“Is theatre literature?” is a complicated question– some say yes and others vehemently disagree– but no one denies that theatre requires many of the same skills your English literature classes demand. After all, in many ways, analyzing a script is procedurally indistinguishable from analyzing a novel.
If you are looking to become a stronger actor capable of creating more compelling characters and scenes, you may want to start paying attention in English class.
Here are three key ideas from every literature syllabus that will help you become a better actor.
Key Idea 1: Recognizing Plot Structure, Literary Tropes, Character Archetypes, and Other Storytelling Commonalities
Understanding what nearly every piece of fiction writing in the world has in common is a helpful “step one” for analyzing literature. Recognizing recurring themes, tropes, plotpoints, and archetypes help you instantly understand the kind of story that is being told, and how the author uses these elements to tell their story tells tells you much about what the author wants to say through the text.
These recurring elements do the same in theatre. Not only do they assist your audience in following the events of the show, they also assist the performers in deciding how to present them.
For instance, consider how understanding that a specific scene is the climax of a play’s plot might impact how you choose to perform it. Though this won’t have a universal effect on every climactic scene in theatre, it should definitely inform your choices within that scene.
Alternatively, think about how you might go about constructing a character if you recognize their “type” easily. Are they a spoiled princess? A brave hero? Though no two characters in any literary work are typically exactly the same, being able to quickly “take stock” of your character’s archetype helps you tackle the blanks in characterization that the playwright did not explicitly fill, or help you come up with new, interesting, and subversive takes on the role.
Exercise your ability to spot these commonalities and subversions of them, and you may be able to use them to your advantage in performance.
Key Idea 2: Mastering Reading for Detail
Analyzing a work of literature is often about reading between the lines, but you can’t read between the lines unless you first understand the lines themselves. That’s why it’s important to master the art and science of reading for detail.
In both plays and novels, the text is king. Though you should of course create a more complex characterization than what’s on a page in a script, you must ensure you’ve taken note of all the relevant details to avoid contradicting established information with your characterization. This sort of mistake is easier to make than you might realize. Just think: have you ever started writing an essay for class, only to realize you’d misinterpreted some sentence or paragraph, rendering your whole thesis is nonsense? (Can you tell I’m speaking from personal experience?)
Just as it’s important to ensure you understand what’s happening in the text before you start writing your English essay, it’s important to double-check you understand what’s happening in the script before you start trying to make acting decisions. Mastering an eye for detail so you can get it right on the first handful of reads rather than late in the analytical process is key!
Key Idea 3: Extrapolating from the Text
A crucial skill developed in most literature classes is that of making logical inferences informed by the text. Sometimes the most compelling part of a literary work is not what the words themselves say but what they imply. As readers we are constantly– as previously mentioned– “reading between the lines.”
These skills are commonly assessed. How many essays have you written about how you think a character in a novel feels about the events of a plot? Or about how you think problems in a story might be solved? Flexing these extrapolatory “muscles” is as important to being a good reader as it is to becoming an emotionally intelligent, empathetic person.
Of course this skill is paramount in theatre. Much of the actor’s work is extrapolating from text! Rarely does a script come out and tell you exactly the kind of character you are playing– instead you must make inferences from small details in the text. In fact, if you were to take all the details of the script as universal fact without extrapolating deeper meaning, you’d often be left with contradictions and flat characters.
For example, a character might in the text refer to themself in one way while their behavior implies the opposite. You then must think beyond what is written and decide if the character is lying, or simply unaware that they’re not the person they say they are. Missing out on this very human and interesting character detail because you were too focussed on following only the printed words on the page would be a huge missed opportunity.
Of course, your extrapolations should be informed by the text– you can’t simply make things up if the text tells you otherwise. That’s where learning to read for detail will again come in handy!
These are three key skills shared in studying both theatre and literature. Though you may use them in slightly different ways in these two settings, training them in one setting will undoubtedly assist you in the other. Take advantage of the education you get in the classroom! When you’re finished using it on stage, you might find your schoolwork gets a little easier, too.