Acting and Writing

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Even before I read Joan Didion’s interview in The Paris Review, I believed that writing and acting were essentially the same in impulse, in their shared core desire to create fiction.

In The Paris Review, Didion said:

“I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl, but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone.”

As counterintuitive as it is, writers can improve their imaginative reach through acting, or acting exercises whose purpose is to get to the actor in touch with herself or her surroundings, to become acute observers. One exercise I enjoy in particular–the Farmer’s Market–is from Eric Morris’s No Acting Please, in which he sets forth his “being” methodology. The Farmer’s Market exercise, in which you observe all the characteristics of a stranger and construct a fully fleshed, mutable person from them, is something all serious writers already do, but to do it deliberately and comprehensively rather than just in passing or when interesting characteristics present themselves is more of a challenge.

  1. How is the person dressed? Think about the style, the apparent cost of the clothes, comfort or discomfort, color coordination, the concern or lack of concern with her own clothing, whether it’s in or out of style, etc.
  2. Props. What do people have protruding from their pockets? What is she holding on to? What is she wearing in addition to the clothing–jewelry, a hat, pipe, cigarette holder? How careful are these people with their props? How do they open car doors? How do they treat one prop differently from another? How do these props inform you what they do in life, or who they are?
  3. Involvements and relationships. Is she in her own world? Is this because she doesn’t want to deal with others, or because she wants personal time or is more interested in what she’s doing? At a restaurant, how do two people relate to each other? Is it a couple or two co-workers out to lunch, or a boss and his secretary? What clues you into making a judgment about their relationship? Are they talking business or is there sexual tension? If it’s a couple, are they at the beginning of their relationship or near the end?
  4. Awareness or lack of it. How does the person relate to her own body? How aware is she of her own physicality? How do people relate to the weather? How aware are they of other people around them? Do they have “tunnel vision”?
  5. Compensations and redirections. Compensation is a behavior which is superimposed on what you really feel. When you’re at a party, for example, and feeling anxious and tense, you may superimpose on those feelings a “limp-wristed” or “super relaxed” impression. What clues you into making a judgment about whether a person is compensating? Redirection is feeling one thing and putting it into another more socially acceptable form. Laughing instead of crying, for example.
  6. Self-consciousness. Is the short person trying to stand to full height and thereby accentuating her shortness? Or the tall person slumping and thereby calling attention to her tallness? How self-conscious are people, and what behavioral subtleties clue you into making a judgment?
  7. Eating and other activities. How do they relate to food? Are they eating something they made at home? Fast food, fine dining? Do they clean their plate? Do they look guilty eating it? Do they look like they hate what they’re eating but are on a diet?
  8. Time-capsule. How does what they do make them seem as if from another decade or year? Why might this be? Are they young and obsessed with vintage things, or have they lived through that time and don’t seem to want for it to end?

Posted by James


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