16. 07. 2020
I’m a Writer?
Written by Danielle Aquilina
Edited by Libby Parker
I once heard it said that ‘actors are simply the vessels to be filled by the words of writers’. Having a background in theatre and performance, I was not all that impressed to hear my function simplified so much. I have always respected writers for their linguistic skills, but I had never fully appreciated just how much goes into their craft. Until, that is, I was selected for Writing Place, 2019.
When you explore theatre as a performer, scripts are an extension of your arm. You read, breakdown, memorise, and bring to life the words and lives of those from the pages in front of you. You see their stories unfold through the text and dialogue, spoken words and silence. The worlds form in your mind and you invite those characters into your brain. Without realising, the world that you ingest and the character you embody are not always as they appear in the printed copy you hold.
Launching into the intensive that was Writing Place, I considered myself quite well versed in character analysis and storyline development. I came in confident that I would easily be able to create a masterpiece in the short time we had, because of my background. I’d played characters before; hundreds it seemed, but I was in for a very big awakening.
The initial workshops, exploring the breakdown and structure of stories, were very familiar to me and I felt comfortable, if slightly complacent at times. But, the week was an intensive, and as the exercises went from lecture style learning to quick writing tasks under pressure, I started to see the cracks in my armour and I began to doubt my skills. For the first time ever, I was lost for words. But, through the support and guidance of the mentors, my ego began to take the back seat as I started to listen and trust my instincts. I learned a very valuable lesson about the power of words. Chosen wisely, words can be extremely powerful; however, they can just as easily be erased. I was able to explore writing with no negative repercussions. If I wrote something I didn’t like, I could just delete it, or re-write it, again and again and again. And much like rehearsing for the stage is repetitive, time consuming and sometimes a little monotonous, writing is equally, if not more so, as painful.
I found similarities between my craft as an actor and my new skills as a writer, and developed more respect for the process of creating the skilfully created works I long to perform. With restrictions like duration, it is the expert work of a playwright to choose who, what, when, where, why and how each character speaks to add value and significance to the final work. This was a particular challenge I found myself constantly slamming my head on the desk about. Once I sat with my character and really listened to their voice, they didn’t seem to shut up, and suddenly hours had passed. One evening, while others sat by the roaring fire drinking red wine, I sat hunched over getting each and every thought out of my character’s head onto the page. Every 10 minutes or so, a fellow writer would remind me that I’d already used my word quota for the day and I needed to step away from my laptop. But the compulsion of the world I had created and the words my Rhea spoke had created a gravity all of their own, and I could not stop my fingers from typing even as my eyes grew heavy and blurred. Until her thoughts were fully fashioned onto the page, I was possessed to continue writing. I became the instrument for her voice and she was loud.
It can be scary to explore the thoughts of a character so different from yourself. As an actor, I separate myself from the character through a variety of skills and exercises. As a writer, to vocalise the thoughts, fears, concerns, dreams, hopes, even fantasies of a character so foreign from your own morals, can be quite confronting. To think did I just write that? can make you question your own views of the world and this is where it’s important to realise that these words, as inconsequential as they seem, can be not only powerful, but terrifying.
Then came the cull. Being told to cut any unnecessary words was one of the biggest challenges of the residency. Words are my job, words are what I’m good at, and to have to limit my words is very difficult. My view on the playwright’s script is that each word is specifically chosen through a process. It was a great shock to find out that thousands of words from multiple drafts are sacrificed along the way. Culling 17 000 words to 10 000 was one of my biggest challenges, but it made me more appreciative of how intricate the process of crafting dialogue is. You only have a finite number of words, so it’s imperative that you articulate your point in creative new ways, utilising skills that can only come once you’ve lost something you thought you needed.
Then, to hear those character’s words, the ones you’d torn apart and pieced purposefully back together read from the mouths of the intended audience was such a glorious feeling. I understood the vessel analogy. It can be hard to picture what it’s going to sound like out loud, and in my experience it differed quite substantially. Once I’d heard the words spoken by a young person different from whom I had envisioned, my mind exploded with even more possibilities and I reworked it once again until I was happy with the final draft.
Since my time at Writing Place, the skills and techniques I acquired have been added to my everyday thinking when it comes to my arts practice. My confidence and trust in my skills has allowed me the freedom to draft and redraft without fear of failure, allowing me to really expand upon my thinking, and explore the journey of writing. It has also freed my fear of submitting applications for grants and projects I feel passionate about, which have yielded very positive feedback, thus completing the circle of pride I have for my work and allowing me to continue to grow and advance my journey as a writer.
This blog is one in a series of reflections from participants of 2019 project Writing Place.
Writing Place was a nine-day residency held in the Flinders Ranges and Eyre Peninsula of South Australia in September 2019. Fourteen participating writers spent the residency with mentors Emily Steel, Caleb Lewis and Mary Anne Butler undertaking master classes, small group tutorials, one-on-one sessions and dedicated writing time in a formative creative experience. The scripts created were shared in a reading for invited guests on the second to last night of the residency and subsequently published in a collection by Currency Press called This Was Urgent Yesterday in April 2020.