Know What You Write

Homer

For most of human history writing and acting, or more precisely the composition of the words and the performance of them, were unified in the same person. The poet Homer, or more likely the poets who gave us the poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, would also have performed the poems, indeed honed them through performance. Whether to entertain a king or earn enough in a tavern to buy supper, the choice of words and the speaking of them were unseparated in their task – to move the audience.


ShakespeareWith the advent of the written word these tasks became more specialised, although it’s worth remembering that the finest writer of the English language, indeed one of its most important creators, William Shakespeare, was first of all an actor.

Specialisation has many benefits, especially for a craftsman dealing in multifarious techniques. However, the downside of it in storytelling has been the loss of that original unity of feeling. Perhaps the degradation of feeling altogether. The unknown Hollywood hack listed third under the “screenplay by” credit on a comic book adaptation in 2016 suffers the same soullessness as the third person along on the magneto ignition assembly line for Henry Ford’s Model T in 1913.

Stanislavski on stage

Stanislavski on stage

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Strasberg and Pacino on set

Detecting a similar lack of genuine feeling in the acting he witnessed, the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski decided to come up with a “system” for his actors. His first full production was an 1898 revival of Anton Chekov’s first play, The Seagull, which had been a disaster when it debuted. Stanislavski’s staging was, by contrast, a massive success.

Stanislavski’s theories were exported around the world, most famously by a cooperative of producers, directors and actors in 1930s New York called the Group Theatre.

Perhaps the best-known, Lee Strasberg, coined the term the “Method” for his own adaptation of Stanislavski’s teachings, and went on to extend its influence when he ran The Actor’s Studio from the 1950s, especially through the success of pupils such as James Dean, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino (opposite whom Strasberg himself acted in The Godfather Part II, earning himself an Oscar nomination in the process).

Brando

Brando on set

Other members of the Group Theatre included Stella Adler, who set up her own, rival school. Among her early pupils was Marlon Brando, the first actor really to popularise this form of acting on stage and screen, especially as directed by another member, Elia Kazan, in A Steetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront. Adler would also later train Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.

As with all collectives of this kind, there were rivalries, feuds and schisms — most notably between Strasberg and Adler, with Strasberg focusing on Stanislavksi’s early techniques of “emotional memory”, which he called “affective memory”, in which an actor uses the feelings engendered by recalling past experiences to move himself into the emotional state required by the role.

Stanislavksi himself later would largely discard this approach, regarding it as limiting in so far as it restricted the actor to what they had previously experienced and also ran contrary to his ideas about emotional truthfulness to the character: in essence, you are left playing a variant of yourself. It was also said to have led to the nervous breakdown of his then protégé, the actor Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright, who went on to found his own school of acting in the ‘Method’ line.

Stanislavski’s later work focused on the use of imagination and the fictional circumstances of the character, which was what he taught to Stella Adler when she went to study with him in Paris and Moscow — the only American to do so — and she developed her own ‘technique’ from this.

A final note: the popular notion of Method Acting tends to focus on extreme immersive techniques of “living in character”. One might think of Daniel Day-Lewis living in a wheelchair and demanding to be carried on set by the crew to play Christy Brown in My Left Foot, actors responding to only their character name while making a movie, even during breaks in filming. These are not, however, merely the later elaborations of Hollywood stars. From the beginning of his experiments in this field Stanislavski himself employed such techniques as an actor walking the streets of Moscow, and recommended them to his students.

The phrase “write what you know” is usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway (pictured top left in his First World War uniform; A Farewell To Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls proving the point with a Nobel Prize), but is just as well phrased “know what you write.”

The three conveners of this class have, amongst other things taken up smoking to write about the perfect cigarette for a guide to living, lived in a cupboard to write from the perspective of a live-in stalker for a thriller, and become a Spanish matador for an introduction to bullfighting.

THE METHOD WRITING CLASS

Whether or not writing can be taught is a question open to debate — one might ask a similar question about acting. Some would point out that everyone writes, in some sense, just as everyone acts, in certain circumstances. It is, at least and without doubt, our belief that someone who already has talent as a writer can be helped to become even better.

The are plenty of creative writing courses available, teaching such mechanical basics as structure and plot, pacing and dialogue, all vital elements of the craft of writing, but this very focus on craft runs the risk of, indeed has actually resulted in, a manufactured look to the shelves of the contemporary bookshop.

What of feeling? We believe in an emphasis on feeling before words. A skilled writer may write well, but if he or she doesn’t know how to achieve the right emotional state for the task of writing, the result is unlikely to move the reader. This is the foundation of the service we offer at The Act of Writing — this conviction that the same techniques as have caused a revolution in the performance of stories could, if applied in an adapted form, create a similar revolution in the very way in which stories are written.

With this in mind, we have prepared a series of day-long classes, to be held on every Saturday of March this year, which will be given by ourselves, at our building in Mayfair in central London.

The first class will be held on March 5th, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., with an introductory fee of £95 per person. Further classes in March will be priced at £115 (with the possibility of further work on texts and future classes, according to availability and demand.)

Class details are available online here.

For all enquiries please email contact@theactofwriting.co.uk

For information on the conveners, visit the ‘About Us’ page here.

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