Each flyer, poster, and playbill on my acting teacher’s office wall represented a show he’d worked on, and the wall was packed. Some prominently displayed items came from university productions and were covered in student autographs, while others came from bigger things—New York and LA things. Though I couldn’t have been more than a college sophomore (and had gone “off to college” the distance of a whole 20 miles), I was convinced that I knew what I wanted in life. A wall like his was on the list, but there was a problem.
My scene performances were falling flat, and though the teacher I visited was neither my advisor, nor the instructor of the class in question, we had a rapport and I trusted his advice above others. Besides, the Theatre Arts department was a small one, so he didn’t have to lead my class to know that some students crossed their fingers to ward against drawing me as a scene partner.
My teacher and I had a conversation that I now imagine we must have had a million times, that went over my head a million and one: Do you really want to be an actor? Of course, I do! Why else would I be here? And paying tuition, no less! Acting requires both bravery and vulnerability. Well, yeah. I’m standing on stage in front of a crowd of people, vulnerable to judgement and rotten tomatoes. That’s bravery. You’re going to have to find a way to empathize with the character and that might require digging deep and pulling up ugly stuff you don’t want to look at. In the real world, I wouldn’t have auditioned for this role in the first place.
His advice didn’t sink in in time for me to connect with Blanche DuBois, to live truthfully within her given circumstances, and my grade on the scene reflected it. I heard my scene partner got the playing-to-a-brick-wall curve.
Still, much to the dismay of potential scene partners of the future, I performed well enough overall to advance to the next semester’s acting class. Much to their delight, I didn’t last long in the department after that anyway. Halfway through my college career, an acting teacher asked me to drop her class. It should have crushed me, but I’d never been more relieved. I did one better than drop her class and changed my major altogether. If I was going to dig that deep—if I was going to take a character’s hand and let them lead me into some scary place I didn’t want to go, time after time after time, it would be a character I created. I’m a writer, now, I’d chirp, though I knew on some level I always had been. Fade out.
Fade in to the other day. I sat at my computer, frustrated as I ever let myself get without taking a breather. No matter how I wrote, rewrote, and wrote it again, my scene fell flat.
The observant reader knows exactly where this is going: I wasn’t (and am probably still not) digging deeply enough to do the job right. I understand it, now; truly grok it in a way that I hadn’t when I thought I was an actor. I’m working on a novel with a lot of ideas and characters. I don’t necessarily like all of those characters, but to write them correctly, to do any kind of justice to the world I’m building or my protagonist within it, I’m going to have to find a way to empathize with them and dig deep and pull up ugly stuff I don’t want to look at, or it’s all going to keep falling flat.
So, that’s where I am, folks! I’m pulling up ugly shit I don’t want to look at, and it sucks as much as it sounds like it does. However, it’s what needs to be done to make sure the novel doesn’t suck, and that’s the important part…even if it is taking a bit more time and a bit more out of me than expected.
And maybe, if I work really hard and write a really good book, some interviewer will ask me: So, how much of this character is autobiographical? And maybe, in the most appropriate answer to the question yet, I’ll summon a demon to devour their soul.