexton chanted at me: “Make it strange!” Use words to shock us back to the truth and immediacy of our own experience.

Singing presents an invaluable, paradoxical lesson: The more strictly you adhere to someone else’s structure, the freer you are to express yourself. Extrapolating, movie actors who believe they are improving their scenes by improvising dialogue have either been unlucky or foolish in their choice of scripts or they are taking a valuable gift and spitting on and breaking it to “improve” its value.

Acting, the study and replication of behavior in thrall to desire, is the discipline that offers the most exacting tools for diagnosing a script as well as creating and directing them. Acting is the essence of the performing arts, including dance, opera and concert stage (to interpret a piece of music is to enact it). All characters are at all times doing the thing they believe will make their lives better at that moment. If you know nothing else but this, you can still proceed to write and direct and act — assuming you have talent. (And remember what your mother told you about “assume.”) The best actors show less — they keep secrets, allowing the audience to connect the dots. The worst contort their faces, scream, flail about and win awards.

Directing is the art of coercion — getting everyone to join a collective point of view as to the meaning of the tale. Costume designer, actors, composer — all want facing in the same direction. The best way to achieve this is, ask the right questions, persuading everyone to believe they thought of it themselves and you are merely there applauding. An actor who decides for himself to sit at a certain moment that also happens to be when you knew he had to sit in order for everything to be illuminated will perform that moment more thrillingly than if you told him outright. The best directors are the best listeners, the ones who deepen and shift their point of view by borrowing and bettering upon the genius of colleagues. A good idea is worth stealing from anyone — grip, spot operator, usher. A lot of movie directors know little or nothing about how actors work. Sadly, it shows.

To see it as if for the first time. Each and every time the curtain comes up or the camera rolls, clearing your mind of all expectations and knowing where to look. Once again, cultivate a lack of knowingness. Directors who watch run-throughs pencil in hand are critics-in-training. The late Norman René could watch a two-hour run-through without pencil or pen and give thorough chronological notes after. Anything worth remembering will be remembered. Writing things down is about forgetting.

Writing an original screenplay is more difficult than directing it. It may not require as many skills, but it requires more skill. Inventing something out of whole cloth is not only more difficult than interpreting it, it is essentially more profound. Composing “Tristan” is harder and more meaningful than conducting it. Writing “Hamlet” is more lasting than acting it. In our culture, the writer is relegated to second-class status behind the director; it bears noting that you cannot make a good movie out of a bad screenplay, though plenty of directors have taken good screenplays and made bad movies from them.

Dramatic writing is not essentially about eloquence. It is about desire. Writers lacking a felicitous ear for dialogue have made great drama, witness O’Neill. The vocabulary employed by Chekhov verges on the minuscule.

Of all these disciplines the one that demands the most expertise, weirdly enough, is writing the book to a musical. It requires more wit, wisdom, appreciation of structure, character, musicality, rhythm, the most deftness and, lastly, that most underrated of artistic virtues, humility.

Was it the need to fail more often than I could hope to succeed, to prove my own fallibility and test the limits of my capacities, that possessed me to pursue so many avenues of expression? Even if it could be known, would I want the answer?

Leaving it to old Carl Jung: “Nothing worse could happen to one than to be completely understood.” To which I might add: especially by one’s self.

In addition to “The Light in the Piazza,” Lucas’ works include “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “Reckless” and “The Dying Gaul,” which he wrote and directed.

‘The Light in the Piazza’Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los AngelesWhen: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. SundaysEnds: Dec. 10Price: $30 to $100Contact: (213) 628-2772