Acting and Ferret Farming Made Simple

One of the earliest memories I have is of those little china animals that used to come out of Christmas crackers. Do you remember them? They were awesome. I particularly remember a horse, rearing up on its hind legs, and a cheeky little red squirrel. I loved those little animals. I coveted those little animals.

When I was about seven, I collected these, and other miniature things and kept them all in a shoe box. (Weirdly, there’s totally a children’s story hidden in that sentence, isn’t there?) I would take those animals out of the box and, feeding what was probably early onset OCD, arrange them in a variety of ways: colour order, height order, alphabetical order… and then one day, I have this very clear memory of using them to put on a show for my dad.

Someone had given me a book of nonsense verse and there was a particular poem – I wish I could remember it – that tickled me. So I used these little china animals to act out the poem. I distinctly remember the poem calling for an old man, so I made a beard for the horse out of cotton wool. I think he had to fall down some stairs. (It wasn’t ‘You Are Old, Father William’. I’m almost sure it was an Edward Lear poem, but I’m damned if I can remember it now!)

What I did was tell a story through acting.

A few days ago, I put up a lament on Facebook about how I was sad that due to Life taking over, I had to drop acting as a career choice and enter the real world. I love acting. I think it’s why I enjoy live role play so very much. The chance to be someone else and put Sarah on the shelf for a while. Since I put that post up, I’ve had a number of wistful thoughts about the subject and this morning, the Thought Train pulled into Epiphany Station and I realised that there are many similarities between acting and writing.

In both cases, you’re telling a story. A play is a story. It has characters, it has plot, it has exposition, it has Events. You convey emotion. It has dialogue. I love writing dialogue, I have to admit and I think that’s a direct result of the acting, of actually picking up words on a page and breathing life into them. Use of punctuation can inject a comedic pause, or add tension every bit as much as missing a beat can do. Writing something like this:

“I don’t know why I did it,” he said. There was an awkward silence.

“But I did.”

…has the same effect as inserting a dramatic pause. (Dramatic paws. RAAR. Sidenote explanation: one of the course books when I was studying drama originally had the best ever title. ‘Acting and Stagecraft Made Simple’. It was so much use that we called it ‘Acting and Ferret Farming Made Simple’. It waxed eloquent about the use of the dramatic pause. Which naturally evolved into paws).

A lot of people enjoy books filled with long descriptions of people and places. I prefer those that give you the bare minimal description – enough to fire your imagination – and plug the gaps with excellent dialogue. Terry Pratchett was a master of comedy dialogue. When his books were adapted so masterfully by Stephen Briggs for the stage, they worked perfectly. I prefer to let my imagination hear what’s going on. Again, I think that’s a side-effect of my inner Thespian.

I love learning lines of dialogue. I can recite great long passages of it from a variety of things. Shakespeare, TV and radio shows, films… I had a bet with someone once that I couldn’t learn and recite ‘The Jabberwocky’ in an hour. I won the bet and never forgot it. I can still remember my lines from the school Mummers play that I was in when I was… nine. I used to learn my lines AND the lines of other people. I remember once that during a performance of The Winslow Boy, the chap standing opposite me completely forgot his lines. The prompt, who was half-deaf to start with and lived in a hollow piano (true. This is true. I can’t even…) wouldn’t have heard his pleas for help, so in order to keep things going, I just warped his lines into mine and he picked up the thread without any of us missing a beat. Improvisation fun times. (Again, I cite LRP, yer honour).

Directing is something else entirely. As a director, you are even more in charge of the story telling. It may be hard to believe that having someone standing in a particular place, or wearing a certain expression, or maybe letting their fingers brush wistfully over a bottle on the side can make all the difference to conveying personality quirks, but it really, really does.

I’ve not done much in the way of directing. I think part of me is terrified of the concept. Having been an actor, getting plucked from where your feet naturally take you when saying a line and being told to stand over there, it fills me with cold dread to make those calls. I happily invite thoughts from people who direct. How hard is it to make that transition from reacting to the lines you’re speaking to reacting to watching those lines being spoken?

On stage, characterisation is about more than how you act and how you say the words. It’s about what you don’t say. About what you barely hint at. It’s those things that make a character accessible, believable. In books, such quirks could be people who chew their lip when they’re thinking. In a book, you can convey inner processing more easily than you can on stage.

The more I contemplate this subject, the more I realise that my acting energies channel themselves now into my writing, into LRP events, into online role play fora… so maybe the actor in me isn’t lost forever. Maybe the actor in me is simply approaching the art in a different way.

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