It’s my great pleasure to bring a former student along on today’s ride. When Ann Hinnenkamp read a scene from her DYAD DREAMS in my class at the Loft Literary Center a few years back, I was hooked. Her paranormal concept was original, intriguing, unbelievably believable. Now that The Dyad Chronicles have been published—an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, no less—I feel like a godmother or a midwife or, better yet, a real teacher–my first calling. Ann’s first calling was theater. How does her theatrical training influence her as a writer?
Let’s ask her…
When I started writing, I finally proved my Dad wrong and found a medium where my degree in theatre could be put to use. I’ve been a stage actress since I was fourteen, a director since my early twenties and I published my first book when I’d just entered an age decade that starts with an F—the higher one.
I found out early on in my writing journey that there were a great many things I’d learned in theatre that I could apply to writing. Here are a few of them.
|Aldonza|| Our Town
||Moon Over Buffalo|
First, being an actress all these years has left me with little or no fear of rejection. While it’s true that as a new writer rejection letters still stung, they didn’t bother me in the same manner I watched them affect other new authors.
I’ve had decades of walking into an audition, getting the once-over from a casting director, and knowing from the look on his or her face that even if I had the acting chops of Judi Dench and Meryl Streep combined, based on my appearance, there was no way I was getting the part. The worst auditions are where you stand in front of a group of people sitting behind a table, American Idol style, and they point out your “problem areas.” After that, an impersonal rejection letter in the mail couldn’t penetrate my thick hide.
I grew to think of literary agents and editors the same way I do casting directors. Unless they’re willing to give me a job, I don’t listen too closely to their criticism. Because once you do, fear takes over and you start changing things. Over the years I’ve been told I’m too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, too blond, not blond enough and lately with frightening frequency, too old. If I’d changed my appearance to suit my latest critic, I’d have ended up looking like one of those “overdone” women on reality television. You know who I’m talking about. The ladies who’ve crossed the plastic surgery safety line and look like a Barbie Doll after a long weekend in Vegas. My point is when I was trying to publish I didn’t listen to the no’s. I just kept looking for a yes.
Character development is another area I was able to adapt from theatre to writing. An actor has the words written for them. For most of us the script or screenplay is the starting point. We spend endless hours before the first rehearsal with those words developing the character. How do they sound, look, move? Where do they come from? What do they like to eat? Who have they loved? How exactly have they gotten from birth to where the play starts? Backstory, backstory, backstory.
For a writer, the words are your endpoint. When you hand in the book, you’re done. They sound opposite but in both mediums, character development and motivation are the same stubborn nuts to crack. An actor takes the written character and brings them to life. Each line, each action has to be properly motivated to be believable.
A typical audience member may not be able to tell you exactly why he or she liked one actor more than another but the actor knows. You either convince the audience or you don’t.
A typical reader may not be able to put into words that the reason they didn’t like the heroine is she wasn’t properly motivated, or none of her goals held true, or she was just too stupid to live. They just know they didn’t like her.
Why does Lady Macbeth urge her husband to assassinate the King? What possibly could motivate Medea to kill her children? What does Aldonza see in Don Quixote that melts her hard prostitute’s heart? The actor not only has to know the answers to all these questions, but using just their body and voice, they have to show the audience what they are. There is no inner dialogue in theatre. It’s the ultimate show don’t tell.
Another tool I use from theatre is once I have the book completed, I go through it a few times in “performance mode.” By that I mean just as I do when I direct a play, I take each scene and every character in it and check their movement, motivation, costumes and setting. I put them on my imaginary stage and see if anything on the page jars me out of the moment. Because the last thing you want to do as an actor or writer is lose your audience.
During a live performance, the actors can feel when they’ve captured the audience’s imagination and are holding their interest. It grows very quiet in the house. There’s no whispering, coughing or rustling clothes. An energy flows from the audience to the cast, fueling their performances, taking the experience to a higher level.
When people talk about the magic of the theatre, these are the moments I think of. When a cast of actors and their audience are connected by this flow of energy back and forth, there’s no other word for it but magic. It’s the same feeling you get as a reader when you simply can’t put the book down. The author has so captured your attention that you have to know what happens next. In both cases, it’s magic time.
On the other hand, the actor can also feel when they’ve lost their audience. It gets noisy. People fidget, cough and check their watches. You can hear and see the rustle of programs as everyone tries to figure out how long it is until intermission. The magic flow of energy becomes an impatient longing to just have this all over with. This is the point where as a reader you close the book.
In my opinion there’s only one way to lose an audience. Something happens on stage or on the page that doesn’t ring true and reminds everyone that none of what they are experiencing is real. It could be anything. The one bad actor in the cast—the director’s girlfriend or producer’s nephew—makes their entrance and is so unbelievably terrible that they bring everyone down to their level. The pace could be too slow, allowing the audience time for their minds to wonder. Something technical like a phone continuing to ring after it’s been answered could break the mood. Or in my case, an actor can simply forget her lines, flounder around looking stupid and remind the audience that she’s really not Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine but only a middle-aged woman from Minnesota who really should get that space between her front teeth fixed.
This is one area where an actor has the advantage over a writer. We’re right there with our audience. We can hear the laughter, revel in the applause. We know when it’s going well and when we’ve crashed and burned.
A writer doesn’t have this interaction. We send our books out into the world and hold our breath until the reviews come in. And good or bad, there’s nothing we can do about it. The book stands as it is.
During the run of a show, the actor is able to refine and improve their character right up until closing night. No two performances are exactly the same because the audience is constantly changing. The play as a whole tightens up. Timing is honed. The technical aspects are smoothed out. All the actors learn how to wear their costumes instead of the costumes wearing them. The entire production becomes a well-oiled machine.
The challenge for me as an author is to get the book to this point. In other words, when I finally hit the send key, it better be in closing night shape.
My thanks to Kathleen and all the Ladies at Riding with the Top Down for having me here today. I’ve been a fan for years and it’s been a hoot to get in the car and ride along for a day.
The Dyad Chronicles:
All of us play many roles. How do your roles influence each other? Or what about those moments when everything clicks and you know you’ve made a connection, hit your mark, done exactly what you had in mind—can you share that with us?