Writing Through an Actor’s Lens
Updated: Oct 6, 2021
In sixth grade, I was cast as Meg in A Wrinkle in Time and fell in love with the stage. Dreams of fame and riches had no place in my desire to act. My motivation was the joy of discovering a character and becoming someone else. Acting took me to an unknown space. And performing in front of an audience electrified my senses.
In my late twenties I co-founded an Equity touring theatre. The Illustrated Theatre was a company of three actors and one director. Sets consisted of hand painted silk drops we suspended with poles stabilized by two trunks. Props ranged from juggling rings to a large swath of red cloth, hats and hula-hoops. Costumes consisted of well-fitted, fluid tops and pants, kneepads and jazz shoes. Our small company toured across the United States, into the ghettos of Chicago and Cleveland, the elite suburbs of Long Island, and rural towns scattered across the South. We toured from Vancouver to British Columbia, and were invited to the Dublin Ireland Theatre Festival where we performed our original children’s plays during the day and traveled to a new venue to perform our play for adults, Festoons at night.
After a career in the theatre, and having spent over a decade learning the craft of writing I can attest that each art form deeply influences and informs the other. A professionally trained actor’s approach to creating a character is a valuable resource and a unique tool for writers of fiction.
An actor must use her body and voice, a distinctively different approach than a writer sitting in a chair and creating a character in her mind. In the theatre, an actor interprets the playwright’s words, but also has enormous latitude to make the language, and more specifically, the character, her own. An actor’s approach to creating a character is visceral, physical, mental and emotional.
Excellent, skilled acting requires control over the physical instrument; both the voice and body, the ability to analyze a script, and discipline. The finest actors are vulnerable. They are dedicated to their craft and hard working, which means never being satisfied with a moment, but knowing it can be richer, deeper, more surprising, electrifying.
Writers of fiction must fight against habits that stifle fresh prose and original characters. Also dedicated artists, writers might spend hours seeking the perfect word, or crafting a single sentence.
In rehearsal, where there is a good deal of experimentation, an actor must discover the way her character walks, gestures with her hands, opens a door and sits on a chair. She studies the script for what other characters in the play say about her. There is another requirement for the actor: connecting to the audience who are an integral, essential and often passionate partner during a performance.
A writer’s audience does not share the same physical space with the author. The reader does not react directly, in the moment, to the author’s work. Readers open a novel in their personal environment and might connect years or even centuries after the writer has completed her story. Still, a writer has the responsibility to keep her reader in mind as she creates her novel. Writers do not create solely for themselves. They create stories to share their view with the world and for the love of language.
In order to deliver lines in a playwright’s script with authority and truth, an actor must have a flexible, resilient and powerful voice, which can alter tone, pitch and pace. The voice is a tool, an essential ingredient to bringing a character alive. Actors must consider how a character’s personality manifests in their voice. For instance, if a character in a play smokes, an actor will decide how the habit of ingesting tobacco informs the tone of voice. Smoking thickens and coarsens a voice over time. Coughing may accompany speech. Quick, shallow breath and hoarseness might occur due to the coating of the vocal chords, throat and lining of the lungs.
Authors also have a voice, but it is more difficult to define. Young adult author Sati Avasthi believes that voice is the “circulatory system” of a novel. In a presentation at Hamline University’s MFA program for Young Adults and Children’s Literature, Avasthi told her audience that the author’s voice is the “oxygen and pulse” of the novel. Her definition is a clear, visceral way to describe how an author’s voice is the thread through an entire novel.
Just as in acting, achieving a unique, expansive writer’s voice is not automatic, but is achieved over time and with dedicated practice. For a writer to refine and deepen her voice, revision is crucial.
Many writing teachers encourage students to read their work out loud. This exercise is a valuable tool for spotting an awkward passage, listening to transitions or for narrative arc. Reading pages out loud is also an excellent way to hear a fictional character’s voice.
In addition to an author’s personal voice, the writer must meet the challenge of creating a distinctive voice for each character in a novel. This requires listening when the character speaks and asking questions. How does the character shape her language? Is her vocabulary dense or monosyllabic? Is she highly energized? Does she use words as a weapon? Or does fear keep her from speaking at all? Writers can only discover the answer to these questions, and many more, through the act of writing itself.
Thinking of how a character speaks is radically different from physically feeling it. Actors feel the words roll off their tongues and pop off their lips. A writer might detect dialogue that appears appropriate on the page but sounds false when read out aloud. If a writer reaches beyond the cerebral and into a character’s actual physicality, as an actor must do, it will lead to a more heightened sensory awareness and specific word choices.
A writer needs to be acutely aware of the senses, and to incorporate touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell to bring their work fully alive. For instance, a blast of cold air can instantly alter the state of the body. Goose bumps might appear on the skin, or a shiver ripple through muscles. When the writer consciously involves her body, sensorial associations spring up, and with them words directly connected to that particular experience.
Do you read your work out loud? How does it inform your writing?