The other day, I was reminiscing with an old friend about when I used to do theatre in high school and college. Somehow in the course of the conversation, I realized just how much all that acting made me a better writer. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, since one is the spoken word and one is written, but allow me to explain. (I’m breaking it into two parts since I ended up having a lot to say, so be sure to come back next week for part 2.)
Disclaimer: I was mostly a techie (makeup, sound and house crews), but I did get the lead in college and am a proud member of thespian troupe 1735. While plays taught me a good deal, it was the classes I took (those were six years of fine arts credits) that really gave me the experience that honed me into a strong writer. Here’s how:
1) Motivation –One of the first things I learned as an actor was that there’s more to the craft than just reciting lines. (Just like there’s more to writing than making characters do and say things.) You have to understand the “why” behind the actions. As in writing, this often takes the form of examining the character’s back story. If it’s not there in the script you work with the director or other actors to make it up. (In writing, you play all of those roles, so you can make up what you want.)
For example, my senior year I had one line in a one-act play, The Lottery. (I still remember it: “There’s the head man a comin.’”) Even though it was a tiny part, I still had to know how my nearly silent character fit in with the rest of the villagers. Along with a few of the other actors, I ended up creating this whole soap opera-ish back story about a love gone wrong and a child who was caught in the middle (there were kids in the play, too). The audience would never know why this other actress and I spent most of the play glaring at each other, but we knew and it was important because it affected what we did on stage and it allowed us to appear as more than simply part of the scenery.
In the same way, knowing your character’s motivations is key as a writer. Many times, most of what you learn won’t end up on the page, but that knowledge will enable you to create a richer, more believable experience for your readers, just like an actor does on the stage.
2) Becoming Your Character– It’s almost cliché to say that a good actor becomes the role they are playing. But it’s also true and it stands just as much for a good writer. I do my best to really get into the minds of my characters. When I’m in a scene, I may as well be acting all the parts. When I get into later drafts, I try to see each scene from the point of view of every important character in it, so I can tell if their actions and reactions are authentic. Acting is all about the interplay between actors, just as story is about the interplay between characters. It has to be authentic to be believable.
I’m also a sort of method writer. When I want to write about the taste of something, I eat or drink it if I can’t remember the details. I’ve been known to pull on my own hair or scratch my nails down a wooden door to get the expression of sensation just right. But there are other times when pure imagination is safer and more appropriate. If you’ve ever done the “pretend you’re carrying something heavy” or “imagine you’re an ice cream cone” exercises in an acting class (lampooned in the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line), you can call to mind the skills needed to make just about anything seem real in a scene.
Next week we’ll talk about how blocking (the movement of actors on the stage) and dialogue influence writing and acting, plus one other often-overlooked benefit that being an actor can have for writers.
Have you ever taken acting classes or studied acting methods to learn how to write better? What were your experiences? If not, what do you think of the idea of acting being a good training ground for writers?