The Performer and The Writer

Posted on 31 October 2014

With cooking the quality of your ingredients will determine the quality of your resulting product. Similarly in (comic) theatre you must start with good material, good direction, and good performers in order to create a good performance. I sometimes complain how hard it is to get reasonable comedic performances from actors, but I find even just a good performance can be difficult to obtain. Some of the young people I audition are smart and should be doing better. I question the training they are being given.

Right now higher education is being seriously undermined. It has been turned into a business whose sole interest is selling vocational training to as many students as possible, offering as little as possible, at as high a rate as possible. Vocational schools of dubious quality are popping up everywhere. Many lecturers are not even being offered enough teaching time to make a living. Students are being sold their dreams and not a future. So, you can find plenty of places that will teach you acting, playing the electric guitar, film-making, computer game design: all the sexy stuff. None of them have much of an entry policy in order to ensure the students who are paying them money are dedicated to their art, rather than just the idea of fame.

Acting courses have their own unique problems. You have methodologies that have more to do with machismo and hazing, than skill and mature performance. You have cinematic sleaze and theatrical snobbery. When I spent some time with university theatrical courses, I found even at that level students were not encouraged to develop sufficient depth in their understanding of stories, storytelling, and character development. I saw the need as an English major to take theatre classes to help with my with playwriting. Theatre students really should have been taking literature courses to better understand their source material and how to represent it. Both English and theatre students could do with a few courses in philosophy and psychology.

As a writer I am told to develop through travel, journaling, and personal introspection. I am expected to engage with many different types of people without judgement: rich, poor, working class, artists, young, old, ill, and more. When I write I then bring my experience and my viewpoint to bear on the problem of creating a story with complex characters and intricate plotting. I don’t have to be poor to represent poverty, but I do have to carefully and compassionately observe.

In writing I do not put on a show of emoting in order to find emotion. As a director I do not want a show of emotion. I want a living human being who out of their character and circumstances will display some emotion, anything less is fake fireworks. When writing a novel a writer frequently evokes emotion from a single gesture, a word, or even what is being observed by the character, whether it’s a painting, a flower, or a blasted landscape. For any of that to work I have to believe this person is having this emotion.

Both beginning comedians and actors frequently feel like empty jars. The label on the jar says “strawberry jam”, but I can perfectly well see they haven’t put in the strawberries, sugar, and pectin. This is where people think method acting is the answer. Get direct experience of what the character is going through. Okay, so you at least have some pectin in the jar, but that’s not the same as personal understanding or engagement with human nature. Learning to be a mature person who cares about the well-being of others, the planet, and their art will get you so much further than waving your hands about in a show of theatrical heroics.

I have to admit I despair even more deeply when it comes to screenplay writing books. The film industry is so rich and so powerful that people take anything anyone in that industry has to say as HOLY TRUTH (cue heavenly choir). They largely provide a stereotypical view of the world and encourage a very narrow range of storytelling. Actors and comedians are also encouraged to perform in ways that have more to do with how people expect a certain character to behave and what they think emotions look like.

Listen, observe, care, consider how the world fits together and what you think about that, then practise-practise-practise your performing. Get in front of people on a regular basis in a wide diversity of circumstances, whether you are paid to do so or not. These are things that will make you an actor and a comedian worthy of note. In the meantime watch this space for education opportunities that might be of more value.

Peace and kindness,


1 Response to The Performer and The Writer

  • Adam Kangas says:

    Hi Katherine,

    Well said.

    I’m obviously somewhat biased as I run an improv company, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt… but I strongly believe that spending a few years in the trenches of improvised comedy/theatre is the perfect way to improve as a comic actor, writer, editor, director, etc.

    It’s one of the most intellectual, emotional and collaborative processes that exists out there. It’s impossible to be successful at improv if you’re unable to drop the machismo, snobbery, etc. It’s about listening, empathy and playing at the top of your intelligence at all times: three things that are sorely missing from most other arts (and definitely from the training processes for those arts).

    A few great video resources that I love to share when explaining what this can be about at it’s best:

    An episode of Thrash Lab’s Subculture Club on Improv Comedy –

    A recent clip of Amy Poehler on Charlie Rose –

    As for the notion of whether students are being sold their dreams and not a future, I don’t think that any of the major improv schools internationally aim to do it explicitly, but a few of them implicitly support a sales message of “do our classes, and you might end up like all of our famous alumni”. Second City director and Annoyance Theatre co-founder Mick Napier has a great take on this:

    You came to one of our performances over two years ago when we were just getting started, before we had our training center up and running. Perhaps you’d like to check out our Student Showcase on Sunday 30 November and get eyes on roughly 80 incredibly talented people who have been training with us for anywhere from 2-8 months? It’s one of the most inspiring and entertaining nights of comedy in Melbourne, and I’m happy to comp you in and give you access to speak to the students about what they get out of it:

    Adam Kangas
    Artistic Director of The Improv Conspiracy

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