Actors, writers, singers, dancers, choreographers, songwriters and directors of all dramatic performance have one thing in common: every one of them is a storyteller. The mediums might be different, but the end goal is the same. Tell a great story, excite and entertain the audience. Make them laugh, make them cry. Take them on an unforgettable emotional journey.
As a writer, I’ve been immeasurably enriched by my work in local theatre. Starting out on the stage, acting, then moving backstage to rehearsal prompt, stage manager and finally director, the process of bringing a playscript to life and experiencing the immediacy of an audience’s response has taught me many, many things about how people react and engage with story. Even when you factor in such variables as quality of performance (which does indeed influence the success or failure of a performed drama), it’s possible to judge which stories work, which don’t or – when a dramatic production is a mixed bag – which bits succeeded and which bits failed. The trick after that is to work out the whys and wherefores, because it’s not enough to recognise that you, as a storyteller, have failed to entertain or engage your audience. For that experience to have any meaning, or use, you must take a step back and deconstruct the story and how you told it.
This is why I strongly recommend that writers get involved with their local theatre community. Writing narrative is a fabulous adventure, but your opportunities for immediacy of feedback are limited. Sure, you can give your manuscript to a team of beta readers or join a writer’s group, and if you’re a writer with a publisher’s contract you’ll have in-house editors who’ll read and offer constructive criticism. All of that is useful. But when it comes to learning how an audience reacts to a story, nothing matches the experience of sitting in a theatre night after night, hearing and feeling how groups of disparate strangers react emotionally – and intellectually – to the story being told on the stage before them.
One of the reasons this is a brilliantly effective tool for a writer is that the work being critiqued isn’t usually your own. Of course it can be, and that’s a whole other experience – but to start out gently, to gain all of the benefits with none of the pain, getting involved back-stage in a supporting role allows you to participate in the storytelling process from a safe distance. You’re able to assess the words as written, assess them again as they’re being performed, and then assess the way an audience responds. You can then work out why some parts of the play succeeded, why some failed (if they did), and what the reasons for those failures might be. And if any of those failures can be traced back to the play’s blueprint – the script – it gives you the chance to think about how and why you’d write it differently, to make it better. The flip side of that, of course, is analysing why some plays are always fabulous, successfully entertaining audiences even if the production isn’t brilliant. In theatre circles, these plays are known as actor/director-proof plays – because the writing is so great it can withstand clumsy execution. Those plays are invaluable teaching tools, as are the plays that are so well-written that you can see them 20 times and not be bored.
The thing about theatre that is different about every other kind of storytelling, why it’s such a brilliant writer’s tool, is that audience feedback is immediate. If the joke works, you get laughter. If the tragedy touches people, you get tears. If you’ve bored people senseless by going on too long, or preaching from a soapbox instead of delivering entertainment (because a spoonful of honey really does help the medicine go down), you feel it right away. Folk get restless. They whisper. They squirm. At interval, they leave. And when the play ends whoever’s left claps a bit, because you have to, then stampedes for the car park.
Even bearing in mind that not even the best told and performed story is going to please everyone, with a theatre piece you can swiftly discern patterns of success and failure. If most people during most performances react the same way to certain elements of the play, you can trust that opinion – for good or for ill.
When it comes to theatre, it’s the writer, the director and the actors who carry most of the storytelling burden. The saying goes: If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. Truer words were never spoken. Everything starts with the story, with the writing. That’s why analysing play scripts as written, then watching them being translated into performance, is such a powerful learning experience. Watching the words come to life through the decisions made by a director and the actors can open a writer to possibilities never before considered. Yes, there is a translation/transition issue – writers of narrative need to capture the emotional intensity of a live performance with words, so that in the theatre of the mind (which is how a reader experiences a novel) that emotional intensity is recreated. The writer translates the phsyical elements of theatre into a narrative description that allows the reader to feel as though they’re watching something real. To do that successfully, the writer must experience the story they’re telling as an emotional event. Performed drama can help you access those emotions, can help you make the connection between what happens in the story and how you – and the reader – feel about it. There’s an added element of immediacy when you’re using theatre to do it, but the same principle applies to film and tv.
This process becomes even more acute if the work you’re watching on the stage is your own. But I’ll talk about that in depth another time, because it’s a huge subject deserving of its own spotlight. For now, suffice it to say that a writer can benefit enormously from working back stage on a theatre production.
Directing is another way for a writer to learn great storytelling lessons. As a director, you’re the bridge between the story and the audience. It’s a director’s job to deconstruct the narrative, examine it from every angle, then recreate it in real time with real people, the aim being to honour the playwright and your own creative sensibilities, as well as the creativity of the cast you’ve assembled. You do that as best you can, hoping and praying that you haven’t completely misread and misunderstood the text, that you’ve done the play and its writer justice, that you’ve given the actors room to breathe and create for themslves, and that you’re not about to waste the money the audience has spent on tickets.
It’s nerve-wracking, being a director. Waiting to see how audiences respond to your storytelling is like waiting to find out if readers like your book. There are no guarantees. Just because you’ve worked yourself to a sweaty standstill doesn’t mean the audience is going to reward you with applause.
But here’s the thing: it’s worth it, because when you direct a play you learn so much about being a storyteller. The rehearsal process teaches you how to bring a scene to life, how to evoke emotion. Actors teach you that what you thought was a great idea maybe isn’t. And opening yourself to their input and creativity can get you thinking outside the box. The problems you and your cast encounter with sections of a play text illuminate storytelling challenges and mistakes. Clumsy dialogue. Poor narrative construction. Lazy characterisation. You will find these in plays. You will find these in novels. Having to make them work teaches you how to spot them in a text, and how to avoid making those mistakes when it comes to your own writing.
Lastly, there’s what you can learn about writing if you take the plunge and do some acting. It doesn’t have to be in a real live production – acting courses will help you in your journey as a writer, too. Because here’s what I believe whole-heartedly: every novel writer is an actor performing a one man-or-woman show in their head. For your book to succeed you must be able to write characters who are distinctly different from each other. Forget the superficiality of gender, race and looks. Your characters must be unique and unforgettable people who never blend into sameness on the page. They can’t talk the same, or walk the same, or think the same, or feel the same. Every time you switch to a new point of view character in your book, you must become a new person yourself. You must take on a new role, change your costume, change your accent, your appearance, and your psychological profile. That’s what acting can help you to learn. When you step on stage you shed your own skin, your own life, and you become someone else. And when you write a book, full of characters who aren’t you (and if that’s not the aim, or the end result, then I’m sorry but you’re doing it wrong) you are metaphorically doing the same thing. Be conscious of that. And go do some acting. It’ll help you do better with creating your characters.
One directing memory will always stay with me. We were at the end of the rehearsal process for Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’. At the climax of the play the murderer is unmasked, there’s a brief chase sequence through the house, and then justice is done. I’d staged the sequence in what I thought was a dramatic and satisfying way. I truly believed in the emotional content of the scene. It was dramatic. It wasn’t meant to be a comedy. But then we had our first test audience – and people laughed. I was horrified. I was mortified. But praise the pigs, I wasn’t so stupid that I couldn’t learn from the experience. If the scene provoked laughter it was because I’d failed to stage it correctly, not because the audience was a bunch of nitwits who couldn’t appreciate my genius. So I went back to the drawing board, talked it over with the cast, and together we reworked the end sequence.
Nobody ever laughed again.
And the moral of that story, my friends, is that when you get constructive criticism bloody well pay attention! As storytellers it’s inevitable that we’ll get too close to our work. We’ll lose perspective. We won’t see the flashing red light under our nose. That’s the beauty of theatre. Immediate and uncompromising feedback about the work. Pay attention to the audience. Believe what they’re telling you. They want to like it. They want to have a good time. If you let them, they’ll teach you important lessons in how to achieve that mutual goal.
So that’s how theatre can help make you a better writer. And if that’s not a good enough reason, how about this? It’s wheelbarrows full of fun!
These photos are from my most recent directing adventure, ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ by Ron Hutchison. This is a brilliant piece of writing, highly recommended for writers to read. I discovered it in a theatre bookshop on 42nd Avenue in New York City. One page in and I was crying with laughter, and swearing that one day I would direct it. Fast forward a couple of years and I got the chance. It was a phenomenal experience. Anyone who loves film and is a writer will appreciate every single moment of this play. The way you know it will work on the stage is because it works on the page, just the words, no actors, no bells and whistles of production design and sound and music and costuming. The writing is exquisite, and the rest is icing on the cake. We had a hugely successful run with this production. Full houses and non-stop laughter – who could ask for more?
Here are the wonderful Sean McDonald and Paul Sztelma preparing to take the stage on opening night. I learned a lot from these guys. They have great instincts, and really helped to create their characters’ looks and physicalities. As a director I like to sit back and see what the actors bring to the table, and they brought so much it was an embarrassment of riches. All the cast did. That’s one of the joys of directing: sitting back and watching the magic happen as talented people bring their best game, and start to play.
No show succeeds without a fabulous stage manager. Once a play opens, it belongs to the SM and the cast. When you look at the mess the set was by the end of this show, spare a thought for the back stage team who had to clean it up every night so it was pristine again for the opening.
Sound and light are crucial to a great production. What we writers achieve with words, sound and lighting designers craft in the real world. We can learn so much from what they add to a production, and really challenge ourselves in how we craft our narrative descriptions to paint in words what they paint with light and sound.
Here’s Sean again, waiting in the wings to make his first entrance. A shadowy limbo-land, where an actor transitions from being him or herself to being the person they’ve created out of words on a page.
And here we are on the stage, in performance. Such a lovely neat set! As a director, I don’t like the emphasis tilting towards the bells and whistles and distractions of too much production. For me, the words and the actors are and should be the stars of the show. This set was co-designed by Paul Sztelma and me. The set decoration is all my fault. It’s a period pace, set in David O. Selznick’s film studio office. I think we did a nice job, given our limited production budget.
Oh, the humanity. The story of ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ revolves around the writing of the script for Gone with the Wind. Producer Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht are locked in the office for a week, no leaving until the script’s done. All they have to eat are peanuts and bananas. Annette van Roden, on set in the red suit, hand-made some 60 fake banana skins. We went through kilos of peanuts. I personally shelled so many I nearly turned into one. The entire theatre smelled of peanuts and we had to have warning signs up for audiences, in case of peanut allergies.