Friday, December 9, 2011

How Writers Can Benefit From Participating In Community Theater

by Glen C. Strathy

These days I think of myself as a writer. Commercial writing has been my main source of income for the past decade. I have co-authored two non-fiction books, one of which was a bestseller, and most recently I published a children's novel, Dancing on theInside.

However, there was a time in my life when my primary interest in life was the theater. I won't bore you with the reasons I did not become a world famous actor or director (and there are several good reasons for that). However, as a young man I performed in a lot of plays – in community theater, university theater, and professional non-union companies. I also directed a few plays and spent a brief time in theater school. Overall, I managed to do around seven productions a year over the course of roughly fifteen years. So that's over 100 shows under my belt.

Looking back on that period, I have sometimes felt that I had made a huge detour in my life. Maybe I should have spent all those evenings and weekends writing instead of rehearsing and acting in shows. Maybe my writing career would be a lot further along by now and I'd have finished more some more books.
On the other hand, I feel that the time I spent treading the boards has helped my writing in several ways.
First, it exposed me to a wide range of stories. University theater was especially good for that. Most of the plays at my university were put on by the English Department. We did outstanding works from every literary period from pre-Shakespearean drama to modern plays by writers like Pinter, Beckett, and Tom Stoppard. My community theater work naturally included Broadway plays. And I also worked with some noted Canadian playwrights such as James Reaney and R. Murray Shaefer.

Of course, one can also familiarize oneself with stories by reading. But there's something different about standing up and speaking the lines over and over. They sink in a little more profoundly. You develop a feeling for good dialogue, scene structure, and conflict. I feel that this awareness has made me a better writer.
Acting is also a good exercise for your imagination. Learning to take on a character and see the world through his or her eyes helps you imagine how the people in your novel would think and feel.

Theater also gives you the chance to meet a lot of people on whom you can base characters. Like many writers, I am somewhat shy by nature. I found that working in community theater expanded my list of friends and acquaintances exponentially. Community theater is unlike many workplaces or clubs where you see the same people everyday for years. In theater, a cast will come together to work on a production for only a few months at a time. Then you're on to the next show and the next cast, so you're always meeting new people. If you do several shows a year, you will spend a lot of time hanging out backstage with many people of differing ages, backgrounds, and occupations. The environment is more social than most workplaces as well, so you see more of people's true personalities.

Directing plays is also valuable, because it teaches you to look at the big picture. When you read a novel, it's easy to get lost in the minutiae of good prose. But as a director, you have to focus on the overarching dramatic structure. You must think about how each scene transitions into the next, how the conflicts and emotional tensions build, how to satisfying crisis and conclusion. You get to experiment doing scenes different ways with live actors. This is especially true if you are developing a new play. It's similar to how a writer will re-write a scene different ways, except that you get to see each version acted out before you. You have the creativity of the other people and their sense of emotional truth to help you decide on the best version.
Most importantly, in theater you get immediate feedback from the audience. Whether you're on stage performing, working backstage, or (if you're directing) sitting in the house, you can hear the audience's emotional reaction to what is happening at each moment in the performance. You know if the story is grabbing them or not. You seldom get that level of feedback as a novel writer, but it teaches you a lot about what works and doesn't work in a story.

Okay, maybe you don't have to do seven shows a year. Maybe you're not ready to direct. But if you want to be a writer, I suggest you give theater a try. Take a little acting course. Perhaps volunteer for a minor role in something. If nothing else, it will give you a break from the keyboard and a chance to meet other creative people. And it could even inspire you to try writing a play yourself.

About Dancing on the Inside

Ever since her grandparents gave her a DVD of Swan Lake, twelve-year old Jenny Spark has wanted to be a dancer. But on her first day of ballet class, she suffers a panic attack and makes a horrifying discovery. She’s terrified of dancing in front of the other kids, and as for actually performing for an audience? Forget it.
Yet Jenny refuses to give up her dream. With determination and a little ingenuity, she finds ways to observe ballet classes without actually participating. She trains in the safety of her room, while hiding the truth from her parents. Then Jenny meets her exact opposite: Ara Reyes, an outgoing, spontaneous, and accident-prone girl who loves dancing but has always been overlooked.

The girls’ friendship blossoms as they help each other uncover their real talents. Ara’s dancing takes a leap forward and Jenny discovers she has an amazing gift for choreography. With the support of the school’s newest teacher, Jenny’s original ballet might just make it on stage … but will she?

Book Excerpt:

As she was getting ready for bed that night, Jenny bent down and picked up a pair of pyjamas that had fallen on the floor—without bending her knees. Straightening, she suddenly realized that, two months ago, she couldn’t have done that. She looked down at her legs, which had been firmed by hundreds of rélevés. She had changed in these past two months. And yet, she was just beginning. How much more was there to discover? How much further could she change if she had the chance?

There was something missing in her. A hole that dance promised to fill. It had called to her that first time she saw the DVD of Swan Lake, and it was calling even more strongly now.

Jenny decided that somehow she had to get back into that studio, and with her parents blessing next time. She didn’t know exactly how to do it. She just knew she would.

Author Glen Strathy

Glen C. Strathy started writing stories when he was 11 years old and too shy to have a life.  He eventually found a life when he started acting in community theatre and met other writers, actors, dancers, and artists.  He discovered that the best thing about performing arts (and other arts too) is that they give people more freedom to be who they want to be.  After spending time as an actor, teacher, and freelance writer, he returned to his first love, fiction and wrote Dancing on the Inside, a novel for ages 9-12.
Glen earned an M.A. in English from the University of Western Ontario, and graduated from the Artist in Community Education program at Queen’s University, Kingston. He co-authored two non-fiction books, one of which (The Coming Economic Collapse, Warner Business Books, 2006) became a New York Times Bestselling Business Book.  He belongs to the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). His website provides advice to budding authors.

Glen lives with his wife, fellow writer Kaitlin Rainey, and their daughter in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
You can visit his website at  Visit him on Twitter at and Facebook at