Tuesday, April 02, 2013

On Acting and Writing

Okay, I'm going to 'fess up to something I've shared with very few people over the years: When I was in my early teens, I decided I wanted to be an actress so I could go to Hollywood and act on TV with Bobby Sherman. I had such a major crush on him that I based my dreams on it--to the extent where I went to college and got a degree in Theatre Arts.

At that same college I also discovered the man who would become my husband and true love took over my childish one. I also re-found my love of writing after a long hiatus. To this day, I've never made it to Hollywood, although it's still on my (very) informal bucket list.

I have, however, gone on to get two further college degrees, one in Education and one in Educational Administration, and crossed several other items off my (very) informal bucket list, so there are no complaints here-only some advice:

As a writer, it will do you well if you take an acting class or two.

Because of that Bachelor's in Theatre, I understand character. Motivation, character arc, changes of heart -- all these are ingrained in my psyche. Years of teaching English literature doesn't hurt, but really? It's all the courses I took in acting and play analysis that make me the writer I am today.

As an actor, you get deep into a character's life, you go beyond the page and figure out his/her backstory and what makes them tick. In bringing that character to life, you determine how the character reacts to others on the stage, what their mannerisms are, what inflection that word or this one should have.

As a writer, you do the same. In your head dance all the characters at once, each one with his/her own agenda, each one with thoughts, feelings, reactions that need detailing so precisely that everyone who reads the story feels what they feel - what you feel.

Actors use their bodies, writers use their pens. Both create people out of whole cloth. Getting to understand the approaches of one profession helps the creation of another.

All of this probably explains to you why, when I write, I see the scene as it unfolds before me. My theatre background presents the scenes to my imagination and  "all" I have to do, is write it down as it unfolds. My acting background fills in the character details.

So, today's advice for writers? If you have a local studio or college where you can take an acting course, I urge you to do so. You won't be sorry and your writing might be better for it.

If you have nothing close by, then consider the following books. Warning: these are not lightweight reading. Acting deals with the psychology of the human mind and the feelings of the human heart. Think of them as practical guides to how we do what we do. Aside from the first, they are listed in no particular order.

An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski. The book that started the realistic approach to acting. A must for ever actor (and writer!). Note: This book is in the public domain, but has been reprinted by many publishers. You can pay as little as $3.00 or over a hundred. The link takes you to a site with options.

Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky. Originally written in Russian, the translation I have is a little clunky but still effective. He uses an interesting device in presenting his lessons, that of the teacher (himself) and The Creature (his student -- you).

The Art of Acting by Stella Adler. Ms. Adler was one of the people responsible for bringing The Method to America. Method acting is a practice of total immersion into character. Several well-known actors use this approach to acting (Sean Penn, for one)

Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen (with Haskel Frankel). Newer editions have a foreward by David Hyde Pierce. The chapter on characterization is of particular interest to writers.

There are dozens more books out there, but these four form a foundation for the writer looking to understand character.

Remember, taking time to understand the craft of writing is sometimes as important as the writing itself. Set aside some of the time you usually spend reading fiction this week and pick up something heavier, a book on acting. You won't be sorry.


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