Want To Be A Better Writer? Take Acting Classes
In previous columns, I’ve been forthright about my background in film, specifically screenwriting. But you may not know that I also studied theatre (one credit shy of a double major, in fact), and while I primarily considered myself a director, I also acted in eight plays. Without sounding too much like a blowhard, I think I did a pretty good job, and many of the lessons I learned as an actor have carried over into my fiction writing.
But surely, you say, the process of writing and acting are two very different endeavors. And yes, they are quite different on the surface: one is the creation of characters and dialogue (amongst other things), and the other is the actualization of character and dialogue. This differentiation, however, is a misconception about what an actor actually does, if they are doing their job properly. Even though they work with pre-existing material, the actor creates just as much as the writer does. Furthermore, the initial principles and exercises taught in beginning-level acting classes are all about direct creation of original scenes, including dialogue, conflict scenarios, exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. Actors must understand basic storytelling and employ these concepts every day while on the job.
So whether you’re new to the “rules” of writing, or you’ve already been through creative writing 101, acting lessons will greatly enhance your writerly talents by forcing you to put all that nuts-and-bolts knowledge into tangible use. I’ll explain the hows and whys of this concept in more detail below.
NOTE: I may touch upon subjects already covered by Patrick Wensink in his popular LitReactor class Something Out Of Nothing: Using Improv To Build Plot Momentum. I was never a student of Mr. Wensink, so I can’t be sure if I’m dipping into his territory or not. If you took his class and find parts of this column redundant, my apologies.
Now, here are four reasons every writer should take acting classes:
1. All The World's A Stage
When you’re writing, do you ever find yourself speaking your character’s dialogue out loud? Or, when you’re trying out different directions for your scene to play out, are you audibly performing multiple roles? This ostensibly schizophrenic practice is nothing more than an extension of the childhood game “play-acting”: coming up with stories, characters and motivations, then playing the scene out (i.e., “We’re playing Cops and Robbers. I’m the cop, you’re the robber, and I’m going to arrest you.” “Oh yeah, well I’m the Robber, and I’m going to shoot you first...”).
Honing these play-acting skills—delving into character psychology to understand goals and desires—will help you craft more realistic and believable characters. Becoming a better writer is all about strengthening talents you already possess, defining and sharpening information you already know. Learning to act “professionally” is just another one of those steps.
2. Acting Forces You Out Of Your Shell
Obviously, performing in front of an audience requires a level of extroverted behavior, so if you’re shy, you have to get over it pretty quickly. I’m a born introvert, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but when that introverted nature is so crippling you can barely talk to anyone with ease, something should be done about it. That’s pretty much the mental place I was in when I walked into my first acting classroom all those years ago. On day one, we were required to play basic acting games (I’ll talk more about some of those in a minute), which meant there was no time for social anxieties. Now, under any other scenario I probably would have walked away and never looked back, but I’d chosen a minor in theatre to compliment my theory-driven major in Film Studies (we had no film production arm to speak of), and if I wanted to learn how to write characters and direct actors, I also had to learn how to be one. Fight or flight, and I chose fight. Now, I still get a bit nervous reading my fiction in front of other people, but at least I can suck it up and do it, and I have those initial acting classes to thank for that.
3. You Learn Games And Exercises That Flex The Writing Muscle
I’ve encountered numerous people who don’t believe acting is a creative endeavor, and that actors are mere puppets, carved out by the playwright and brought to life by the director. Nothing could be further from the truth, and you need only take a single, beginner’s level acting class to see that. Nearly all the games played in acting classes have their basis in creativity. One of the most rudimentary games is a “free association session,” in which everyone stands in a circle, the teacher throws out a word and the designated starter shouts out the first word that pops into their head based on the previous word. The next person shouts out the first word that pops into their head based on the previous word, and so on. This process trains your mind to shut off its critical valve and dip straight into the subconscious—a necessary skill for any writer, I think we can all agree.
Other games are more complex, requiring the actor to actively write scenes loaded with conflict and the pursuit of resolution. One such example is the “Empty Dialogue” exercise, in which lines of raw dialogue, without character tags or punctuation, are given to two actors, who then work out a history between the two characters and figure out who says what. Each character has a goal, but those goals must be in conflict with each other (you can see a decent example of this here). Here, though the lines themselves are provided, the actors must effectively write a scene with a beginning, middle and end, in which one person will come out obtaining their goals, and the other will have to deal with the consequences of losing. I think the positive writerly implications of this exercise should be obvious.
My favorite game involves listening and observation, and is more homework than classwork. You and your “scene” partner meet in a place outside your home, somewhere you wouldn’t spend a tremendous amount of quiet time. You take turns sitting with your eyes closed for three to five minutes, absorbing all the sounds around you, while your partner watches you for subtle bodily changes (cheeks flushing, eyes fluttering, fingers fidgeting, etc.). Then, you describe every sound you heard in the richest detail possible in another three to five minutes, and your partner describes everything your body did while you were “listening,” again with as much detail as time allots.
This exercise helps actors better absorb and internalize external stimuli quickly (a key skill during performances, should something unscripted occur). Moreover, it again aids in turning off critical valves by focusing attention exclusively on external data, rather than memories or intellectual observations on said information. Obviously, any writer worth his/her salt should possess a keen ability to both observe and describe in detail, a talent for evoking sensory elements without bogging the reader down, and this time sensitive exercise hones this skill quite nicely.
4. Acting Teaches Rigorous Script Analysis And Deep Internalization Of Character
Alongside texts by Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen and Constantin Stanislavski, one of the first “acting books” introduced to the curriculum was David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, which has very little to do with acting on a surface level, and everything to do with acting beneath the surface. In the interest of time, I’ll refer to the book’s back cover description for an overview of Ball’s principle goal:
The text is full of tools for students and practitioners to use as they investigate plot, character, theme, exposition, imagery, motivation/obstacle/conflict, theatricality, and the other crucial parts of the superstructure of a play.
In other words, Ball encourages anyone involved in theatre (actors, directors, playwrights, lighting/set/costume designers, etc.) to completely deconstruct then reconstruct a text in order to obtain a thorough understanding of the work. This isn’t a radical concept in and of itself, but Ball’s concise manual nonetheless stands as both an excellent primer for beginners and an effective refresher for professionals.
You may be saying, “Yes, but we learn all that in writing 101, so why should we bother with an acting course?” True, script or text analysis is a key aspect of any nuts-and-bolts writing lesson. But again, if the crafts of writing and acting are interrelated, then consider the end result of such rigorous analysis where acting is concerned: the literal fleshing out and bringing to life of a character. You’ve heard of Method acting, yeah? Well, the aforementioned Stanislavski is the great-grandfather to modern-day Method (and the inspiration for lessons conveyed in the works of Adler, Meisner and Hagen). He believed an actor could achieve truth onstage by following the Stanislavski system (which is outlined thoroughly here). This process requires you, the actor, to utilize substitution of emotional response through the “Magic If,” i.e., asking yourself, “What if I found myself in the same situation my character is in; what would I do?” Following this, you must essentially psychoanalyze your character’s motivations, picking apart the script and the character’s actions to understand why they do what they do (based on previous events), and what they want to happen in the future. By understanding a character's motivations and objectives, and intertwining those emotions/desires with their own through imagination and the “Magic If,” you “become” this character. Every line of dialogue, every movement, every action and reaction are exactly what this person would do and say given the circumstances and the character’s frame of mind. You quite literally get lost in the part.
As writers, we use the “Magic If” concept all the time, but particularly in the early stages of a story. I think, however, a few drafts in, we’re behaving a bit more like an actor who’s already done his or her homework and knows their character inside and out. Remember that scene in The Exorcist in when actress Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn, herself a Method actor) tells the director of the film she’s shooting that her character wouldn’t say the scripted lines? That’s not a prima donna moment, and I think all writers can understand that. Have you ever written dialogue or an action for your character, then later scribbled it out vehemently because, by God! your character wouldn’t say or do that? Characters become real people for writers and actors alike, though I would argue it’s a more lifelike experience for the actor because, if they’re doing their job right, they’re actually living out this character’s life (without completely losing themselves, of course). So, learning how to live in a character’s skin the same way actors do it will sharpen your innate ability to substitute and imagine, and it will help you, the writer, create more fleshed-out, emotionally truthful characters.
Again, the ideas and lessons behind the games and practices discussed here are not inherent to the craft of acting. These concepts are more or less universal to the art of narrative creation, be it on the page, on the stage, or in front of/behind cameras. The biggest difference between writing and acting, however, is this: writing is mentally active but physically static, whereas acting is both mentally and physically active. The more you learn to live and breathe characters—the more you understand their backgrounds and goals and bring them to life in a live setting—the better you’ll be at imagining and immersing yourself in scenes and situations otherwise alien to you. Think of it this way: you can study driving manuals and learn, on an intellectual level, the basics of operating an automobile, but you’ll never really know how to drive until you get behind the wheel.
I’m not saying all writers should run and out make a second career as actors (imagine the poverty!). No, as the title of this column suggests, just take some acting classes. Or, if you’re feeling brash, just go audition for a play. If you happen to get cast, even if your character is more or less scenery, take the part seriously. Without becoming egotistical, treat your small role as though it were a starring one. Get inside that character’s head, live in their shoes, create a backstory if one isn’t written. Know this person as you would know yourself or a good friend, then become that person, and see where this experience takes you as a writer.
Anyone here have an acting background, even if it was only one class several years ago? What’s your take? Did the experience help you as a writer? What other acting lessons or practices do you think would be helpful to aspiring authors? Sound off in the comments section below.
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