Sat 15 August 2020

Confined to a small urban apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bonnie Greer reflects on her time in the Actors Studio, and how shaming memory brings self-knowledge.

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If you are a natural introvert, which all proper writers are, lockdown is a glorious time.   

No more need for excuses for not seeing people, not going out for drinks or not showing up at that opening. Because now, you cannot. You no longer have to feel guilty for simply choosing to read and write over humans. The walls do not close in, they continue to expand, as they do for all proper writers.            

Improper writers need people and sometimes this is a sad thing to observe. Many of them are extremely successful and can “work a room” and “sell” and there is always something they are “working on”.

I am always working on the same thing. In my own mind. Your own mind is what you come to know that you are constantly encountering and finding the language to describe it. You have to know its pictures and music. We writers are always chasing that music and those pictures. And that makes us both competitive and hermit-like.

When you look out of the window, high up in a small urban apartment you have been isolated in for four weeks, the parade of memory comes fast and strong – and hard. It is never too late to look at things again. Stupidity is immortal and cannot be walked back.

Once, when I was quite young and deeply serious about being A Writer, I only hung out with The Published. Perhaps I thought their success would rub off on a young black girl like me, and maybe they thought that I could laud them in some way.

I was mentored by Joe Mankiewicz, for instance, who had written and directed All About Eve. He had brought Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together. He had directed Cleopatra, which almost sunk 20th Century Fox altogether. He allowed Michael Caine to give his most versatile performance in Sleuth. Joe had known and worked with and created everybody in the movies who mattered.

By the time I rolled up, that was all over. He was at the Actors Studio with us ‘chosen few’ young writers telling us what he knew.

Most of us wanted to be in television or write for Spielberg, or both together, so took what we considered his avuncular advice with deference. But I did not listen to him. Why? Because I was young and he was old, and he was a white man and I was a black girl. By my reckoning, he had to be grateful that I even listened to him.  

Joe told me that I was undisciplined; did not believe enough in my voice and listened to too many people who were not as good as I was. I heard him but I did not, too. Because he was who he was and I was who I was.

In this isolation, in this year of living distantly, it is possible to look at youthful stupidity and carelessness. This kind of time can be the most constructive.

My entire time at the Actors Studio was graced by old white men who had been a part of the socialist-leaning Group Theatre of the 1930s. They had been blacklisted at the end of the 40s and most of the 50s and had to write under pseudonyms, drive cabs or flip burgers to make ends meet.

The head of the Actors and Directors Unit was Elia Kazan – the same Kazan who had sent some of them to the writers and actors’ gulag by his testimony for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 1950s. He knew them and they knew him.  One of these old guys told me once that the masterpiece On The Waterfront was Kazan’s explanation for being a “stool pigeon”. I had to watch it again. He was not wrong.

But because Elia was a genius and had courage to burn, when he did his workshop version of Oedipus At Colonus he cast all of these old men as the chorus. He gave them the words to let him know what he had done to them as his Oedipus wandered around dressed in a 1950s trench coat and private eye hat.

I could have written about all of this, maybe used it as a proper writer would. Joe told me that a proper writer uses experience. That there should be a bit of ice in the heart. But, for me, it was “lived experience”, my “get-out the-tiny–violins” bullsh*t excuse. Because I truly was like Joe had said: undisciplined and not believing in my own voice.

The bottom line is this. Lockdown can reveal the truth. Lockdown can reveal the passage of time and wasted opportunity. But only if you care to look. And I do.

Lockdown is an undoing and the undoing belongs to now. You can only hope that you can still use it.

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