Writer in Residence

Writing as an Actor

Submitted by Amanda West Lewis

Photo of teaching drama

I went to theatre school when I was 18. In many ways it was the worst choice I could have made. I was not temperamentally suited to the life of an actor. But the lessons I learned in theatre school have stayed with me throughout my life and have become the best education I could have had in order to become a writer.

An actor is someone who turns ideas into meaning and communicates that meaning to an audience. They use the tools in their toolbox –– their voice, body and mind. Those are the tools we use as humans, and the ones we reproduce as writers. Understanding those tools can help you to connect more deeply with your characters.

When you train as an actor you learn how to be in control of your voice. You need a voice that can resonate and convey meaning in a large theatre or be subtle and intimate in a film. The muscles of your face, lips and tongue must be honed and understood, so that your articulation is clear and easily manipulated. You learn how to breathe properly so that you can support and control the flow of air through long passages of text.

Your body needs to be responsive. You need to be able to change your centre of gravity, work with your spine to control movements and to integrate new physical habits into a performance so that they become a part of who you are.

Your mind dictates these choices. The decisions that you make about how you interpret a piece of text or a character is part of a long process of discovery, analysis, research and keeping your instinctive responses open and nimble.

My acting training included voice and singing classes, dance and yoga classes, improvisation, scene study and massive amounts of reading of classical and contemporary texts. It included anthropology, sociology, history, and language study. In many ways, it was an amazing education. My theatre training continues to play a part in every aspect of my life. My understanding of my voice and body helps me to be an effective communicator on a daily basis.

But the theatre profession is punishing, and I transitioned out of it with predictable scars. I became a calligrapher, which fed a different part of my soul and which, as I’ve outlined in a previous blog, fed the nascent writer in me in a different way. When I became a mother, the rest of me was fed.

With children, I found my way back to the playing part of acting. I found the fun and the challenge of exploring ideas through language, sound and movement.

But it wasn’t until I started writing my first novel that I fully understood how fundamental my acting training has been in helping me to find my voice as a writer. When I write, I can play more varied roles than I ever would have been able to as an actor. I use my actor tools –– my voice and body –– to make decisions about word choices, physical expressions and spatial relationships. I improvise scenes and listen carefully for the responses of my character scene partners. I pay attention to the moments when there is no dialogue, where I’m in role, still onstage, reacting, moving, breathing.

I am alive as an actor when I am writing.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Amanda West Lewis is the author of seven books for young readers, including September 17, which was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award and the Violet Downey IODE Award. Her new novel, These Are Not the Words, is available from Groundwood Books. She is a writer, theatre director, calligrapher, and drama teacher. She is the founder of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and she has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New York City, she now lives in Brooke Valley, Ontario, with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones.