Friday, October 28, 2022

Bad Actors Make Good Writers, by Josh Stallings

 Q: Most writers have had other jobs. What’s one thing you learned in an entirely different professional setting that you’re grateful for?

A: From a young age I wanted to be an actor. Or a bank robber. Or a spy. But mostly an actor. I worked very hard to learn the craft. It never became a job, in that I was never paid to act. But I am deeply grateful for all it taught me.

That’s me on the far right, playing cowboy #2 in a Western staging of a Shakespeare comedy.

At sixteen I graduated high-school and moved from northern California to Los Angeles to study Method Acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. There I learned to build a character from an emotional foundation. 

How to make the unimaginable real: You may not have killed a person, but you have felt rage, so to play it you first needed to take yourself back to a moment of rage and really feel it in your body. The technique to access these emotions is called sense memory. Go back to a memory and tap into what it looked like, smelled like, felt like on your skin. Was it hot, cold? Smell was my quickest way to access a memory. This translates to writing in that any character we write — regardless of how hideous or virtuous — is created with emotions that we have all felt.

“I could never understand the perspective of a mass murderer.” Really. You never stomped on an ant hill? Were never cruel to a sibling just because you wanted to see what it would feel like? Acting freed me to explore these thoughts with a great excuse, “Hey I didn’t write it, I’m just an actor.” 

The Strasberg Theater Institute was where I first read Konstantin Stanislavsky’s “An Actor Prepares.” A short concise course on building a character. Here are a few gems I took from it:

“Doubt is the enemy of creativeness.” 

“On the stage do not run for the sake of running, or suffer for the sake of suffering. Don’t act “in general”, for the sake of action; always act with a purpose.” 

(This I remember as, Don’t just do something, stand there. I’m reminded of this every time I have character nod or smile or steeple their fingers. All fine actions if motivated, but if they’re just moving to remind the reader they’re in the room, I have to drop it and dig deeper. 

Stanislavsky said an actor must know, “Who am I? What will I be? Why am I here? Where am I going?”

As a writer I need an answer to these questions for every character before they enter the page. They all have an unwritten life going on before they step through the door with a gun.

“Don’t spend your time chasing after an inspiration that once chanced your way. It is as unrecoverable as yesterday, as the joys of childhood, as first love. Bend your efforts to creating a new and fresh inspiration for today. There is no reason to suppose that it will be less good than yesterday’s. It may not be as brilliant. But you have the advantage of possessing it today.”

The last one doesn’t apply to character but I keep it around because it sure applies to life. 

I also studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, where I learned even more about preparation and research. Before taking on any role I learned to write the character’s bio. Even if they were a waiter with three lines, I needed to know who they were. To play King Henry VIII I spent weeks reading about the time he lived in, his place in the royal line, his wives and advisors. I needed to really know what he meant with every line he spoke. 

It is rumored that Paddy Chayefsky’s treatment for the film script “Network” was over a thousand pages. The screenplay was only one hundred and twenty pages. That looks like a lot of writing the audience never saw. But it was what Chayefsky needed to do to create the world in “Network.” He did win an Oscar for best original screenplay, so maybe he knew something.

Research, research, research… Then what?

My last theater training came from working at The Colony Theater, in Frog Town, or was it Frog Town adjacent? I worked as an assistant to Terrence Shank, a rather brilliant director. He would rehearse, blocking the actors, running their lines to ensure they understood the dialogue and deeper meanings. And once all this “research” or getting ready to act was done, he would say, “Time to free-fall.” 

FREE-FALL. You know, forget all your research, your outlines, your treatments, your agent’s hopes and dreams for this new book, and just write it. Let the words flow freely. Trust you will remember what is important. 

In the dreamy light of creation your reinventions will be better than what you planned in the cold light of logic.

As for my acting career, it turned out I sucked as an actor. I cared too much what others thought of me to be free on stage. Something I had to get over before my writing was worth a damn.

Acting did teach me how to build a character. Breaking down the works of Shakespeare and Albee and Mamet into emotional beats helped me to internalize classic story structure. All of that made me a better writer. At the Colony Theater I met a stunning brilliant young actor named Erika. And she has made me a better man. 


M.C. Tuggle said...

Good advice. I've long felt actors make natural writers. Look at Mishima, Robert Shaw, Tom Hanks.

Susan C Shea said...

Aha, that's how you manage to catch Erika's attention! Your use of what you learned as an actor is perfect for your work as a writer.

Catriona McPherson said...

This is wonderful stuff, Josh. Thank you. I do sometimes make a character say something because I forgot they were there. I'm going to try harder!