Why Writers Should Consider Getting Involved In Community Theater

These days I think of myself as a writer. Commercial writing has been my main source of income for the past decade. I have co-authored two non-fiction books, one of which was a bestseller, and most recently I published a children’s novel, Dancing on the Inside.
However, there was a time in my life when my primary interest in life was the theater. I won’t bore you with the reasons I did not become a world famous actor or director (and there are several good reasons for that). However, as a young man I performed in a lot of plays – in community theater, university theater, and professional non-union companies. I also directed a few plays and spent a brief time in theater school. Overall, I managed to do around seven productions a year over the course of roughly fifteen years. So that’s over 100 shows under my belt.
Looking back on that period, I have sometimes felt that I had made a huge detour in my life. Maybe I should have spent all those evenings and weekends writing instead of rehearsing and acting in shows. Maybe my writing career would be a lot further along by now and I’d have finished more some more books.
On the other hand, I feel that the time I spent treading the boards has helped my writing in several ways.
First, it exposed me to a wide range of stories. University theater was especially good for that. Most of the plays at my university were put on by the English Department. We did outstanding works from every literary period from pre-Shakespearean drama to modern plays by writers like Pinter, Beckett, and Tom Stoppard. My community theater work naturally included Broadway plays. And I also worked with some noted Canadian playwrights such as James Reaney and R. Murray Shaefer.
Of course, one can also familiarize oneself with stories by reading. But there’s something different about standing up and speaking the lines over and over. They sink in a little more profoundly. You develop a feeling for good dialogue, scene structure, and conflict. I feel that this awareness has made me a better writer.
Acting is also a good exercise for your imagination. Learning to take on a character and see the world through his or her eyes helps you imagine how the people in your novel would think and feel.
Theater also gives you the chance to meet a lot of people on whom you can base characters. Like many writers, I am somewhat shy by nature. I found that working in community theater expanded my list of friends and acquaintances exponentially. Community theater is unlike many workplaces or clubs where you see the same people everyday for years. In theater, a cast will come together to work on a production for only a few months at a time. Then you’re on to the next show and the next cast, so you’re always meeting new people. If you do several shows a year, you will spend a lot of time hanging out backstage with many people of differing ages, backgrounds, and occupations. The environment is more social than most workplaces as well, so you see more of people’s true personalities.
Directing plays is also valuable, because it teaches you to look at the big picture. When you read a novel, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of good prose. But as a director, you have to focus on the overarching dramatic structure. You must think about how each scene transitions into the next, how the conflicts and emotional tensions build, how to satisfying crisis and conclusion. You get to experiment doing scenes different ways with live actors. This is especially true if you are developing a new play. It’s similar to how a writer will re-write a scene different ways, except that you get to see each version acted out before you. You have the creativity of the other people and their sense of emotional truth to help you decide on the best version.
Most importantly, in theater you get immediate feedback from the audience. Whether you’re on stage performing, working backstage, or (if you’re directing) sitting in the house, you can hear the audience’s emotional reaction to what is happening at each moment in the performance. You know if the story is grabbing them or not. You seldom get that level of feedback as a novel writer, but it teaches you a lot about what works and doesn’t work in a story.
Okay, maybe you don’t have to do seven shows a year. Maybe you’re not ready to direct. But if you want to be a writer, I suggest you give theater a try. Take a little acting course. Perhaps volunteer for a minor role in something. If nothing else, it will give you a break from the keyboard and a chance to meet other creative people. And it could even inspire you to try writing a play yourself.

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