There are many, many different kinds of art. I… happen to not be very good at many of them.
One I can actually do, however, is Theatre.
I’ve been part of Theatre for five years now, almost constantly. Whether it was working on one of the seven plays I’ve been part of or just being part of a Theatre class and doing little sketches, it’s been a major part of my life. I was able to write, co-direct, and act in a one-act for my senior year project.
It’s been an amazing part of my life, and now I get to minor in it at college.
And, after five years, I can honestly say that it’s changed me for the better. In fact, it’s helped me grow as a writer as well as a regular human. Mind if I share how?
State of Mind
There’s this thing that you hear a lot about in Psychology called “State of Mind”, and being able to see other’s “State of Mind”. Basically, it’s being able to step into someone else’s shoes and see what they see.
In Theatre, you have to become someone you’re not. You put on a mask and step into the shoes of a new person. Often times, that character has a completely different personality than you do. It’s hard work, pulling together a completely new identity and presenting it as your own. It’s more than just putting on a costume and rambling of lines.
Creating your character in theatre is like creating a character for a novel. You have to develop yourself and the person you’re becoming. It’s a process of learning new ways of dealing with situations. When you recite a line, it’s not just spouting words: it’s thinking through “why do I say this line”? How do I say this line?
The more Theatre you do, the easier this gets.
And, I’ve found, you begin to apply this sort of thought process to the people around you. It’s easier to look at things from other people’s viewpoint. You can understand why they do what they do, why they think what they think. You can understand other States of Mind, even when you disagree with them.
That might be a simple thing, easy to overlook, but it’s also extremely powerful. If you can look at someone and say “I understand why you would think that” and truly mean it, you become a smarter, more empathetic person. You can unravel the mystery of other’s emotions because you’ve struggled to put together the emotions of a character and present them as your own.
This is perhaps my favorite thing about Theatre. Before I really started getting into acting, I didn’t really understand people. They were so… emotional. I’m not – at least not outwardly – and so trying to see where they were coming from was hard. I didn’t like to do it and people were weird.
People have a thousand stories; a thousand places they came from. Each person has their own tale to tell, their own experiences and thoughts and emotions and feelings and ideas and identity. Even if I don’t think that their thoughts on one subject or another are right, I can understand them, now. When I think they’re being too emotional about something, I can also stop and think “okay, well, here are the things that make them this way, and I guess I can see how that might create those emotions because I’ve done the very same thing with [this] character in a play”.
Empathy is a powerful tool. Without empathy, no one would read fiction anymore. It’s why your reader has to connect with your characters, and it’s why people connect with each other. And in Theatre, it’s the most important aspect of “getting into character”.
The Power of People
I’m an introvert.
When I first started Theatre, it completely shocked my parents. They didn’t expect me – the quiet kid who disliked people and conversing with people – to get up on a stage and be expressive. In fact, my mother still claims she didn’t recognize me when I came on stage for the first time and acted out a completely “outgoing” character.
Turns out, reciting lines on stage and acting out scenarios is easy. You don’t have to come up with words on the fly (unless you’re doing improv), because you’ve already memorized exactly what you’re going to say, and the people you’re talking to have the exact responses you expect them to.
That’s an introvert’s dream. To know exactly how the conversation is going to play out before it happens. For me, that was easy. Even knowing there were people out in the seats watching me didn’t really matter. Because I knew by heart exactly what to say and when to say it. There was no real pressure because I KNEW.
It took several years, but this confidence on stage slowly crept into my regular life. I became outgoing. That sounds gross because “ew people”, to some quiet and timid people, but it’s actually a miracle. I could talk to people without fearing that I wouldn’t be prepared, that everything would be awkward. Sometimes I still obsess about what could happen, and all the ways a conversation could go, but it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I know that I can come up with words.
Theatre doesn’t just teach you to put on a character, it can teach you to put on yourself. And that’s an amazing thing.
In addition, Theatre can show you the truth about people. When you’re crammed in a dark backstage area, you get to see the real side of people. When they’re late for their entrance or their frazzled because they forgot a line, you get to see how they handle it.
You know which people can deal with the stress and pressure, and which can’t.
Turns out, they can see it coming from you, too.
When you’re that exposed and vulnerable, you get pretty close to people. You know how those people tick, and they know the same about you. When a Theatre community focuses more on the show rather than on themselves, it can create an amazing community. I was lucky enough to be a part of a group that wasn’t about “I’m the star here” and more about “let’s put on a fantastic show”. That’s a group of people worth keeping.
The Story Forger Application
Now, because I’m a writer, I can’t just talk about something and not apply it to fiction writing.
I firmly believe that my writing has been bettered by my time in Theatre.
Theatre has taught me how to delve into the thought process of a person. It has shown me how to actively portray a character in their emotions, words, and actions.
And… isn’t that what we do when we write?
We take a character, we develop them, and we present them in a book. And how do we do that?
With emotions, words, and actions.
In Theatre, you can spend days memorizing your words and preparing them with the right emotional thought process in your head. Then you can spend practice after practice after practice delivering those lines. But you don’t just spout the words out with an emotion. You have to take control of your posture and actions and make them fit. You learn a dozen different ways your body can be used to exude an emotion without having to say a word.
That’s powerful in the hands of a writer.
I love Theatre. I hope to continue to act for the rest of my life. It’s changed me in ways I never thought how. And it turns out… that’s a good thing.