Becoming an Actor Taught Me to Write
Performing and writing may seem like two different arts, but in fact, they inform and bolster each other
When I was a 10 year-old boy soprano, a choirmaster proclaimed, “Music is a picture painted on a background of silence.” It was an abstraction that stuck, as first lessons of craft tend to do. Others I’ve heard:
Show, don’t tell
A cliché is a cliché because it’s true
Always hold something back
Avoid passivity in your attack
The music lies in the second step
Lyrics are the sound of words
Having a good idea isn’t enough, unless you make the most of it.
That these now feel interchangeable reminds of something a writing workshop instructor once said: “What can other crafts teach you about your own?” His was a rallying cry to apply conscious method, to give yourself permission to steal from as many places as imagination allows.
Since the age of eighteen I’d been an actor who believed he’d always be one, convinced I’d breathe my last breath playing someone’s grandpa. It was my calling, or so I believed, from the moment I’d first stepped in front of an audience. What followed were years of training, hours logged in rehearsal halls and audition lines, all for the privilege of playing roles in regional, off and off-off Broadway houses — all subsidized with support jobs to pay the rent.
Something turned once I hit my 40s. Maybe it was a desire to see if there was more to me than this actor-for-life definition I’d hewn to before I’d taken the time to explore. I sensed the guy who processed my exit from Actors’ Equity, the stage actor’s union — younger, bookish — saw my situation as a tragedy. “Nothing is permanent,” he said. You can always come back.” I appreciated his compassion but he didn’t know that I’d already taken steps: by then I’d gone back to school and completed an MFA with the intention of picking up where I’d left off before the acting bug bit. In my return to writing, I’d published an essay and even had a freelance gig as an arts critic for a trade magazine. As I filled out the necessary forms, though, I worried whether it was a mistake to simply stop doing what I’d done my entire adult life. Was it possible to begin again?
I feared I might be starting from scratch, but it was actually the opposite. Writers who have never acted will balk when I say that, while the two are definitely not the same, the lessons learned as a performer resonate often when I write. I doubt that’s a surprise to Tony Bennett, a singer who also paints. In the last ten years, actor John Malkovich has spent more time designing couture men’s clothing than playing roles on the big screen. The “multitudes” are evident in the work of Joni Mitchell, who also paints when she isn’t composing songs that devastate with their emotional honesty. The Sistine Chapel may be a work of art, but so are Michelangelo’s poems and letters. And recently, Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from the screen to pursue dressmaking — to add to his other skills as a cobbler and stonemason. From Victor Hugo to contemporary polymaths like Boots Riley, Solange, Janelle Monae, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Lady Gaga, artists have funneled their creative juices through multiple mediums for eons. For them, doing “one thing” has never been enough.
When the acting bug bit I was a funny-looking college freshman with low self-esteem. The craft freed me from the face I saw in the mirror, once I realized how mutable that face was. My skin could be darkened, lightened, or painted to resemble a mask. I could gray my hair, or cover it with a wig. Everything from my walk to my voice could be changed: “I” could disappear. The externals, though, turned out to be beside the point. Acting well requires you to bring all of who you are to the table. You must bring the full complement of personality and life experience to bear on a character. The “truth” of it comes not from what you disguise, but what you reveal. As one of my first teachers repeated over and over, you strive to “do what you would do as the character — no more, no less.” The only difference between that and writing is that the “you” gets explored on the page instead of through makeup and poses.
Whether you write, paint or perform, what’s universal is the practice. For singers, musical scales are woven into your daily routine. Difficult passages need to be attacked over and over; lyrics must be memorized. An actor rehearses — emphasis on the “re.” It’s not just the lines you repeat over again and again. You need to master the physical actions, which, depending on the piece, can mean the way you enter a room; the manner in which you might deliver, or receive, a slap to the face; the timing of tiny movements that can make an audience laugh or move them to tears. Repetition — mastery — enables that spontaneity, allows the performer to be fully in the here and now.
By the time I’m done with the piece you’re reading, it will feel as if I’ve rewritten it a hundred times. It’s what you do to pin down an idea that keeps evolving the more you write. When each turn reveals another country of perspective, it’s often hard to see which piece is useful or what to discard. We’ve all had a momentary spark, what I call those instances where what spills onto the page is exactly the thing you had in your head. But such moments are rare: I find myself revisiting ideas again and again, or what one of my writing teachers called combing it back through your brain. Sometimes it’s a matter of retyping. Words get moved; better ones are found. Paragraphs are rearranged or redrafted sentence by sentence. Sometimes nothing happens at all as you sit in front of an open document; there’s only the valuable repetition of keeping the appointment, of showing up day after day, if only for an afternoon, an hour or even fifteen minutes. The blank page becomes my rehearsal room. Each revision clears away the fog until something true emerges. Just as in the rehearsal hall, I give myself permission to fail; often I chip and chip, but never get to the end, just as in acting I might fail to find the character you’re playing.
Actors revise too, often in collaboration with other actors, and a director whose job it is to keep an eye on the big picture. Maybe it’s a question of tempo; a joke may get a bigger laugh if you speed up the line. If it’s true that 90% of successful casting is visual, then it may be a question of adding a toupee, or changing a wig, a walk or the color of a character’s dress from blue to red. From the day of first rehearsal to the night the show closes, every member of a production will chase perfection; sometimes the result is thrilling, but you resign yourself to those days when the performance is off, and the magic doesn’t happen.
Writing memoir, I’ve had to reckon with the idea of self sans a filter. Oddly, it’s been more painful in terms of what it unearths than any “role” I’d ever played. I remember bursting into tears after recounting an event, or the memory of certain relationships. Trying to get at something true, you often discover how much you’ve actually suppressed, or simply forgotten, until you attempt to recreate it on the page. There, you’re forced to engage a dual perspective: who you were in that past moment vs. yourself in the present — wiser, maybe, or simply more honest as you examine things through the prism of time and experience. Ironically it’s the performative aspect of writing (keeping your “audience” in mind) that I find most inhibiting, a problem I never had as an actor. Maybe that’s because actors are trained to be private in public: we construct, based on the playwright’s world, a world in which we convince ourselves that no one is watching. In a non-musical play especially, everything you do on stage is for the benefit of whoever you’re acting with. A character might actually be addressing the audience, but the audience is “endowed.” That means we imagine them as a sympathetic, or antagonistic, listener; in the doing, the audience becomes as much a character as the people on stage. For me as a writer, it’s best I don’t think about who I’m writing for. I need to focus on what it is I’ve come to the page to say, rather than what a reader may or may not think of it.
Being a memoirist, I’m still surprised by the role research plays in my writing. It isn’t as simple as what you remember of certain events, or a time that’s no longer the present. The perspective you gain from examining the past can also be a liability; distance makes recollection of details hazy. Excavation sometimes requires research. I’ve had to check my facts with friends who’ve shared my past, only to discover that an event, or something someone said, wasn’t exactly the way I recalled it. A look at an old journal might reveal that instead of winter, it was actually the end of spring. I can think of times when examinations of an old photo or letter will not only correct an errant memory; an image can yield new information. I have a family portrait that hangs in my apartment. Despite the hole in my shirt and my worn cut-off jeans I’m smiling the smile of a kid who won the lollipop lottery. Such obvious delight refutes the present-day notion I have of me as an unhappy, out of place middle child who felt lost in a sea of siblings.
If you’re a modern actor taking on O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, knowing the lines won’t help unless you know the culture of saloons in turn-of-the-century New York. The work you do to take apart dramatic text (again, repetition, re-reading) to clarify its themes is the same method you employ to get to the crux of your own writing. Actors examine place, the better to locate the character in time and space. The five senses writing teachers encourage you to bring to life on the page? An actor has to incorporate them into whatever person he inhabits. In Romeo and Juliet, every character must locate the steamy, claustrophobia of Verona where the play is set. That atmosphere is an irritant that fuels the romance at the story’s center, and the series of tragedies surrounding it. If you’re working on Of Mice and Men, a mere glance at a photo by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange will tell an actor everything they need to inhabit the emotional and physical world of the play; the paintings of Jacob Lawrence are blueprints for the early 20th-century Black lives rendered vividly by August Wilson.
My evolution from obsessed fan of entertainment to someone determined to live a show business life wasn’t swift. Growing up I was a passive audience with no real awareness that knowledge was imprinting, accumulating. Those early downloads of stuff other performers did were my first lessons in performance possibilities; later, in my teens, came those moments when I’d stand in front of a mirror, mimicking someone I’d seen on TV or in a movie. Theater training taught me how to build characters from scratch, rather than copy someone else. It also taught how to observe intentionally such things as timing, subtlety and honesty. My development as a writer feels parallel: I was an idiot at diagramming sentences but I was a voracious reader who could recognize a misspelled word, an incorrect tense or an off-the-mark subject-verb agreement. Most of us absorb our literary DNA that way; the rigorous examination of what other writers make of such matter happened for me only in graduate school. Learning how much models matter made me realize I’d been imbibing standards and practices for years. I acquired a new vocabulary, and the knowledge that if I was floundering, I could actually go to the masters for guidance. Not to necessarily copy, but to deepen my understanding of what I was attempting by learning how others had wrestled with the same issues. Everything’s been done before; we all yearn to be pioneers of our craft, but that won’t happen until you learn the rules you’ve set out to break.
One of the lessons models teach is the importance of choices. It could be a question of more or less: Why give a character a shopping bag of physical tics when a simple limp will give an audience room to fill in the blanks of that person’s history? A shout may show anger, but a whispered threat radiates power and control. Your job as an actor is to surprise, to bring the unexpected, which is why one actor’s Hamlet will be different from another’s. A writer also struggles with what to leave in or take out. A sex scene can be a challenge — yet some of the most effective scenes of intimacy describe not one sexual act. Maybe it’s the look in a lover’s eyes, or the way they exhale, the texture of someone’s skin or a rustle of clothing. Subtlety, saying more with less, could mean the difference between salaciousness and originality.
“The body is an instrument” is a hoary cliché that’s actually true. As an actor I rarely went out: one, because it was expensive and two, because every stage actor knows they have to take care of themselves to do the job well. You submit to a kind of cloistering. Late nights and negligible sleep wreck the body; loud clubs are good only for losing your voice. Actors need to be in peak condition both physically and mentally. The synapses need to be firing on all cylinders because in performances you must be ready for anything that happens, yet try to persuade an audience that what they’re seeing is unfolding as if for the first time.
So I nodded when, in a graduate writing seminar, I heard the writer/editor Susan Bell utter these words: “You need to be in good shape to write well.” Lightning in a bottle is what every writer strives to capture on the page. The mental energy needed to harness it, or withstand the slog of multiple drafts, may elude someone prone to a few too many the night before, or a bout of insomnia (hopefully about whatever it is you’re working on). It isn’t always practical to be at your best. We get sick, or have an argument on the train. Full-time jobs, relationships, all those things conspire to drain our physical capacities and color the circumstances under which we try to make work. Often the circumstances under which you write are not ideal — a lack of time may find you jotting things down on Post-its, or the back of a newspaper on your commute, all so you don’t lose what may turn out to be something you can use later, when things calm down.
When he launched his clothing line, Malkovich mused that “sometimes when you’re known for one thing, then it’s hard for people to suppose.” It’s true for the artist as well. As someone raised by parents who didn’t have the luxury to imagine, yet alone pursue more than one vocation in their lifetimes, I marvel at my audacity in shifting gears, even as I worry whether my acting knowledge is enough to feed the writer I want to be. And then I remember what Susan Cheever once said in a writing workshop: “We inhabit our words.” The only way for me to do that fully is to acknowledge all the places, and people, I’ve been. More than all the bits of wisdom I’ve been handed over the years, embracing, and believing in, the sum total of my experience may be the most important lesson I’ll learn.