In this post, author Hillary Hall De Baun reflects on how her years of participating in amateur theater productions helped her breathe life into the characters of her first novel, Starring Arabelle, and she looks at a few of the unexpected ways in which the worlds of “the stage” and “the page” seem to parallel one another.
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For many years, amateur theater was a regular and significant part of my life, and memories of life on the stage served as the inspiration for my debut novel Starring Arabelle, which centers around a high school play. To write into my broad cast of characters the vibrancy they deserved, I had to relive my own past experiences with directors and actors.
I was a little older than freshman Arabelle Archer — the irrepressible lead character in Starring Arabelle — when I acted in my first play. My first role came my junior year in high school, as I recall. It was a terrible play, the title of which I’ve long forgotten. But I do remember the play’s director, a coach given to using sarcasm and put-down to get the best out of his hockey players. This caustic approach didn’t work so well on his actors, though. We lived in terror of his tongue and cringed when he corrected our many mistakes in a thundering voice.
Since then, I’ve encountered different styles of directing. The gruff-but-likeable Mr. Zee in Starring Arabelle barks instruction to his actors from the house seats, but he later provides a calm and thoughtful critique that brings out the best in his players. This is my favorite style.
Most dispiriting is the director who dictates the precise delivery of every spoken line and emotion down to the last heartrending sob. He’s apt to jump up on stage in the middle of rehearsal and assume an actor’s role, insisting, “This is how it’s done! Not the way you’re doing it!”
Then there’s the director who wants her actors to “feel” their way into their parts, to dig down to the emotional core of the characters they’re playing. If an actor is playing the part of an old, downtrodden character, this director might say, “Imagine a dog, a starving dog, now imagine the dog is human, imagine the dog is you,” and so forth. These exercises might be repeated week after week in workshop until the actor achieves the emotional truth that the part requires.
I’ve never personally encountered a “murmuring” director, but I know they exist. George S. Kaufman, co-writer with Moss Hart of You Can’t Take It With You, the play featured in Starring Arabelle, directed his actors in an undertone. Finely attuned to their sensibilities, Kaufman would take them aside and suggest in a whisper how to improve their performance. No one else got to hear what he said.
Directors aren’t the only colorful characters in theater, though. There are also the actors. Ah, the actors. They make up as varied a group as you’ll find anywhere: the ad-libbers, the spotlight-seekers, the line-forgetters, and the melodrama queens and kings.
In Starring Arabelle, Bonnie Atwood ad libs wildly, which throws everyone on stage off balance. A serial ad-libber can stop a play dead in its tracks. The prompter, who quickly loses his place in the script, has little effect.
Spotlight-seekers are like moths. No matter where they’ve been told to stand, they somehow gravitate to the brightest lit spot on stage. Getting them to budge is like moving a three-hundred-pound defensive tackle.
In every play I was ever in, there were actors who simply couldn’t learn their lines. I remember one who planted little crib notes all over the set — on tables, in ashtrays, on the floor, on the front of another actor. One time, when the crib notes mysteriously disappeared between acts, the panicked actor had to rely on his fellow actors to feed him entire speeches. Like Camille Becker in Starring Arabelle, actors usually know each other’s lines.
Then there are the actors who thrive on melodrama. They never say a line straight if they can turn it into an Academy Award performance. In the book, my heroine Arabelle is such an actor, trying desperately to prove herself by over dramatizing — and she bombs until she learns to tame her own exuberance.
Somehow, in the end, despite their many different approaches to directing a play and acting in one, despite the clash of egos on stage and the histrionics off stage, the director and the cast come together in a miraculous display of teamwork. The play’s the glue that binds them together.
My amateur theater days are long gone. Writing books for young readers has taken center stage in my life now. Yet do you, like me, see the parallels between the theater world and the book world? I see you shaking your head. But consider this. In the book world, editors (directors) point writers (actors) in the direction that will make their book (a play) better and help place it into the hands and hearts of readers everywhere (an extended run).
In the end, as in the theater world, the writer and the editor unite in a common effort. The book is the glue that binds us together.