Many of my readers and writing friends may not be aware of my acting, while many of my fellow actors and theatre people aren’t usually aware of my career as a writer. They’re two occupations that fit together very nicely, and I’ve been playing one against the other regularly for the past several years. While I see writing as purely creative, I consider acting to be more of an interpretive art, bringing to life someone else’s creation, and interpreting that preconceived role in your own way.
My “artistic” life began as an actor in high school and college. While I performed in straight plays, my focus was in musical theatre. After my graduation from college, I did a lot of regional theatre and summer stock, and then began performing in industrial shows, full-length book musicals written to be performed at business conventions. I earned my Actors Equity card this way, but soon showed a talent for writing song parodies, and it wasn’t long before I was writing as well as performing in these shows. I finally wrote fulltime, and also began to produce the shows, which were cast and rehearsed in New York.
As a result of writing for the first time, I began to write the kind of fiction I had always enjoyed reading, started to sell short stories, and finally novels. I left my writer/producer job, but continued to do that work freelance, giving me more time to write my own original work. I drifted away from acting, became an inactive member of Equity, and continued my writing career.
A few years ago, however, I joined a community/campus playwriting group at Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College, led by then playwright-in-residence Julianne Homokay, since I missed the collaborative process which was so much a part of theatre. I dragged out a play, a ghost story/thriller named Revenant, which I had written years before, but with which I had never done anything. We read it and I revised it in response to Julianne and the readers’ reactions, and it was later given a three-night run as a fully staged reading at a local theatre.
After hearing me read several plays, Julianne suggested that I audition for the few local theatres that used Equity actors, and as a result I was cast in a number of productions as an Equity “guest artist.” I performed such roles as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind, The Cook in Mother Courage, and Dylan Thomas in A Child’s Christmas in Wales (the stage concept of which I helped create with director Lydia Brubaker, the current Facilitator of Lancaster Dramatists Platform).
More recently I’ve been appearing in shows at Lancaster’s Fulton Theatre, a full Equity house, where I’ve played Andrew McLaren in Brigadoon, The Bishop in Les Miserables, and Andrew Carnes in Oklahoma!, and am now playing (until May 8th) Doc Baugh in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’m also deeply involved with the Lancaster Dramatists Platform, and have just finished revising another full-length play titled Countenance.
All of which is leading me to?…
That link between acting and writing, and a strong link it is, at least in my case. In my fiction, the most important element has always been characterization. If a character doesn’t ring true, no matter how exciting and suspenseful the plot, the writer can never achieve his or her full potential. Can such a work achieve a strong financial potential? Of course — God knows there have always been books and films that have been huge popular successes despite their cardboard characters, but think how much better those works might have been had the readers/audience been more emotionally involved with them because of characters who really lived and breathed.
I always approach a novel or short story (or a play, it should go without saying) as a performance in which I play every character, investing them with all the purpose and passion that I feel personally, taking my own desires, dislikes, and needs and sublimating them into those of my characters. And I think that I learned much about writing characters from playing characters on stage.
If, for example, you play a villainous character as if he is indeed the villain, the effect will come off as stagy and artificial. The reason for that is simply that in our own minds we are all the heroes of our own lives. Treat your characters with that in mind and you’ll be all that much closer to creating real and honest human beings with which to people your invented world. We can’t care about what happens to characters unless we somehow identify with those characters. If they’re emotional ciphers, we might find something of interest in them, but we’ll never feel that true concern, that click of commonality between viewer and character that births a bond between the two.
Fine actors can take characters created hundreds of years earlier and, through their craft and skill, find elements in them that speak to today’s audiences as clearly as ever. Good writers can fill their newly created characters with those same elements, enriching and deepening their tales with all the reality and messiness of life itself. The actor is an interpreter, the writer a creator, but both utilize the same tools of human emotion, and both hope for the same effect — involvement, engagement and, ultimately, illumination.