Friday, October 5, 2012

Writing Exercise: Fictional Dialogue

This exercise from our writing group is to craft a dialogue, like an interview, with a real or imagined person. The purpose of the exercise is to speak with someone else's voice. I think I'd be rubbish at writing dialogue, so exercises like this always scare me. I tried to imagine who I would interview. What voice could I hear clearly in my head? Was there a historical person or fictional character that I could mimic easily?

Well, I've been spending a lot of time listening to a podcast called The Tobolowsky Files. It features Stephen Tobolowsky, a Hollywood actor who has appeared in numerous films and television shows. He is perhaps most famous as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. He's the early childhood friend of Bill Murray's character who always accosts him from across the street. Even though I listen to the podcast semi-regularly, I totally blanked out on a lot of details about his life. So I made up a bunch of stuff, possibly everything. My apologies Mr. Tobolowsky if I completely messed up your life. Here is the dialogue I wrote:

Me: Welcome to the show!

ST: Why, thank you very much, Joseph. I'm glad to be here today.

Me: And we are glad to have you. You've been working in Hollywood for a long time now. Can you tell us about how you started in the industry?

ST: The answer to that question takes us back quite a while, back before I was ever in Hollywood or even thinking about California as a place to live. It all started back in my childhood, when I wanted to impress a girl. I had never been an outstanding student and have never been very athletic. So what could I do? I decided to try out for the school play. It's a way to become more famous, more popular, and more admired by the student body.

Me: What was the play?

ST: It was a rousing production of 76 Trombones, and I was cast in the starring role of Harold Hill, the traveling salesman who sold band instruments for kids.

Me: A musical sounds quite ambitious for a school play.

ST: Ambitious and ironic. Some of the students had to play students in school, which was not much of a stretch. The rest of us had to play adults next to our classmates. I learned a lot about acting right away, like the importance of a costume. A costume establishes who you are, both for the audience and more critically for yourself. The audience needs a visual cue to tell them that you are older than you look. This can be accomplished with a bit more formal dress and more subdued colors. Makeup plays a key part too. Grey hairs means old man.

Me: What about for yourself as an actor? How does the costume effect you?

ST: Proponents of the Stanislav Method (commonly known as "Method actors") say that your performance is not just based on memorizing lines and repeating them. It's also in the way you carry yourself, the way you move about, what you do with props, and how you dress to look the part. For Harold Hill, traveling salesman and con artist, he has to look respectable. People need to be able to trust this guy. Also, he needs to be noticeable, so people don't just overlook him as a nice gentleman. Some flamboyance is required, but not too much. I had a fine yellow suit with a matching fedora. If you cock the hat just right the effect is made. You as an actor build the character by putting on the clothes, by taking on the mannerisms. And by saying the words written in the script.

Me: So it's a whole package deal?

ST: Yes it is. When you have all the pieces and put them in the right place, a whole new picture emerges. A whole new you, who hopefully is someone totally different from you.

Me: And how did the production go? Was it a big success?

ST: Like all high school productions, it was a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. The mixture is usually about 90/10, favoring the ridiculous. Unless it's a complete disaster. Any number of complicating factors can push the ridiculous close to 100%. The sets may not be done; may not work right; actors may not know their lines. Or they may be just fine in rehearsals and then fall victim to stage fright. This later case, the stage fright, is what pushed our production over the 90% mark.

At this point, time for the exercise had run out. I'm not sure where it would have gone from there, but I'm sure it would have been plenty entertaining.

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