Reality TV – Feeding the dream or Perpetuating a lie?

I feel like I’m late to the party in writing this article.

Reality TV isn’t exactly a new concept. “The Real World” has been broadcast in America since 1992, however, over here in the UK it wasn’t until 2001 with the introduction of “PopStars” that I first started noticing it on our screens.

At first it was welcomed widely, praised as a new, exciting form of Saturday Night entertainment and took interactivity between viewer and show to a whole new level. Since then, however the concept has spawned Pop Idol, The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent to name but a few (and this, excluding their International equivalents) and opinions are divided. While many still tune in religiously to see contestants put on the spot under the scrutiny of a panel of Judges, many see the format as a damaging influence on the industries in the eye of the storm (TV/Theatre/Music) and find they will do all they can (short of taking refuge in an underground bunker) to avoid it.

We’ve also seen reality TV branch into Theatre as we’ve seen Andrew Lloyd Webber put hopeful contestants through their paces to choose a Joseph, Maria and Dorothy (again, amongst others) for their respective West End shows and eventual National tours.

For the purpose of this post, I will be looking specifically at these shows. The ones that take the form of a talent competition, with the winner going on to (ideally) be the new breakout star of stage or airwave, depending on their particular skill. To do this, I probably won’t need to refer to shows such as Big Brother or Survivor etc. which is probably for the best as I’d have very little complimentary to say.

You might be able to tell from my opening, that my tone isn’t hugely positive. But why not? Surely, handing an opportunity to millions of people across the Globe that wouldn’t normally have a chance of having their moment in the spotlight in a fantastic thing. Surely, we need “fresh talent” and now we have an endless resource. Finally, it’s not just for those who’ve had “all the breaks” and anyone from anywhere can get up, have their moment and for a fleeting moment, dream of stardom and success and in the meantime, millions worldwide are entertained.

So, where’s the problem?

Well as I see it, there are many. From the public shaming and ridiculing of those not successful and the false hope and promise imposed on those that are, to the performance industries, which are already overflowing with unemployed and talented performers being trivialised to the point where the impression is given that almost anyone can do it. The shows draw in contestants on the promise of overnight fame, success and fortune and frequently we are told they pack in their jobs and livelihoods to travel the length of the country just so they can participate.  The sad truth, however, is that overnight fame, prolonged success and fortune are all but myths in most creative industries for many of those dedicated to it and from my experience, it’s these people (myself included) who have the biggest issues with the Reality TV format.

From a production stand-point, Talent Show Reality TV makes all the sense in the world. It’s relatively cheap to produce. All of the contestants are essentially volunteers who are excited just to be there, no Actors are required and frequently neither are script writers.  It’s a streamlined show with a simple and easily executed format which is easy to follow, easy to understand and by it’s very nature has all of the built-in excitement and tension that audiences crave. It’s a no-brainer that these shows work, maintain their popularity and continue to have people tune in in droves, pay to see it recorded live and then spend additional money to buy the subsequent tickets to the tour/show or albums. However, this in itself means that creative new writing (be it dramas or comedies or anything in between) isn’t getting the funding it once did.

It’s hard not to imagine the creative minds behind the shows sitting in ivory towers, eating unicorn steaks, sipping champagne and laughing maniacally. No? Just me then.

I think one of my biggest issues with the shows is what I perceive to be exploitation of people for the sake of entertainment. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that these people are too stupid to think for themselves, but are they fully aware of what they’re getting themselves into? Are they aware of the ridicule they’re opening themselves up to or, even if they have a real skill or talent, do they have the necessary training, stamina and technique to be able to do it on demand night after night? More on that later.

Many of the shows require the competitors to go through several rounds of pre-screening auditions before they ever hit the televised auditions. They are essentially auditioned to audition. This means that those “hilarious” auditions of people painfully out of tune or being seemingly unaware or how awful they are have already been told they’re great several times. They’ve had their hopes built, their inhibitions shed and their talent endorsed before they then confidently walk out in front of a live audience who hold nothing back in laughing, ridiculing and patronising this person. Now, to me that is nothing short of cruel.

Dave Grohl once spoke about “The Voice”, another internationally popular Reality TV show, and it’s right (or lack their of) to tell people whether they should or shouldn’t sing:

Who is to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice. The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowin in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera “Mmmmm . . . I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. Next . . .”

It’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .

The problem here is that (as I expressed in a previous post) Singing (and music as a whole) is one of the most expressive things a person can do. Whether you think you’re good or not, it’s a joyous release of some of the deepest and most visceral parts of you and it pains me every time to see a teenager, a pensioner or ANYONE go on those shows, make it to the televised rounds for the sole purpose of being used as comic relief as they’re portrayed as delusional, idiotic and talentless. What if that person goes home embarrassed, ashamed and chooses to give up something that they love as a result?

It’s potentially a similar path for the more successful candidates on the show. Whether they’re perceived to be moderately talented or the next Freddie Mercury (or whoever you cool cats listen to these days) the hopefuls are built up only to be knocked down. Seriously, without Googling, tell me who won The Voice in your respective country 3 years ago? Are they still making music? Are they living the dream that was falsely promised to them? Or are they now pretty much as anonymous as they were when they entered the competition and instead performing in regional pantomimes? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, by the way, the point is more that it is far from the lofty heights promised to them and far from the scenario that was painted for them while bearing their soul on the show in question.

So, back to the point I touched on earlier. One of the aspects of the show that irks me the most is contestants being pushed to their limits physically as well as emotionally. To be more specific, let’s take The Voice as an example. Once successful auditionees have had their presence recognised by the judges and they’ve decided to no longer have their backs turned to them, they progress through to the next round.

The next round is what is called “The Battle” round. Now, anyone reading this who has ever had any formal voice training will hopefully cringe at the very concept just like I do whenever I see or hear it. This round pits two contestants off against each other in a Singing battle and by it’s very nature, encourages contestants to push and force their voices to be louder, stronger and more impressive than their counterpart.

I have more issues with this than I think I can detail here so let’s skip past my problem with singing and expressionate art being about far more than “who is the loudest” and my ire with singers forcibly inserting vocal tricks and trills into songs and phrases where they aren’t musically or artistically justified just because they can and let’s move on to the far more serious issue of vocal technique and stamina.

Now, I’m not here to toot my own horn or flatter my own ego but as a classically trained, Grade 8 singer and a graduate of a top drama school where I received comprehensive vocal coaching from an industry professional, I feel like I’m well within my rights to have my say on the matter.

It absolutely pains me to watch the Battle Rounds (as just one example from just one show) and see a seemingly endless stream of Singers misuse their voice, force it and strain it and ultimately do it untold damage by trying to emulate their idols, only to be encouraged by the “expert panel” and rewarded for doing so.  If the contestant is successful they go on to further rounds where the pressure is on to better themselves again and again which often translates as “louder with more tricks” which often the contestant simply does not have the technique to do safely.  Here’s a clue – if you’re watching a singer go red in the face and their veins are popping out of their neck, it’s probably not safe.

Even more painful is if they win. Then comes the subsequent tour of God knows how many consecutive dates (a stretch which even the best voices need the best of care to maintain quality and safety), an album recording and a series of increasingly desperate television appearances as the “star” realises that, now the show is over, so is the glory.

If the panel is truly made up of experts, then I see it as their responsibility to tell the contestants that they are using their voice in such a manner that will damage it in the long term and that often “less is more”. Instead, they are pushed and pushed to breaking point and I dread to think of how some contestants would fare in the long run.

Many of the professional, successful performers not only have years of training with a foundation in vital technique, but some even have continued support while on set or in the studio in the form of a company vocal coaches and even physiotherapists. That’s why the very best in these professions make it look easy – because they’re trained to and they’ve dedicated years of their lives to hone their skills and craft to an exceptional standard.

However, I’m in agreement with Sting in this particular instance. Here’s what he had to say regarding the Judges of American Idol:

(They have) no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion, advising contestants what to wear and how to look”

Well said, Sir.

My final frustration with the ever-popular Talent Shows is it’s miseducation of audience members as to what it truly takes to be a successful Singer, Actor, Dancer or whatever it may be.

As an Actor and a Singer, I can’t even begin to count the amount of times that people have suggested to me “Why don’t you just go on The X-Factor? Now, they mean well but it’s clear that their perception of it is that it’s a fast-track to fame and that the competition is actually based on talent. Similarly, with the shows seeking to find a star for a West-End Musical, the audience is taught that you just have to be a good singer and impress a select group of people to progress in this career that they also understand is notoriously difficult.

Ultimately, the shows are dumbing down the most popular forms of entertainment, miseducating the masses on what it takes to succeed in the creative arts, further concealing the hypocricy and difficulties faces by professional performers in an already preposteriously difficult and exploitative industry and perhaps most importantly, giving false hope to thousands of people, many of whom are brought crashing back down to Earth with ridicule, mockery and public shaming.

So – feeding the dream or perpetuating a lie? More like dumbing down an industry to create an easily replicated format that takes advantage of people’s hopes and dreams, exploits those with talent (while insulting the ones it doesn’t) and insults our intelligence at the expense of exciting new writing, trained professionals and at times, people’s dreams and desire to enjoy their passion.

But hey, Simon Cowell just bought a lovely new car, so….

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Why Video Games Aren’t Responsible for Violence in Kids…

Catchy Title, no? Took me a while that one.

So, we’ve summed up why Acting, Music and  Gaming matter. Now let’s get to discussion.

This week I’m hoping to tackle an issue that gets thrown around by news outlets and media almost every time there is a tragic incident such as a school shooting, mass murder or violent spate involving a child, teenager or young adult.

It’s a sad and tragic fact that there have been 109 gun related incidents in US schools and collages that resulted in arrests, deaths or injury since 2010. A stunning fact when you consider that I’m only taking into account a five-year time frame.

While I can’t generalise and say that all of these were blamed on the negative influence entertainment media is having on the children and youths involved in some of these incidents, there have been many notable occasions when this exact correlation has been drawn.

The first point I’d like to make is regarding the average gaming audience. While it’s a commonly held misconception that most Gamers are kids and young adults, the  IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) recently released details of a study which looked at the composition of today’s gaming audience. It’s results were interesting for many reasons but most noticeably for the following facts:

  • 32.9 million people play video games in the UK alone
  • 51% of this audience are male opposite an ever-increasing 49% female audience.
  • 25 to 45 year olds are identified as having the most number of players (44%) compared with 45 to 65 year olds (33%) and 16 to 24 year olds (23%)

Already, I’d think it would be safe to assume that this isn’t necessarily what you expected.

What this already proves is that, while there are a large amount of younger gamers out there, the market is very much dominated by an older target market than in previous decades.  This has obviously directly impacted the marketing and branding of the games being produced by developers but also the content, subject matter and complexity (both narratively and from a difficulty standpoint) of what is being released to consumers.

For those who don’t follow the gaming industry too closely or participate in it themselves, the belief that gaming is for kids is, for the most part, entirely inaccurate.  However, knowing that this belief is held makes it no surprise when misguided media outlets inaccurately report on the contents or details of a video game or get caught up in blaming a particular game or franchise for a tragic incident such as a school shooting or violent crime committed by a child or young adult.

What I will say is that some games will absolutely involve content not suitable for a younger gamer. It’s easy to look at the Grand Theft Auto franchise in this kind of discussion as it’s arguably the most notorious in terms of it’s content. The latest instalment (GTA V) includes drug use, offensive language from the outset, racism, sexism, sexual intercourse, gun use and glorification of violent and criminal activity. Good thing it’s got an 18 age rating on it then, isn’t it.

This is arguably the point that riles me more than any other. Due to misconceptions of what video games are and the themes and characters contained within, more and more children are getting access to video games such as GTA V, often with their parents buying them the game as a present, blissfully unaware of what they are giving to their child.

It’s the equivalent of taking your 10-year-old child and buying them the SAW trilogy on DVD and then allowing them to watch them repeatedly with their friends, taking no interest or responsibility for what they’re being exposed to. An absurd thought perhaps, but unfortunately not an absurd example of quite commonly replicated behaviour.  For some reason, it seems children will often be more protected from movies and other media that they aren’t a suitable age to be experiencing but gaming often gets forgotten about and is deemed harmless.

It’s my belief that parents need to take responsibility and truly be aware of what games they are buying and giving to their children or what games their kids are playing with their friends. If you’re buying your child a game with an 18 rating and allowing them to spend night after night playing it with my friends, I think it’s naive to expect that they won’t at least learn a few more four letter words from the experience.

Even in this circumstance, however, I don’t believe that the kids are at any particular risk of becoming increasingly rebellious or exhibiting violent behaviour.

Firstly, I believe that even children see games for what they are; fantasy and fun. Even for adult gamers, violence in videos isn’t designed as a simulation, tutorial or fetish. It’s there for entertainment in the same regard as car’s blowing up in Die Hard or Speed doesn’t encourage the viewer to go out and plant a speed-restricted bomb on a bus or drive recklessly. It’s clear, formulated entertainment which is presented as fantasy and fiction.

Secondly, I’d wager that in the cases of violence in the US involving guns where video games are blamed, what is more at fault is an aggressive environment where guns are lauded and kept in many households. The combination of a child playing a violent video game that they shouldn’t have access to in the first place and then having access to (in some cases) a selection of guns and ammunition is a recipe for disaster.  Once again, if the child is near the guns unsupervised or knows where they’re kept, that’s another parenting issue in my book.

Let’s look at one specific example; the tragedy that was the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.  In the aftermath of this brutal mass murder, a topic of debate and discussion kept resurfacing on many news stations and online articles – were video games to blame?

The US news stations started reporting that Adam Lanza (the gunman in this incident) was “addicted” to games such as Grand Theft Auto, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty and Doom. All violent games, all heavily involving and requiring use of a range of firearms against a variety of foes in a variety of settings.  Now, at first glance, it’s not looking good for gaming and sure enough, for a while the games he played were investigated as a potential motivation for the crimes he committed. However, several points immediately spring to mind. Firstly, literally millions of people (unfortunately, including many children) have had access to these games and have not committed any crimes or shown any noticeable change in their behavioural patterns.

Secondly, Mr Lanza was proved to have “significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others”.  While this doesn’t necessarily mean that he was more susceptible to the themes and actions he was carrying out in the game-worlds, there’s a good chance that he was more influenced by them than someone sound of mind. Right?

Well, let’s take that theory for a minute and look at the some of the games he was confirmed to have been playing in the time leading up to the tragic events:

  • Doom – a futuristic, alien-killing, gun firing, grenade throwing blood-fest. OK.
  • GTA – A crime-spree, prostitute killing, car stealing, drug fuel thiller. Uh-oh.
  • Dance Dance Revolution – a colourful, campy, fast paced dance simulator which he clocked more hours on than any other game in the 2 weeks prior to the incident. Hmm.
  • Paper Mario – a cartoony, platform game involving the much loved plumber and his friends. What?

Not to trivialise the tragic events of 2012 or any other gun related incident blamed on video games but why, in the above circumstances, would someone be influenced to pick up a gun and shoot 20+ children in a cold-blooded act of mass murder and not to get on their dancing shoes and learn how to moonwalk if the source of influence is the same?

Thankfully, by the time the investigations came to an end, no link between the events and the video games this sadistic killer played.

If gaming is going to be blamed to all negative actions that in some way replicate the actions and events experienced while playing, then it should equally be praises and lauded for the positive things it teaches people and the escape it provides. What may be more worthwhile, would be looking at the other activities and interests held by someone like an Adam Lanza as it’s my belief that blaming video games for an event such as this is an irrational attempt to find causation or correlation during a time of tragedy with the target being the misunderstood medium of video games. If video games were being investigated, then surely so should the movies he was watching, the books he was reading, the films he was watching and the company he was keeping. No? Just video games then.

For many people, violent video games provide a thrill and a release not found anywhere else. Often this release isn’t the act of killing itself but rather experiencing the world through the character’s eyes and facing the deadly and threatening challenges that face them, helping them overcome the seemingly overwhelming odds against them.  It’s about taking control of a character and helping them survive the world into which they’ve been thrust and I think to draw from that and to confuse it with your own reality and to recreate the events within takes either some impressive mental gymnastics or a severe misunderstanding of what the game itself is designed for.

What is often overlooked is that more and more frequently, the “grittier” aspects of games are the result of a longer, more arching story with complex narrative choices involved.  For instance, the first game in the Mass Effect trilogy came under scrutiny by Fox News (yes, I know..) in 2008 for including a sex scene which they claimed was gratuitous, showed “full nudity” and gave the player complete control over what happened during the scene.  Firstly, the reporter clearly hadn’t played the game as if they had they would have discovered that they “sex scene” in question was the result of around 20 hours of game play, narrative decisions and character development that landed your character in a moment of fragility where the basic human need for comfort was necessary. It wasn’t simply an option which flashed up on the scene prompting you to “press X for sex”. Nor is it wasn’t a game about sex where it’s used as a frivolous and scandalous moment, rather the scene was a natural development in character relationships alongside the main (and incredibly detailed) narrative and world of the game which only served to further reinforce the gamers attachment to the characters caught up in a battle of life or death. Also, it was a completely non-interactive video cut scene that could be skipped with the push of a button if desired. Once again, regardless of the justification for the scene (which I whole-heartedly believe added to the realistic aspects of the game) it was designed for adults with an 18 rating.

The same can be said for some of the more controversial aspects in violence in video-games. For instance, in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, there was an incredibly controversial aspect in which your character had gone undercover to infiltrate a terrorist group in an airport. The option was then presented to the player as to whether they caved to the encouragement of the group and proceeded to gun down innocents at the terminal. Not only was this presented as an optional event, but the option was even presented to skip the scene all together after a warning message warned of what was about to come.

Ultimately, the event played into the wider narrative and journey of the character, forcing the player to face the same moral dilemma as the character and thus, adding to the immersion of the story-telling.

Once again, gaming is about fun and overcoming challenges and I think even a child, whether they are playing a game that suits their age group or not, understands that what they’re engaging in is purely a form of entertainment and whether the themes and actions contained within the game are desirable to them or not, it is clearly the work of fantasy and poses no more threat than any other form of entertainment not designed for someone in their age range.  This also completely ignores the positive things that are reinforced by gaming such as teamwork, socialising, patience, logic, coordination and learning the value of practice.

Does gaming cause violence in kids?

Only if playing Dance Dance Revolution causes an involuntary desire to twerk. Only if FIFA gives kids an unnatural desire to play a near obsessive amount of football. Only if Mario encourages you to jump on mushrooms and if Sonic the Hedgehog makes you yearn insatiably for a bottomless supply of gold rings.

In a word, “no”.

Why It Matters: Gaming

So here we are, the third instalment in my introductory posts and this time, it’s a really interesting one.

I think it’s fair to say that for most people reading this blog, it’s a no-brainer as to why Acting or Music might matter. Even if you’re not particularly passionate about either topic you’re probably in agreement that one or both of the two have a huge cultural impact and have some significance in your lives.

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that by “Gaming”, I’m specifically referring to video games as opposed to card or board games which I’m not particularly au fait with.

Gaming, is still a bit of a cultural dark horse with many misconceptions from those who don’t indulge themselves with this particular form of entertainment. So, I’ll start just as I did with Acting and Music by trying to summarise in a word. Or rather, I’ll choose two: “Fun” and “Fantasy”.  Or should that be “fun through fantasy”?

Since it’s origin, video gaming has been has been all about fun. Picking up a control pad or grabbing hold of a joystick and just enjoying yourself, whether the game lasts 2 minutes or 2 weeks. Even today, cutting edge games which exhibit unprecedented scope, scale and budget often fall flat if they fail to be fun and enjoyable on a basic level.  It’s partly because of this tricky balancing act performed by developers that video games are as much as an art form from a creative standpoint as my two other topics of discussion, however this is often overlook and gaming dismissed as nothing more than an activity for children.

I think part of the reason for this is because of the speed at which video games have grown and developed in recent years, leaving many still holding the misconception that video games are for kids when it has been proved (based on a recent study carried out by IAB-UK) that more people over 44 play video games regularly than children and teenagers.

However, I’d like to point out that, even IF people hold the opinion that gaming is for kids, is that such a bad thing? Who has a better grasp of fun and a stronger embrace of their imagination and wonderment than children? Even if video games are for children then count me in.

Regardless of it’s intended audience, gaming can also be best utilised as a form of escapism through fantasy. Whether you’re playing Pong or an arguably more immersive game such as Grand Theft Auto 5 or The Witcher 3, the goal is the same. To get lost in a world, focus in on what you’re doing and through timing, coordination, difficult choices and tasks, ultimately work towards victory for what can be one of the most immediately gratifying and rewarding senses of achievement in your own home.

It’s the same feeling as cheering on the hero in a film, watching them overcome trials and tribulations only to overcome them causing a rush of excitement in the viewer. Only, in gaming, you’re the hero. Or the Villain. Or the Dog. Or whatever you want to be. Gaming is the only environment in which you can be a Master Dragon Hunter, a World Cup winning footballer, a solo-shredding guitar legend or anything you wish to be.  Even with a simple premise of Good vs Evil and a basic narrative premise, you can find yourself wholly invested in the world of the game, the characters within and the challenges they face.

For instance, take the 90’s classic Sonic the Hedgehog. Here, you find yourself a blue hedgehog, fighting the evil Dr. Robotnik who steals baby animals and turns them into robots to fight against you as he tries to steal “Chaos Emeralds” in an attempt to somehow rule the world. Ridiculous, right? Wrong. Because fundamentally it’s nothing but a fantastic exhibition of incredible imagination, colour and character combined with challenging and varied levels filled with obstacles, puzzles and hidden secrets, music to compliment and ultimately, yes, it’s FUN. As a result, Sonic revolutionised gaming and is still a favourite of millions all these years later.

My point is that even the most seemingly ridiculous of concepts can spawn a game that is not only engrossing and engaging but that carries a simple, yet important moral and presents a basic sense of challenge can prove to be a fantastic piece of entertainment that appeals to generation after generation.

Gaming played a huge role in my childhood. While I was fortunate to have a good education, friends and a loving family around me, gaming, in a sense, added to all three. Gaming taught me the importance of patience. When faced with a challenge, you’ll often fail several times before you can pick yourself up and overcome it. Gaming gave me this experience in a fictional format and taught me the importance of taking my time, committing to decisions and ultimately overcoming challenges.  It showed me the benefit of practice and how, no matter how difficult something seems, sticking at it ultimately proves beneficial. Gaming provides you with tangible evidence of improving at a task or skill and rewards you accordingly.  These may seem like grand things to draw from a trivial source, however, as a child I genuinely found myself carrying this experience into my day-to-day life.

It also hugely spurred on my imagination. I found that by playing games, my thought process sped up, I was able to more logically approach puzzles and tasks, it diversified the stories I would write and the games I would play with my friends. Gaming, ultimately, made me better and happier.

Now as an adult, it’s more important to me that the games have a strong and detailed narrative with more complex characterisation.

Gaming has evolved into something many people wouldn’t recognise. Rather than just plumbers collecting coins (not to undermine the Mario franchise as it is hugely important and will probably get it’s own article at some point), more and more games are creating a more diverse, expanding and immensely detailed world (or even universe) complete with well-rounded characters with a novel’s worth of history, culture and beliefs performed by some of the world’s best voice actors.  This only serves to ensnare the gamer, giving further weight to the choices that are put before you as you begin to truly care for the characters and their circumstances.

You only have to look at something like the Mass Effect Trilogy for an example of expert story-telling which surpasses even some of the very best movies. The standard of the voice-acting is becoming more and more important now that the narratives and gaming worlds are reaching such lofty standards, to the point that a bad voice actor in a game can ruin it as much as a bad actor in a play.

Graphically, games are becoming more and more advanced with many now using motion capture, facial recognition and photo realistic environments to truly immerse the gamer in the story and lives of the characters.

Gaming is interactive story-telling. It’s education, stories and people. It encourages patience, logic and empathy and is a gateway to imagination and fantasy. It allows us to see worlds we will never get to travel to, interact with people we will never get to see, live lives different to our own, experience success, loss, love and death and explore the freedom of choice. This is why it matters.

To sum up, I’ll leave you with the words of former Nintendo President Satoru Iwata who tragically passed away this week at the age of only 53 after a long battle with cancer. He puts it beautifully:

Above all, video games are meant to be just one thing: Fun. Fun for everyone

Why It Matters: Music

Firstly, I just want to say a quick thank you to all who took the time to check out the first instalment of this three part post. I’ve had some lovely feedback so it’s good to know I’m on the right lines.

Now, to pick up where we left off, let’s take a look at the second main focus of this blog: Music and why it matters.

If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll see that for me, Acting represents escapism and transformation. If I were to start by summing up Music in one word, it would be “inspiration”.

It inspires us and can stir the most powerful and diverse emotions without a word being said and without any anticipation or warning. Music touches us at our very core and can have an immensely strong control over us physically, mentally and emotionally. It inspires us to dance, to cry, to power through difficult times or even just to relax and wind down.

Depending on the song or piece of music, it can transform our moods and or make special moments (whether they’re happy or sad) be all the more memorable so that even years since you last heard the piece, that collection of notes, chords and keys can transport you back to the exact time and place you heard it previously.

It’s my belief that you can tell the most about a person, not so much from the words they speak but from the music they listen to. The music a person chooses to colour their world with tells you not only what mood they are in but could even indicate personal struggle, triumph or challenge and gives them strength, support, encouragement or release they often need to overcome these circumstances even if someone 200 miles away is listening to the same song and deriving a different benefit or meaning from it.

It also unifies people. You only have to look at scenes from festivals or concerts to see the incredible ability music has to bring people together. Watching 20,000+ people singing, chanting and waving in unison to a piece of music you have written must be an incredible feeling and one which I’ve never stopped fantasizing about since I was a child. Therefore, it’s rewarding for both the audiences who are united, and the artist whose life work is being unanimously validated in that one, spontaneous moment. These moments are unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced as an audience member and are impossible to replicate in other environments. It’s almost ritualistic in both it’s manifestation and power and is utterly exhilarating.

My most recent experience of this was seeing the Foo Fighters perform at the Stadium of Light. This was not only an outstanding event, exhibiting elite showmanship and instrumental excellence but the crowd were united throughout, singing many songs are one unified chorus. The power of this can’t be understated and at times actually caused the band to stop playing to instead take in the magnitude of the moment. Whether it’s 20,000 in a stadium or 1 person alone in a room with some crappy laptop speakers, music has the ability to stun, overwhelm and inspire awe.

While Actors doing their thing provides audience as with escape, Music more often provides a reflection of a listeners experience back to them. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’m not sure how I’m feeling and a song or piece of music encapsulates it better than I ever could. A listener can often find that music gives them the strength that they are lacking or that even a simple lyric can find the words to express what you have thus far been unable to. It helps complete an identity. This alone is more valuable to me than most material things.

Even where music choice seems contradictory it’s still serving a purpose. For instance, I often find myself walking on a beautiful sunny day with the sounds of System of a Down (or something equally heavy) in my ears. You’d think that the somewhat aggressive overtones would detract from the tranquillity and relaxing warmth of the moment , however it instead serves to provide me with a sense of energy and drive that makes me enjoy my surroundings all the more. It’s the literal soundtrack to our lives and whether it’s a moment of incredible significance or not, Music can complete it.

From the perspective of a musician it’s a very different thrill. For starters, a lot of musicians don’t actually enjoy the performance aspect and instead derive their joy from the creative and often incredibly academic process that allows them to express their inner thoughts, feelings and voice that they may otherwise not have the confidence or means to do.  The use of the word “academic” in the previous sentence wasn’t an accident either. I think many view musicians as creative artists who either “have it or don’t”. While this is true in many cases, studying advanced Music Theory unearthed a combination of sciences, mathematics and logic alongside the creative element which genuinely made it one of the more academically complex subjects I’ve ever tackled and one that needs time, dedication and patience. Alongside this, the ranges of skills amongst musicians is extremely varied. The technique required to play the violin, for instance, is completely opposite of that required to play a drum kit and, although that’s a particularly extreme example, I think this is why musicians come together. To collaborate and to share not just thoughts or feelings but skills and abilities. Again, this speaks to my argument of Music as a unifying concept. When you have a group of people, each with diverse skills, abilities and techniques each unique to each member of the group they slot together like missing pieces of a puzzle and, at it’s best, the unspoken bond between these people can be near enough unbreakable.

Well, unless fame, drugs or drink get in the way but guess what? That’s another future post.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote which I think sums it all up quite nicely and my final thought (I’m starting to sound like Jerry Springer..) that Music is more than just sound – it’s atmosphere, inspiration, strength, support and identity and for a lot of people, a voice. A universal voice that transcends age, race, culture, language and even time itself. If that doesn’t matter, I don’t know what does.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” —Aldous Huxley

…Next up, Gaming.

Why it matters: Acting

So what’s the point, huh?

Why bother creating a blog with the promise of regular articles to prompt discussion and express opinion?

Is it to gain some weird sense of self-important ego inflation most commonly found in “likes”, “views” or “comments”?

Nope. It’s because to me, the things I’m here to talk about really matter.

The things I’m here to talk about have shaped and formed me into who I am today (whether you think that’s a positive or not!). They have shaped our culture, impacted our economy, steered our goals, lives and ambitions and will continue to do so for generations to come. They have forged national identities, they have taken and redefined art (at their best) and never cease to divide opinion to the point of conflict, strops and hissy-fits galore.

They have also created icons and legends. Men and Women and groups who are now essentially immortal due to their life’s work and the impact they had on their audiences and contemporaries. People who are now beacons of hope and of inspiration for millions of people long after their deaths. Many of these people will be featured in later posts I have planned where I will look into their lives and careers and discuss the responsibilities of role-models.

So, lets go in order shall we?

Acting, be it in film, theatre, voice-over, mime or through dance, singing, physical theatre or just plain pissing around has arguably been this world’s greatest source of escapism since it’s believed origin in the time of the Ancient Greeks. For audiences all across the globe of all ages and walks of life, Actors “doing their thing” provides an escape from reality as well as an often much needed reflection of their own lives, relationships and circumstances.

It provides us with fun and entertainment, yes, but also allows us to escape our thoughts and lives for the duration of the screening or performance or whatever it my be. It allows us to enter worlds we have no right stepping into, engaging with characters both unfamiliar and all too close to home and ultimately, revel in the lives of others.

I think that audiences will continue to be drawn to theatres, cinemas and other performance venues as we have an innate need to be entertained. Audiences will continue to live vicariously through their heroes, many of whom are characters visible on stage and screen.

This is a huge responsibility that all Actors must be aware of. You never know who is watching, what they are going through and how your performance, the character you have created, can impact on someone’s life. You should take that responsibility seriously. Ever walked out of a theatre feeling inspired? To write, to find a new job, to start a relationship or even just to go home and smile more? You’re a fool to think you’re the only one, but the joy is that we Actors get to help create those moments for someone else. Someone we don’t even know. Even if your character spends the whole performance being down-trodden with all odds stacked against them, the flash of pride and defiance they show for all of 5 seconds at the end of the show could truly impact someone’s life. Then again, it might go completely un-noticed. The chance that it won’t, however, is incredible.

Critic David Thompson put it best, I think:

“Perhaps acting matters because of our dying attempt to believe that life is not simply a desperate, terrifying process in which we are alone and insignificant.”

Ouch. A bit intense, but straight to the point and I couldn’t agree more.

From the Actor’s perspective, however, it’s a completely different battle. Now, I can only speak from my perspective but there’s a whole variety of things which make the profession part of my very core.

Firstly, again, we have the element of escapism. It’s a sad truth that the majority of Actors use Acting and the act of performance as some sort of ritual cleansing. As some cathartic experience to escape the reality of their own lives and to become someone else, somewhere else just for a fleeting moment.

That sounds very dramatic and wanky doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I believe it to be true and I think that it is in the striving for that escape that keeps some of the best actors at the top of their game.  I’m not going to generalise and say that all performers have dreadful lives and can’t stand themselves, but I think that there are elements of everyone that they’re dissatisfied with, bothered by or try their damnedest to hide and Actors (actually, creatives as a whole) get the opportunity to leave that all behind every now and then. And it can be blissful.

There’s also the craft and work that goes into it which is a liberating and intense experience that will forever remain misunderstood or overlooked by the general population. This is no bad thing in itself as I value surgeons greatly, for instance, but I have no real interest as to the process they went through before making the first incision. For some reason, however, perhaps due to the perception of a self-imposed spotlight Actors put themselves under, everyone is a critic. This, not helped by the reality television shows which show a very stripped back, simplified and at times patronising approach to the creative industries, leads a lot of people to believe that Acting and performing generally is “easy”. It’s a common misconception, I feel, that the thing that separates performers from non-performers is the confidence to do it in the first place. This is far from true. Some of the best Actors I know happen to be some of the most reserved, quiet and frankly anxious people I know who right up until the curtain opens are doubting whether they should be actually doing this. It’s something different that makes a great Actor great.

It’s the curiosity of what makes people tick, what makes them function. How, when two people are placed in an identical situation, they’ll have differing reactions. For me, the on-going quest to “work out” people is what keeps me glued to this profession. I find it truly fascinating and when the chance arises to try and actually embody and become someone else I find it nothing but a joy. Whether you think I’m good at it or not is even somewhat irrelevant.

One of the most frustrating questions I get asked as an Actor is  “wow, how did you learn all of those lines?” when, in reality the act of line-learning is one of an Actor’s smallest concerns when tackling a role. The process of discovering a character and working to discover your objectives, obstacles and “wants” while working hand-in-hand with the script, often helps the lines sink in without having to learn it like some sort of memory test.

When I visit home, my parent’s often watch the soaps. In doing so they’ll regularly turn to me and ask “is he good?”. It’s heartbreaking to know that they can’t often tell. This makes the Actor’s job all the more difficult. In striving to improve your craft and truly embody a well rounded character with all the truth, honesty and exposure that requires, the majority of audiences probably won’t even be able to tell if you’re doing a better job than the person stood next to you pulling faces. Anyway, there’ll be another whole blog about the over-saturation of this industry and “Good vs Bad” acting so I’ll leave that there for now.

My point, is that Acting is a liberating experience both for performers and audience alike and, at it’s best, I truly believe it to be one of the more vital professions in our culture.

So there.

Next time… Music.

Why…

Why am I here?

Well, I’m here to start a new blog.

I’m a 28 year old Actor and Musician with formal training in both, living and working in London. More importantly, I’m passionate about a variety of things and I want to share that with whoever chooses to read.

I’m hoping to channel and fuse my passions for Acting, Music, Gaming, Wrestling, Geek Culture and a whole host of other things to create an interesting forum for debate, discussion and to provide insight into topics that I care about.

I’ll look to review classic albums and video games as well as plays and films. I hope spark discussion and provide fresh insight into a variety of topics.

Mainly, I’m here to speak about the things that I’m passionate about and to make people think. Even if it’s “why the hell am I reading this”.

I want to formalise thoughts that are normally kept to myself.

I want to review. I want to write. I want to debate, discuss and challenge. I want it to be fun and I welcome comments, criticism, counter-arguments and I encourage you to disagree with me.

Let’s do this, yo. First proper post will appear in the coming days and I hope it’s the start of something fun and exciting.

See you then.