Pay Attention and Reiterate
As a young actor studying in London in 1996, I went to see a new play, Stanley, at the National Theatre. The production starred Antony Sher in what remains one of the most riveting, exposed, and raw performances I have ever witnessed. After the performance, inspired beyond reason, I ran (literally) into the bookshop at the National Theatre to find anything I could about this extraordinary artist. It was there that I discovered The Year of the King, Sher’s personal diary and sketchbook kept during the rehearsal period of his lauded portrayal of Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984.
My first read of this book was startling. Many artists, when they share a memoir of their most celebrated works, often romanticize their story, leaving in moments of triumph and leaving out moments of utter despair. But Sher exposed every nightmarish flaw, every mistake, every embarrassing misstep. He pulled back the curtain on what the creative process truly looks and feels like.
Since 1996, I have faithfully reread The Year of the King at least once a year, and each time, as my own creative process changes, I glean new nuggets of wisdom from this book. I’ll share with you my two favorite takeaways from my most recent read.
There is an interesting mythology in our artistic communities which is that inspiration comes from within. What Sher breaks open is the notion that our “within” is limited to what we already know, and if we wish to expand our possibilities, we must work from the outside in. When we stop pretending we can inspire ourselves and instead start paying attention to the world around us, we can truly find new inspiration.
In a favorite scene of mine in the book, Sher is driving in South Africa and sees a familiar sight, Lion’s Head Mountain, a vista from his childhood. But this time he sees it, “as if for the first time”, and it stops him in his tracks. He sketches it and wonders what it means for Richard III:
“Sketching Lion’s Head. More and more alive. Massive shoulders with a terrible growth (hump?) on one of them. That growth, a rock formation with great slabs and chunks, is so like animal or muscle; the surface has a smoothness, a silkiness, the folds are very soft – there are crevices you want to run your fingers over and into -but within there’s the enormous hard power. Feminine and masculine.”
ITERATE. REITERATE. REITERATE. REITERATE...
When we are engaged in a creative process and are fortunate enough to be struck by inspiration, that could be enough. Inspired = complete. But what Sher asserts is that a creative person must live in the discomfort of incompletion, staying hungry for what is new, what is deeper, what is better.
As he searches for his iconic take on the role, Sher considers the possibility that his Richard may need to have more than the infamous “humpback”. The first jolt of inspiration strikes.
“ Spot two disabled men and can’t stop myself from staring. One has his pelvis so twisted that his feet point away at ninety degrees from his torso. Walks with two sticks.”
“They [the other characters in the play] keep referring to him as four-legged creatures... crutches.”
“You can find any character by watching animals. Insects rubbing their front legs together – could do that with the crutches. Spiders move in a nimble dance, their legs going like fingers on a keyboard, they rotate on the spot.”
Antony Sher’s Richard III, the creepy, macabre, spider king is born.
A POST SCRIPT:
In 2004, Sher released a new edition of the The Year of the King and with it, a new foreword. During the initial writing of the book, Sher was still very much in the closet. One particular character in the book to whom he refers as “friend” was, indeed, his lover and partner. Sher asks you, the reader, to note this and to read between the lines. Turns out, even the past can continue to reiterate itself. Truth has its own process as well.