The other night I was out with a few friends, and a young woman walked in with a female friend of hers wearing an odd shaped white hat on her head.
It made for conversation for a few minutes as we discussed what the hat could be, after some observation we were able to conclude it was in fact a clove of garlic. Everyone else at the table seemed quite content to leave it at that.
I was not. I wanted to be more specific. How were they not curious WHY this woman was out on a Saturday night wearing a garlic hat? Who was her friend? Did she also have garlic hats? Where does one buy a garlic hat, or did she make it? What’s her affinity to garlic?
We all know the value of specificity in our work, whether as actors or writers, we’ve heard it for years, so much so it becomes a term that perhaps we have lost the meaning of along the way.
But specificity is what gives us texture, it’s what makes our writing or our performances pop, it’s what helps our choices be strong, and our actions bold, and yet so often we settle for “specific enough.”
I have an exercise I ask my writing class to do where I ask them to observe at least five pairs of people during the week and see how quickly they can discern their relationship. We give a lot away about ourselves in how we walk, how we talk, how we look at another person, it’s pretty easy to identify simple relationships between people even from a distance: husband and wife, first date, brother and sister etc.
This is usually what my students bring in the first week: I saw two people in a store discussing coffee, he was saying he had to quit drinking coffee, she wasn’t interested, so I figured they were probably co-workers who don’t get along.
That’s specific right? Sure, but the beautiful thing about specificity is there’s no limit to its depth. It is a continual pool of exploration.
Maybe they are more than just co-workers, maybe they had a torrid affair in the supply closet on Friday afternoon after Keith’s going away party, and now on Monday morning as he drones out about coffee all she can think about is her children, and the face of her husband. She’s not a religious person but as he talks about the benefits of Peet’s over Starbucks she wonders if she should go to church.
Those first initial thoughts would raise a whole new web of questions for me, how old are her children? What’s her marriage like? What was her parent’s marriage? How did that influence her?
The spider web of specificity I can continue to build on this woman will grow thread by thread, and soon enough I will find myself with a rich, textured, layered character with a deep emotional life whom I merely passed at the grocery store. In fact, she just might work her way into a new script.
After the first week, I challenge my actor/writers to continue this exercise, and push themselves to new levels of specificity. The next few days it becomes a fun game, a game of imagination, and exploration, as they start to weave elaborate webs of specificity. A few days after that, it gets a little scary how deep down the well you can go from someone you saw on a canyon path, and a few days after that, you begin to wonder what would happen if someone passed you, what web would they weave about you?
What kind of character are you? When you allow yourself to explore that well, you just may find ideas or threads of yourself that you have never explored before that just might sharpen your work as an actor, and might even reveal to you an angle on yourself to write about.
And in case you were wondering:
By the end of the night we’d concluded the garlic hat girl was actually a former runner up Miss Gilroy (Garlic Capital of the World), and her love/hate bestie/roomie actually won the title of Miss Gilroy in the closest contest in Gilroy history, but had the fortune of having a father who was the mayor who paid off the second judge. They now live together in a one bedroom/loft (guess who took the loft) brown carpeted apartment in North Hollywood while they both try to make it as actresses (Miss Gilroy had five lines on One Life To Live). Every year on the anniversary of the pageant, she makes her runner up best friend wear the garlic hat. The girl does it with a smile, and it just might be because she still doesn’t think she’s good enough to compete with her friend. If only she knew what really happened with the vote that fateful day of the Miss Gilroy competition….
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