Hello and happy Wednesday!
If you couldn’t tell by the title of this post, I’m a big fan of theatre (or theater, I just like the classic spelling). I’ve been in six musicals, two plays (although one of them ultimately got canceled before performances due to COVID), and helped out with tech elements for another musical.
I love every aspect of putting on shows – the music, choreography, lines, sets, props, costumes, technical elements, camaraderie, and learning things like how to get along with other people, improvise, and make the best of difficult situations.
Some people are surprised that I enjoy performing, given that I’m usually a quieter person, but I find that something changes during a show. Even in rehearsals, I might still be shy, but when it comes to actually performing, when the pressure is on and people are watching for what’s likely their only time seeing the show, that’s when I really feel like I become the character. I’m still nervous, absolutely. But I can put that aside for the sake of the show.
The show must go on, after all.
This time last year, I performed in what has been my last show. It was a great contrast to the shows I’d been in before, as this musical was part of an intensive, two-week theatre camp in my hometown. We had rehearsals every day but weekends for two weeks, and then performed on the last day. Two weeks from start to finish: casting, memorizing lines, learning music and choreography, blocking, adding tech, costumes, sets, props, all of it.
Because it was a camp meant mostly for younger people (I was one of the oldest at almost nineteen and there were kids as young as four), I was given one of the three leads. And although it was not a very elaborate show, because we only had two weeks, that was one of the hardest shows I’ve ever done. I didn’t even think it was possible to memorize that many lines, some of which were changed the day before we performed.
It was a huge growing experience that involved literal blood, sweat, and tears, and a lot of stress. But I’m very thankful for it anyway. In the end that’s how shows usually are, aren’t they? They’re huge bundles of nerves and stress and panic, that melt away to laughter, warm memories, and close friendships by the end. It’s just part of the experience, right?
As I’ve been thinking back to that show, and all the ones before it, I’ve realized that not only has theatre affected my everyday life and who I am in many ways, but it has even influenced my writing. In many ways, it’s helped me write.
The main way I think it’s influenced my writing is in regards to the characters. You learn a lot about people, and about characters, doing theatre. You’re working with new people, relying on them, trusting them, bouncing off their energy and delivery of lines. In a short time-frame, you’re forced to become very close with people you may otherwise never have gotten to know. Theatre has a way of teaching you a lot about people of all kinds.
Simply knowing a good variety of people in real life, seeing how they act under stress, their strengths and weaknesses, how they speak, how they learn best, how they move and grow…it’s all such valuable information for writers. The more real-life people we see, the more realistic characters we’re able to write.
And while some short interactions with people we meet may be helpful, they are also somewhat shallow. People can hide who they truly are, what their personalities are truly like, for a short time. But in theatre, you quickly see who people really are. It’s impossible to hide your personality, or what you say and do, when you’re under stress and working closely with everyone else for hours on end, sometimes for months.
I’ve found that having seen such a vast variety of people and their personalities has been very influential in my writing. I have a larger pool of inspiration for characters to draw from. And while this isn’t exclusive to theatre – many places or jobs offer you the chance to learn from lots of people – theatre is one of the most intensive ways to learn about others.
On a similar note, theatre has helped me make characters more realistic because of the acting experience. I’ve mentioned before that when I’m stuck on a scene, whether because I don’t know what a character would do or say, I will often actually act out the scene (in private, because yes, it looks ridiculous, haha).
It’s amazing how much becoming the character helps determine how they’d act in a scene. The words flow more easily and the gestures come to life when I’m trying to be them, rather than write about them. I think it’s somewhat the same principle behind reading our writing out-loud. Hearing it from a real person, rather than just reading it from a character on a page, can help it feel real – or if it doesn’t, we know we should adjust some things.
I also believe that theatre has helped me write realistic characters through improvisation. In theatre, you learn to improvise – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in very big ways. It doesn’t always work, but the point is that you always try something. You have to. When things go wrong, props are misplaced, costumes or sets break, lines are forgotten… the show might depend on someone improvising in order to keep going. To get back on track.
The adrenaline rush when you realize improvising is needed is something I will never forget. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve needed to improvise on stage, either to help someone else out, or because I’ve made a mistake with my own part/s. There’s hardly ever a right way to improvise, so it’s hard to know what to do. But it’s better to do something, than nothing.
In many ways, I think this helps in writing simply because experiencing things in life always help us to write about them better. Living life and experiencing more aspects of it leads to more realistic, interesting stories because we have more material to draw from. And the weight of personal experience comes through in those instances.
It’s also helped me just because I’ve learned and practiced how to improvise for a story. When I’m stuck on a scene or chapter, or I’ve dug my hero a hole that seems too deep for them to climb from, I’m now far more inclined to find ways for the hero to improvise – rather than just change the scene, like I used to do in my early writing days. There’s always something the hero can try, even if it ultimately doesn’t work.
In general, theatre is also beneficial to writers because we learn more about stories from it. We learn story structure, the many different variations people have used, and what tends to work well and what doesn’t. We learn about compelling and engaging dialogue and well-timed humor – or dialogue and humor that don’t work. We learn how to be creative with our plots and powerful with our themes.
There are many differences between plays and other written works, obviously. But there are also many lessons that carry over. I truly believe that my fiction is far stronger because of my experience with theatre and all of those immersive stories. And you don’t even have to perform in theatre to learn this either. Just watching shows can have very similar effects.
My experiences on the tech and behind-the-scenes aspects of shows has also been beneficial to writing as well. I haven’t done nearly as much with the technical aspects, but after running the lights for one of the musicals, I realized just how much gets taken for granted in a successful show. If the person running the lights is doing their job well, no one thinks about them. It’s when the transitions are noticeable that there are likely mistakes.
It’s the same way with the orchestra, the people running sound and mics, those backstage opening the curtains and directing the traffic in the wings, and those helping with fast costume changes and grabbing props for rushed actors. Shows literally could not go on without each and every one of those people.
So although the actors are the ones that are usually given most the credit for successful shows, there are so many people you can’t see that have done just as much, if not more, work. Positions and roles that are taken for granted.
And similarly, in writing, there are so many aspects and elements that readers don’t think about. So many technical parts of writing that are meant to be invisible because that means they’re done well. If even one of those aspects was done poorly, it can stand out and drag the entire story down. So theatre has helped me not to overlook the hidden pieces.
Finally, theatre has been another building block in learning perseverance, dedication, and hard work. Theatre isn’t easy; neither is writing. Very few things are. So I’m thankful for the personal growth I experienced as a result of growing up immersed in theatre. Those lessons and life experiences continue to influence my life even nearly a decade later.
I’m thankful that it helped me to learn not to give up when things got difficult, when I got stuck, or when I felt I couldn’t do something. I’m thankful that it taught me all about people and how diverse and unique each person is. And I’m thankful that it taught me about stories and how to craft new ones that can keep an audience – or reader – immersed.
I don’t know whether I’ll be in any more shows, but no matter what happens going forward, I’m thankful for all the time I had with theatre so far. I believe it’s helped me not only to be a stronger writer, but a stronger person as well.
Have you ever been involved in theatre? Do you enjoy watching, acting in, or helping with shows? Are there any lessons you’ve learned that might also apply to writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to share them in the comments!