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Acting With Style


The art of fiction, and the craft of writing, require the mastery of many of the skills of acting. A novelist must play the part of each character. Some characters are easier to “play” than others, but to produce an outstanding work of fiction, the writer must get into the minds and hearts, or lack thereof, of each character. The writer must play the part inside, whether she wants to or not, and this part of writing — playing a part that repulses you, might comprise the most difficult duty of the fiction writer.


It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. It might as well be the author of her own words.


During the very impressionable years of my adolescence, I pursued acting roles in high school plays, and I refused almost every part that was offered to me. I flat-out rejected the role of a secretary dancing atop a desk in The Desk Set. Fellow “thespian-wanna-be” students told me I was crazy. “Take any part offered to you,” they said.


“This one’s an insult,” I said.


I knew that once this smart blonde accepted a sexpot dumb blonde role, I would immediately be type-casting myself. It was bad enough to be dealing with that incongruity in real-life; I did not need to encase it in stage-makeup. It seemed that I was forever being seen as something I was not, but to purposely torment myself with image-anxiety and identity-confusion: No thanks. (Confidentially, I think the play, as well as the film, stunk.)

The English teacher/drama aficionado was highly peeved at me for refusing a role he had too forcefully insisted was MINE. He deemed me ungrateful. I shrugged and walked away. I had better roles to play, maybe not on stage, but in life. Trying to pull off a role that was so severely limiting was not going to help me, in any way, to reach the heights I was shooting for in real life.


I did accept the role of the telephone operator in Sorry, Wrong Number. And I, or, rather, my telephone voice, was a smash hit! Years later, I used the role as job experience to procure a temporary assignment at a company in D.C. that was sufficiently antiquated to still use a switchboard. It was a quick 4-hour gig! This creative resume pre-dated the onslaught of over-rated mediocre Hollywood actors testifying before Congress on industries, and on individuals, being given the shiv — or which should be given the shiv — economically because —


She played a Starving Farmer’s Wife! He played a Submarine Captain! He played a Truck Driver! She played a Do-Gooder Deceived by the Corporation! She played the Heroine who Found the Toxic Waste Site Near the Elementary School!


Get Real!


Later, I dearly wanted the part of Kate in a George Washington University production of Kiss Me Kate. The female lead role, however, was given to a non-singing student who had received a personal, private (one-on-one) audition with the Director of the musical. The casting couch on campus was news to me, but it really did not outrage me the way that it did other drama princesses and princes stomping through those halls of ivy.

I did go to see a performance of this Cole Porter musical, with some friends from out-of-town. They were horrified by the star shrew who definitely needed to tame that voice, and her hair along with it. I was impressed, however, by how convincingly she shouted-sung: “I hate men.” I think that sleazy Drama Prof knew exactly what he was doing!


The next production to be displayed, or acted out, in Lisner Auditorium was A Streetcar Named Desire. And I wanted to try out for the role of Blanche. So badly! Professor Claeyssens, my English professor/editor/academic adviser sternly and comically advised me:


“Oh, nooooooo. You are Stella. I can see you with that glass of lemonade . . .”


I did not see myself as that character at all. And, so, at the age of twenty, I took an immediate break, one that has lasted to this very day, from dramatic try-outs for stage productions. Professor Claeyssens had been absolutely accurate about my lack of panicked neurosis and priggish sexual frustration, thereby eliminating me as a contender for the role of Blanche DuBois. He belly-laughed at the thought of me in such a role!

I didn’t understand those aspects about myself. I did not understand a lot of aspects about myself. Clearly, I had to get to know them — I had to first realize they existed! Any adroit fiction writer must do the same thing. If you do not know yourself, how can you possibly begin to know your fictional character?


That part of Blanche was given to a very mousy student, a plain Jane (actually named Jane), a wooden girl who came to life on that wooden stage. She really was coming out of whatever shell encased her. I’m not sure Jane ever went back into that shell. But one person who lived the part, day and night, was the jerk who got the role of Stanley Kowalski.


Each Saturday night, after his performance had ended on The Stage, this muscle made his appearance at The Rathskeller, located on the top floor of the Student Union Building. (The word, Ratskeller, is German for a restaurant or tavern, normally below street level, that serves beer. Normalcy, at GWU was not, even then, always to be expected on that campus. I am sure that the high-rise dive is long gone, along with the high-quality profs that I lucked into finding at that university.)

There, at the very top-floor Rathskeller, I worked weekend nights, pouring pitchers and mugs of beer, serving up hot dogs and chili, and re-stocking little packages of beer nuts (which were very tasty). Mr. Star Jerk wasn’t part of the Chug-a-Lug from the Pitcher crowd. Oh, no, Stanley was more refined. He drank his suds from a glass. After his third trip swaggering to the bar to tell me to pour him another brewski, I told Mr. Kowalski:


“You’re not much of a Stanley. But, then again, I’m not much of a Blanche.”


The ego in acting is always problematic, but, for some stage-players, it is all they have. And the ego really ought not dominate the role. Somewhere in there, in that “person” that you must inhabit, there are aspirational bits of humanity that ought to ennoble you and extend you as a person. Acting with style is enriching that character and your own self as well. Acting with style demands that the actor do more than use just what’s inside of him. In reality, he is too small.

There’s not enough stuff within any thespian to convincingly and compellingly portray any part, based purely on “the inner self.” A talented actor brings to the character components and “realities” that are NOT inside of her. In short, the use of self as a character, whether on a page or on the stage, is very limited, compared to the creative discovery of the selves outside of the self.


Professor Claeyssens knew that all of the “me’s” running around were fascinating, but the unique traits of my personality and nature were woefully insufficient to fill up the psyche stocking of any fictional character.  He taught me that the writer who depends strictly on autobiography is sorely limited as a writer — and as a person. This artist as a young woman, in his opinion, had a long ways to go to reach her goal of Novelist. Student agreed with Teacher that her nascent talents would be a long patience to develop. And so they were . . .

“Claey” told me that I’m a natural at acting, and that talent would aid me as a writer. His professional background was in theatre, cinema criticism, and literature; his hobby-jobs were weekend sports broadcasting for the Chicago Cubs during the summer, and very active membership on the Board of Directors of AFI, the American Film Institute. This professor of literature and creative writing detected right away in my writing an ability to frame scenes cinematically; and he steered me in the direction of studying film as art.


By the mid-1970s, stage-craft had begun to die in America, largely because of the Ego intruding more and more onto the stage. The world of the theater as a fine art was deteriorating, rapidly. My literary and dramatic training consequently included the extraordinary excellence of the creations that formed the Golden Age of Musical Theatre: classic musicals from the 1920s through the early 1960s, and, in particular, the integrated musical (which solidly blends the musical aspects with the dramatic aspects). The disciplines of drama and writing became forever merged in my understanding of how to create and craft fiction.

Acting with style is the fulfillment of gifts that come naturally. Stage-craft is taking that quiet genius inside of a performer and molding it to the needs of the character. It does not consist of using the stage as a soapbox for politics, or to expose emotions in a histrionic manner and with the most vulgar of poses and speech. The show hall is for putting on a show for the audience, not for providing a platform for the show-off. The playbill was once upon a glorious time the visually pleasing listing of public performances of a play, not political advertising poorly posing as shock propaganda.


Whenever things around him, and me, got rushed and tense and ridiculously pressured by not-enough-time and too many obnoxious people, Professor Claeyssens would perform, for me, this soothing line from a most remarkable song. “Sue Me” was initially enunciated by the character Nathan Detroit in the 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

Claey said this line pretty much summed up my approach to life. It suited me to a T, as in Debra Tanis, the student that he marvelously mentored. And, yes, those words voice my approach to life:


So sue me, sue me,

Shoot bullets through me.


Nowadays, I try to dodge the bullets, and the lawsuits!


The following are some quotes from actresses and actors whom I greatly admire, and from whom I have learned as much about the artistry of writing, as the craft of acting. These role-players not only inhabited the world of acting — they achieved its finest art. Their curtain calls shall never end.


Barbara Stanwyck: Just be truthful - and if you can fake that, you've got it made.


Ernest Borgnine: It was my mom who told me, "Ernie, if you make even one person happy with your smile or a funny thing you did every day, you'll have accomplished a great deal." And that's all I've ever tried to do.

Basil Rathbone: When you become the character you portray, it's the end of your career as an actor.


Edward G. Robinson: To my mind, the actor has this great responsibility of playing another human being … it’s like taking on another person’s life and you have to do it as sincerely and honestly as you can.


Shelley Winters: The purpose of the actor is to illuminate the human condition. The audience must identify with the actor. They know what he is feeling, and the good actor draws from his own experience. If it is true for him, it is true for the audience. If a director imposes a performance on the actor, he can try to mimic someone, but it is not from the heart. It can be funny or brilliant but it is not moving.


Greer Garson: I think the mirror should be tilted slightly upward when it's reflecting life - toward the cheerful, the tender, the compassionate, the brave, the funny, the encouraging, all those things -- and not tilted down to the gutter part of the time, into the troubled vistas of conflict.