The professional actress was contractually obligated to share her expertise with us. And so one Saturday morning our cohort of undergraduates attending the La Jolla Playhouse Summer Conservatory in the summer of 1991 sat in a circle on the deck outside the main theatre and pelted her with questions about her training, her rehearsal process, her life.
The professional actress, who was playing Ophelia in the Playhouse’s production of a Hamlet-inspired comedy, shared quite a bit with us: what it was like to be the daughter of a playwright; that her greatest challenge in grad school was acting in a George Bernard Shaw play; the humiliation of a recent commercial audition in which she had to act while dressed in a chicken costume. One of us asked her what she did to get ready before each performance as Ophelia. She said she arrives early to prepare.
“But how?” the student asked. “How do you prepare? What do you do?”
Clutching a large coffee and with a cap over last night’s hair, the professional actress did her best to answer.
“I wander around the set and imagine myself as Ophelia in Hamlet’s castle,” she said.
These words have come back to me many times during my training and professional career as an actress and while writing. It is a reminder that craft is fine and well, but ultimately we actors and writers are in the business of imagining well.
Here are some specific ways that creative nonfiction writers in particular can borrow from acting techniques. Many of these techniques were developed by Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavsky, who founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898:
- Given Circumstances and the Magic “If” – A key to creating a character using the Stanislavsky approach is for an actor to gather the facts about the character and their circumstances from the text―i.e., when and where the action takes place, what the character does for a living, the character’s history, and what other characters say about them. These are the “Given Circumstances.”
Some of Ophelia’s given circumstances, for example: she is a noblewoman in Denmark in the Middle Ages; she has a brother named Laertes; something is going on with her boyfriend, Hamlet. Knowing these facts, the actor uses the Magic “If” to get inside the character’s given circumstances: “If” I were a noblewoman in Denmark in the Middle Ages, my options might be few so when I’m rebuffed by the Prince who I expected to marry, the consequences would be dire.
This exercise, applied to crafting creative nonfiction, could help flesh out a character’s given circumstances, especially those characters that might require an imaginative leap to understand―both the characters that are and aren’t “you.” Identifying the given circumstances and engaging in the Magic “If” may aid in identifying…
- Objectives and Actions – With an understanding of the given circumstances an actor then develops a character’s overall objective. Put simply, this is the “want” that is driving the character’s actions for the entirety of the play. This “want” should be something possible to achieve and, ideally, something that can be obtained from another character in the play. Example: “To win Hamlet’s love.”
Actors using this approach also create objectives for individual scenes that relate to the character’s overall objective. For example, an objective for Ophelia in a scene might be “To get Hamlet’s attention,” one step in her overall objective to win his love.
An actor would also find “actions” that the character is undertaking in order to achieve the objective. To get Hamlet’s attention, the actress playing Ophelia might try “to amuse him,” or “to soothe him.” A gesture can be used “to amuse” or “soothe” as well as words. Actions can be character-defining. A character who flirts to get what they want, for example, is quite a different sort of person than a character who demands.
One of my favorite exercises to help identify a character’s objective is to imagine, in vivid detail, a character’s dream scenario. If they had everything they wanted, what would that look like? Engaging the senses is important. What sounds, sights, smells, tastes would make up the world of the character’s dream scenario? Conversely, you can imagine the character’s nightmare situation. It’s likely that elements of this nightmare are present in the story’s “given circumstances” and are part of what the character is trying to transform with their objective.
- Emotional Recall and Sense Memory – Another Stanislavsky technique, emotional recall, asks an actor to remember something from their own life that produced a similar emotion to what the character they are working on is experiencing in a given scene. Recalling that experience may provide a shortcut to accessing the emotional life of your character. Sense memory, a technique pioneered by Lee Strasberg, builds on emotional recall focusing on remembering the sensory aspects of an emotional experience. The idea is that recalling a sound or taste or scent from a past experience might provide an even shorter shortcut to the emotion the actor is trying to access.
Creative nonfiction writers who, like actors, often use the self as material for their art, may find such an exercise useful in bringing a memory more vividly to life for both themselves and the reader.
Strengthening one’s imaginative skills is the best reason I can think of for creative nonfiction writers to take an acting class. Whether acting or writing, the more powerfully we can imagine ourselves as Ophelia in Hamlet’s castle the more impactful an experience we can create for audiences and readers.