Improvising – My Life and My Writing

Lea Wait here.

Last weekend I attended Crime Bake, the New England mystery conference in Massachusetts, and to my delight Hallie Ephron mentioned on a panel that acting was an important skill for writers.

I felt like standing up and cheering.  You see, when I was an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to write, but I hadn’t focused yet on what I wanted to write. During high school summer vacations I’d worked in a Maine playhouse, and I’d written plays, poetry and a little fiction.

So I majored in both English and drama, focusing, when I could, on playwriting.

But in a small liberal arts college (Chatham College — now University — in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,) drama majors were required not only to study drama, but theater. I took directing classes, painted scenery, and took part in every school production, large or small. I also studied acting at both Chatham and at the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of the Theater.

But it was a class on the philosophy and history of dramatic criticism, an upper-class course I took my freshman year, that changed the way I saw my life.  The professor in that course demanded not only that we read Aristotle and Plato (and so forth) but that we demonstrate that we’d understood their dramatic theories by acting them out.

He believed (combining several well-known schools of acting), that every character must have a motivation in every scene. A need. That motivation influences how he or she plays the scene.

I will never forget the first class, in October of my freshman year, when I was asked to stand up and act “to overcome.” I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After the professor repeated his instruction (multi times, with frustration,) finally an upper classman stood up, came over to me, and said, “Do you know how to do what he’s asking?” By that time in tears, I shook my head. “Then go over and tell him that, to his face,” she said. I did. The class applauded … they’d understood all along (they’d studied with this professor before) that by doing that I had “overcome” my fear.

After that, I caught on. I acted when I was supposed to. About six months later the same professor took me aside and pointed out something I’d never realized: that I “acted in” rather than “acting out.”  If I was to act “fear,” for example, I cowered. I never ran or screamed, as some of the other students did. After that I experimented with acting inward or outward — learning more about myself than about acting.

And by the next year I was not only doing improvisational theater in school and, for fun, with fellow acting students outside of class, but I taught a class in improv for kindergarten students.

After graduation I moved to New York and took professional classes in improvisational theater. (Gene Hackman was a classmate,  and I met my first husband, a television comedy writer, there.)

After that I moved on to other, more academic and corporate interests. But I often found myself sitting in long meetings consciously playing the role of “bright executive” or “serious student” or “to survive.” I had the courage to produce and be on-camera talent in a daily corporate CCTV show for two years. I got through a lot of difficult moments in my life by pretending to be someone stronger, wiser, or tougher than I felt.

Now I  write fiction. My heroes and heroines also play roles — the ones I assign them — and have motivations. Sometimes they act “in” and sometimes they “act out”.

Without learning improvisational acting, my life — and my writing – wouldn’t be the same. I strongly recommend improv to anyone, at any age, looking to understand themselves — or their characters — better.

At least – it worked for me.

Lea Wait writes the 7-book Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series and the 2-book Mainely Needlepoint series, the third of which, THREAD AND GONE, will be published in December. She also writes historical novels for readers eight and up, and a memoir with writing advice, LIVING AND WRITING ON THE COAST OF MAINE. 

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10 Responses to Improvising – My Life and My Writing

  1. Jewel Hanley says:

    Lea, you have been one busy lady in you life time. Nice article.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Thank you, Jewel!

  3. Edith says:

    What a great post, and such a rich background you have – which clearly has affected your writing in many positive ways. I studied acting only during one semester but I loved it. Will take these lessons to heart.

  4. I’m a great believer in what one of my early teachers called “Stanislavskying.” I always interpreted that as throwing myself into the role or, in the case of writing, the character. Hey–I can believe I’m a thirtyish former Scottish dancer or a sixteenth-century gentlewoman in her early twenties. . . just as long as I don’t look in any mirrors!

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Absolutely Kathy/Kaitlyn! When we’re writing .. we’re THERE. (And I think you’d make a terrific Scottish dancer or 16th century gentle-woman … despite knees!) Write on!

  6. Barb Ross says:

    There’s another rule of improvisation that I think applies to writing. Always say Yes And… Tina Fey talks about this rule and applies it not just to improv but to work and life in her book Bossypants and I found it quite helpful.

  7. Lea: I have always known since we first met that you are an amazing woman and writer. Now, having a window into this part of your past, I find another page in your history that explains even more about your ability to be a dedicated and successful writer. You are a true inspiration.

  8. Amber Foxx says:

    Great post. I loved the part about acting in vs. acting out. I’ve found that having a theater background–I made my living acting for about ten years, worked as a choreographer, and studied playwriting–has helped me tremendously as a writer.

  9. MCWriTers says:

    Thank you, all! Excellent point, Barb — and, Amber — wonderful! Sherie — I’m honored.

  10. Thanks for these insights. Love the acting in and out distinction. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about improv and explains that it really only works if the actors keeps saying “yes” (in various ways) in response to what comes up — ie going with it rather than blocking it. I find I do that in my writing now. If an idea comes up I say “yes” and pop it into the manuscript until I know why it’s there. It works well with creating an unravelling mystery — and it’s fun 🙂

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