by Nancy Means Wright
Ever since I played 18th-century Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer in high school I’ve been in love with theater. Decades later I can still recite the opening lines–in a British accent, of course: “I vow, Mr. Hardcastle, you’re veddy particulah!” I recall the struggle to relate not only to a frustrated mother with a son my age, but to a female from a different century and culture. What could she and a 16-year-old girl possibly have in common? But then our director introduced us to the Stanislavsky method of acting, based on the concept of emotional memory in which an actor goes deep inside herself to recall moments of anger, sorrow or jealousy, and then transfers these feelings onstage, both physically and psychologically. In this way, the actor becomes not only the characters but her own self.
So I recalled the anxieties I had living in an all-girls school boarding school where my mother was a disciplinary housemother; and before that my older brothers, teachers, pastors, uncles who were forever, it seemed, shushing and telling me what to do. And I poured all these restrictions into the character of Mrs. Hardcastle, who was always being put upon.
Since then I’ve acted in or directed dozens of plays for amateur (mostly) and repertory theater. My son has inherited my passion and has his own Very Merry Theatre for children and young adults in Burlington, Vermont. Summers his ancient van travels the state, pulling a stage on a flatbed trailer. Many of the plays in his repertoire are adapted from Dickens and Shakespeare, keeping the original language, and a few are plays I’ve adapted for him from my own novels. For theater has crept into my writing as well; I can’t seem to keep my fictional characters from putting on amateur shows. In Midnight Fires, set in an Irish castle, my sleuth discovers a clue to a killer through a family rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a local village presentation of Macbeth heightens suspense as my sleuth observes the spectators’ reaction to Macbeth’s imaginary dagger.
Of course I use “the method” to physically set the scene and to become my character(s). I’ve always thought of a novel as a play in three or five acts, with each scene propelling the action forward. As I write, I’ve taught myself to envision the scene as if on a stage: to see how the characters use their props, to observe gestures, reactions to a bit of action or dialogue. To watch the body language: a shrug, a roving eye, a frown or grimace that suggests conflict. And then to show it as one does in theater.
It’s fun, for instance, to see how relationships alter as a character enters or exits a room. And I try to set a goal for each scene–a character’s desire or plan that either works or fails; at chapter’s end I leave a hook as a play might do. My spouse and I have been watching reruns of the 70’s Poldark, in which each episode ends with a gasp. Will Poldark escape when the smugglers are betrayed and the soldiers come charging? Will pregnant Demelza drown in her fishing boat when the storm blows up? We know the main characters will persevere, but oh, the suspense and conflict!
Most of all I use memory and transference to morph into my main character. It helps to nurture a close connection with the protagonist–a little empathy goes a long way. This has been easy with my historical Wollstonecraft series. For though far less famous, I have quite a lot in common with Mary: our writing and teaching, our conflicted nature (reason versus the hormones), our empty pockets, the faux pas we’ve made, and yes, the rejections. So through that connection I feel free to imagine and invent. In a new memoir, A Memory Palace, author Mira Bartok describes her traumatic brain injury after an 18-wheeler plowed into her car on the NY Thruway. To write her award-winning book, she employed a method called a “mental walk,” using visualization to recall information: faces, lists, emotions. She’d imagine the layout of a building, or placement of objects within a room, and then create links to things she wanted to remember. She’d take an imaginary journey through a house, recreating each room, letting it act as a memory peg: the kitchen might bring to mind a special event, or recall a person, an emotion.
In much the same way the mental walk might help us to turn into our fictional characters and thereby live alternate lives. Truly, I can’t think of any career, other than the actor’s, in which one writer can live so many lives–and in one book!
Filed under: Nancy Means Wright |