I was a theatre major for my first two years of college. I went to school with some supremely talented people who were completely in their element. It was thrilling to watch the ways their performances fueled them. It also left me painfully aware that acting was not really my thing. I didn’t feed off the energy of performance the way my peers did.
Turns out it’s kind of hard to be a theatre major and also a pathologically shy eighteen-year-old. Do you know that when you study theatre they make you talk in front of people? True story. Also, all those lines…you’re supposed to remember them.
What I did love about being a theatre major, was the study of theatre: the history, the dissection of plays, and the off-stage work of acting.
Years later, when I started writing, (and felt fueled by it), I realized my attraction to theatre was the right art, but the wrong form.
As theatre majors, we studied the history of storytelling. We read Shakespeare and Aristophanes, Harold Pinter and Theresa Rebeck. In acting classes, we penciled in subtext next to the lines in our scripts, and made choices about cadence and pauses and meaning. Homework included sitting in public places with a notebook, writing down overheard dialogue.
When we prepared monologues for midterm, our professor interviewed us as our characters. Even though we were only performing a few paragraphs from the play, we needed to know the entire script inside and out. She’d also ask us questions that didn’t have answers in the text. What’s your favorite color? How did you feel on your first day of school? What did you eat for lunch today? We had to know enough about our characters for the answers to come easily and make sense.
It was the perfect training for writing fiction.
I learned to think of characters as beings who are built, crafted, and cared for, until they take on life of their own. When you put the work in, they start talking for you. They know that for lunch today they had lukewarm vegetable soup at the diner down the street and all the crackers in the cellophane packet were broken.
They surprise you, but it makes sense. Who they are becomes a road map. You know how your well built-character will act in a scene, the same way that you probably have a pretty good idea of what your best friend would say if you proposed a night of pizza and drinking and reality TV. Is your friend lactose intolerant? Is she opposed to all things Kardashian? Is she trying to get pregnant, or totally up for a beer?
Over the years, I’ve discovered that writers with an acting background are hardly a rare breed. There are many theater people lurking among us. Since I’ll take any excuse I can get to ask other writers about their work, I decided to check in with some of my fellow former thespians to discuss how their time on stage influences their work.