The writing/acting connection

Here’s a post about cross-pollinating our creativity, and the kind of benefits that can yield.

I’ve always been interested in acting, and theatre, and film and tv. Basically in entertaining. I remember putting on puppet shows in my neighbourhood as a kid, and making puppets and stuff like that when I was a tiddler at Lindfield Demonstration School. I was in every primary and high school play I could manage and in 4th class primary school I wrote and directed a play about medieval monks. At one point I was seriously considering auditioning for acting school, but realised just in time that on the whole I wasn’t entirely comfortable being the stark focus of attention on stage. Mind you, that didn’t stop me doing some more acting in local Sydney theatre – Harvey and Charlie’s Aunt at the Pymble Players, a David Williamson play and Bazaar and Rummage at the Pavilion, then after a long break The Odd Couple there as well, followed by an Agatha Christie. There was also a murder mystery at Dural, and one of the main nuns in Nunsense there as well — which is where I learned that as much as I love singing, I really wasn’t comfortable having an entire showstopping number resting on my shoulders! So from there I moved into directing, and have now directed 6 major productions as well as a one-act play of my own.

Why? Well, partly because I’ve lived like a bloody hermit pretty much the last couple of years, writing a stupid number of books, and I desperately needed to get out and about and leave my own company behind.  And partly because acting is a great counterpoint to writing, and can really help when it comes to sharpening up certain skills like characterisation. Also? It’s actually a lot of fun, even when you’re freezing your arse off in a mid-winter rehearsal space that’s largely a big echoing concrete box.

I’ve always thought that being a writer of fiction is a lot like being a one-woman show performer, especially if you’re writing a large cast in third person narrative. For your story to succeed you need to be able to assume the voice, tone and mannerisms of each character so that they become a distinct entity, brightly individual, which goes a long to ensuring that the reader never becomes confused and the characters don’t blur into one another on the page. In live/filmed drama there’s much less of a danger of that happening because the audience can see the faces, the different actors. But in written fiction there are no visual cues, so the reader is relying on each character’s cadence and word choices and actions/behaviour to make them stand out as unique.

And that’s where a bit of acting experience can come in so very handy. Because when an actor picks up a script, his/her only guidance is in the words the character says. There might be a bit of stage direction (although directors often get you to ignore it), but by and large it’s what the character says, what he/she does, and how she/he interacts with the other characters that defines personality. Then the actor has to think about it, find the aspects in his/her own personality that resonate with the fictional character — or borrow from other people if there’s a really big disconnect — or both — and in doing so goes about crafting a vivid and realistic human being who isn’t them.

Which is the key.

 Unless she/he’s been hired to essentially do a self-impersonation, or to deliver a stock standard kind of character they’ve done before (and it happens) an actor might share some similarities with a fictional character but by and large they are working to create a person who is not them at all. That’s where the acting part comes in, and the fun and the challenge of leaving yourself behind and living inside someone else’s head/skin for a while.

This is also what a writer does when creating a character — and without some practice, it’s not easy. And it’s especially not easy when you have to do it not once, but four or five or more times, depending on how large the story’s cast is. And this is why I say it’s a good idea for fiction writers to enrol in a community college or professional acting course, or join a local community theatre and get involved. If the notion of getting on stage for real is too intimidating, or if you’re not by nature an actor (and not everyone is) then I recommend you volunteer as a rehearsal prompter. That will give you a great insight into the acting process, as you watch the actors slowly but surely create their characters through the rehearsal process. And if you happen to be prompting a really well written play, there’s the added bonus of getting intimately acquainted with the text of the play and seeing first hand how a great writer defines character through action and dialogue. Or, if the play isn’t so well written, you get a crash course in what not to do! It’s a win-win scenario, really.

Bottom line, whether it’s words on a page or lines said on a stage, at the end of the day it’s all about storytelling. A writer’s goal is to become the very best storyteller he or she can, and beyond that to keep on learning and growing and perfecting the craft. Most particularly when it comes to popular genre fiction, whether it’s fantasy or sf or horror or romance or mystery/crime, readers are hungry for great characters, vivid personalities that live on in their imagination long after they’ve reached the end of the final chapter. And as writers, a big part of the fun part of the game is in creating those characters and then playing with them in the story. To be successful at that, we need to be comfortable and skilled in stepping outside ourselves, in becoming someone else — someone who talks and talks and behaves in ways not like us — for the duration of that scene where one character is the focus or the point of view spokesperson for the action, so that the obstacles contained within a written narrative fall away and the readers can really see and hear and believe in the characters we’ve created. Getting some acting experience can be the key to honing that element of the fiction writer’s craft.

If you’re in Sydney, a good place to start is with NIDA’s summer school program. If you’re elsewhere in Australia, or the world, a quick internet search will point you in the right direction for accessible acting courses and theatre groups. I truly do believe that the work I’ve done in theatre, both as an actor, a director and a prompt, has been of enormous benefit to my writing. And if you give it a go I’ll bet you’ll find it can help you too.

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