The Moment of Confusion

I’ve had this interview between round-table icon Charlie Rose and award-winning Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance bookmarked for a year now because I really wanted to share the idea that Rylance posits toward the end of the interview.

It’s a wide-ranging interview which touches on Rylance’s long career; his experiments with “original playing” practices of Shakespeare’s plays, including staging, costuming, and pronunciation; his fascination with Shakespeare’s wit and humor; the sense of collective consciousness he feels in the room that allows a play to take on new meanings in front of each audience; and the idea that one should go on the stage and “play to win.”

Toward the end of the interview there’s this exchange (transcript below):

Rose: You’ve said that for the audience to have a sense that something has happened, there needs to be a fleeting moment of confusion.

Rylance: I’ve been to some plays where a lot has happened, but you feel like no one ever was really confused. None of the actors… I think even when a single cell grows in to two, there must be a moment of confusion at even a cellular level. And certainly in human endeavors, certainly in my life I spend a lot of time confused, particularly at moments of great importance…

Rose: Confused about consequences, confused about–

Rylance: Yeah, what’s the right path to take. Most plays will be about that kind of thing. You want to feel you’re in the presence of, um, not always in the presence of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing, but people who are considering different options.

When I first saw this interview, I recognized immediately what Rylance is pointing at when he discusses that “moment of confusion.” It’s something that most artists struggle to communicate. And it’s something that’s hard to play accurately.

As a writer, I know what’s going to happen to my characters. I work with an outline, so I have an idea of what needs to happen. Yes, there are spontaneous moments of inspiration when even I get surprised. But mostly I know what’s supposed to come next.

The same thing with the acting I’ve done. I already know what the character will do and say. I know where I will walk on the stage and how someone else will react.

So the key in both instances is to try and forget all of that knowledge and make the moments feel organic for the characters, make them feel like real people wrestling with real problems rather than characters who already know what’s going to happen to them.

In this way, I think taking time away from your writing can be the most valuable thing you do when editing. Once I step away, I’m able to return with fresh eyes and read through my story to see if my characters feel premeditated. Does it seem like they already know what their future holds? Or does it seem like they are experiencing that genuine “moment of confusion” that marks most of our lives.

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