Writers Can Learn From Method Actors
Writing and acting are both creative endeavors. We tend to think of them as being very different. Writing takes place in private, and acting is very public.
Yet, both writing and acting have the same intent, and that is forming perceptions in the minds of others.
Actors are entirely dependent upon writers to conjure up the stories and create the scripts that they depend on to ply their craft.
But, can writers learn anything from actors? Yes, there is much to learn from them.
The Difference Between Classical and Method Acting
If writers want to learn from actors, writers must know the difference between Classical and Method acting.
The Classical Acting Model
Classical acting is based primarily upon physical actions. The emphasis is on the actor projecting his or her body in specific ways to convey emotion to move the plot forward.
You see it at its worst in silent films with the exaggerated movements of the ingénue who raises her outstretched arms and open palms in horror as the villain advances toward her. We know he is the villain because of the dastardly look in his eye and his predilection to twirling his mustache.
If a writer is participating in the story by playing all the roles in their mind as they write, then using a classical acting modality is not enough. It leads to superficial writing.
The Method Acting Approach
Method acting is far different. Stanislavski, the Russian theatre director, the first to advocate this style of acting in the 1900s, wanted actors to inhabit their characters, not merely recite lines.
In the 1950s, Lee Strasberg led the Actor’s Studio in New York City, which became the citadel of Method acting in America. He trained some well-known contemporary Method actors, including Marlon Brandon, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, and Robert De Niro.
The essence of Method acting is internalizing the character. Famed playwright Tennessee Williams, author of such classics as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, characterized Method actors the best. He said, “They act from the inside out. They communicate emotions they really feel. They give you a sense of life.”
That’s exactly what writers want to do.
The Convergence of Acting and Writing
The role of an actor is to convince the audience they ARE the character they are portraying. The same actor might be a homeless veteran in one movie and a galactic superhero in another. The actor is believable in each case.
The role of the writer is to create the characters and the conflict. The writer must breathe life into disembodied personas in contrived environments. The resulting scenes are often played out only in the theatre of a reader’s mind.
The convergence between actor and author comes in getting inside the head of each character and moving them through a fictional plot in an organic way. In nonfiction, the goal is to place the reader in the middle of the process or event so the reader has a sense of personal involvement.
Method Acting Applied to Fiction Writing
Some people say, “There is no such thing as fiction.” I’m one of them.
The reason is that fiction writers are not writing in a vacuum. They may spin tales that take place in Victorian times or in a galaxy far, far away, but the people and events are all rooted in our own human experience today.
When those space creatures fire their weapons in anger or embrace lovingly, they are expressing human attributes that you, as a writer, have given them. Otherwise, human readers would not be able to apprehend what you are expressing.
It is in that sense that there is no fiction. So-called fiction is simply the recycling of human experiences and emotions, re-framed on the page for the reader’s entertainment. All fiction is “Based on a true story,” or a melding of several of them.
Typically, fiction writers try to bridge the gap by doing research, by defining the plot and the locations where they unfold, and by creating lists of characters and all their physical and psychological attributes. I’m suggesting that’s not enough.
You add depth and authenticity when you use Method acting techniques. This requires commitment as Method actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Jamie Foxx, and Meryl Streep have demonstrated.
- Daniel Day-Lewis prepared for his role in My Left Foot by restricting himself to a wheelchair before the filming began, and he did not leave it until filming ended.
- Jamie Foxx glued his eyes shut to play blind singer Ray Charles.
- Meryl Streep learned both German and Polish languages so she could speak German with a Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice.
Likewise, fiction writers must become each character. A writer must get inside the skin and mind of each character.
Writers must “inhabit” their characters, and intuitively understand their motivation before they write about them. That is “Method writing.”
Method Acting Applied to Nonfiction Writing
Mike Rowe is known for hosting a TV series called “Dirty Jobs.” IMG In each show, he serves as an assistant to someone who makes their living by doing a particular unsavory job.
Rowe has rolled up his sleeves and learned to be a sewer inspector, hot tar roofer, underwater logger, and a host of other difficult or disgusting jobs that regular people do every day.
He gets down and dirty and does each job himself. He may do it imperfectly, but he climbs the ladder, jumps in the hole, scoops the poop, or whatever the task requires. He is not an observer. He does the dirty job himself.
And that’s precisely how a nonfiction author applies Method acting techniques to his or her writing. They experience what they are writing about, and bring the nuance of that experience into their writing.
Nonfiction writers can and should inhabit the lives of the people in their books. You want to be so immersed in the people and situations so that you can write about them in an authentic, reflexive way.
Inhabit Your Characters
Add vibrancy and depth to your writing by using Method acting techniques. Don’t write about people and situations as an outside observer. You may even want to take some Method acting classes in a nearby college or university, or a community theatre.
Inhabit each character and situation to convey to your readers the complexity of the challenges your characters face.
There is that great final scene in the 1950 film, Sunset Blvd. Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) was a silent movie star who had descended into madness and murder as she awaited another chance at stardom on the modern silver screen where people could hear her voice.
She said, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille.”
This is the quintessential question for writers who see the benefit of adopting the Method acting model as a writing method. Are you ready for your close-up?
Are you ready to inhabit your characters and write from the inside out?