I was talking to an actor and a director recently where we were discussing the parallels between writing and acting. I have always believed that screenwriters, and playwrights are actors who don’t have the courage to get up in front of others and perform. And I know this as I dabbled in acting before taking up writing.
I got the acting bug out of my system at university after I dropped out of a law degree. Or rather, it dropped me. I had failed to meet the 75% pass rate in the Legal Systems exam in my first year. A week before the exam my father died suddenly in tragic circumstances but the hard-hearted law department was not in the business of allowing re-sits.
I took myself off instead to the drama department, where I received a warm welcome – even though they had, like many drama departments, I suspect, far too many female actors and not enough males.
It didn’t take long to work out who the stars of our year were going to be. Not only did the leads have to be talented they had to be gorgeous as well. If you were average on both talent and looks you got to be called a character actor.
I loved drama at university so much that at the end of my final year I applied to drama school. I chose for my audition piece Hermione’s court scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I rehearsed the piece over and over again, walking around the house, feeling my way into Hermione’s predicament. I had enjoyed being on stage as an ensemble actor and hadn’t found performing in front of an audience to be too frightening.
But as I waited to go in to the audition for drama school it dawned on me that all my acting had been done on a brightly lit stage in a darkened auditorium and I couldn’t see the audience. The audition took place on a weekday morning and I was so nervous when I got up that morning that I couldn’t face any breakfast. My nerves got the better of me and I panicked. My 21-year-old self had read somewhere that brandy was soothing for stress and I trotted off and bought a miniature – and swigged it. And then hurriedly brushed my teeth so that I wouldn’t smell like a brewery.
At the audition I was ushered into a room, and had to sit in vast room facing a panel of three. I had to answer a series of questions ranging from: Why I wanted to be an actor to how was I going to support myself financially. I got through that part of the audition but then it was time for me to stand up and do my party piece.
I was a shivering, shaking wreck but pulled myself together and launched into Hermione’s speech. And then something miraculous happened: I gained my audience’s attention. For a couple of minutes, that speech went really well. I felt my confidence build and was all ready to launch into the big dramatic finish when something terrible happened. I began to feel dizzy and put my hand to my head. The panel loved it. They just saw Hermione giving it heaps, when it was just the brandy finally kicking in. My head swam and I fell to the floor. And then passed out. Cold.
Now I don’t know if you know that particular play, and as I look back now, it might just be okay for Hermione to fall to the floor but only if she got back up again pretty damn quickly – and certainly not in a drunken stupor. When I came round I was guided back to the chair and then told gently that I needed more experience, and why didn’t I try my luck with rep theatre in the regions of New Zealand, where I lived?
Since then, whether for a screenplay or a novel, I have stuck to writing characterisation and dialogue and then walking around the house performing the part and saying the lines in front of my audience of audience of one – my Labrador. Granted, she wasn’t the greatest of critics, and if the dialogue was wooden, it was always up to me to correct it.
One of the most rewarding experiences I had as an emerging screenwriter was at the shoot of my film school short. We had managed to persuade Josephine Tewson, who was a very successful comedy actor, to play a role and she took my script and made it her own. Potential tongue-twisting lines were put in a different order, certain activities within the scene were done in a different way than in the script but the end result was a much better version than my original.
I have the utmost respect for actors – particularly those talented individuals who make it look so easy and can pretend they’re not acting at all. I am immensely grateful that there are people out there who are prepared to suffer the indignity of getting up and performing my lines in front of others. Because one thing I do know, no one else should have to watch while I act out the roles and say the lines of my characters. No, not even the dog – who had to suffer for the past six years listening to all the dialogue in the first novel. Maybe that was what did for her in the end?