I started acting a little later than most of my fellow thespians. I’d always been a creative person: writing, drawing and playing music, but acting was something I feared. “Who am I to act?” “Who would possibly be entertained by my performance?” So, out of fear, I never tried acting. That was, until my 30s. My career in the toy industry had stalled and I was feeling less connected to myself. I was getting sick a lot, and I was having trouble finding direction or inspiration. In other words, I was depressed. I needed to challenge myself more than I ever had, and that challenge was acting. I didn’t know where to start but I kept hearing people talk about improv. So, after many false-starts, I finally hit the “enroll” button and was taking my first improv class. I was immediately captivated, and excited by a possible new turn in my life. And with some improv success, came my desire to act more. But without the funds or time to enroll in a full time acting program, I started attending shorter-term classes and workshops. Everything from how to audition for horror movies, to a sitcom acting class with the great Richard Kline.
Finding success as an actor is not easy. Yes, New York City offers many acting opportunties, but with that comes countless actors vying for those roles. I landed a few great gigs, but spent the majority of my auditions feeling rejected and doubting my future as an actor. But, I hadn’t come that far to walk away at that point. So, rather than wait around for opportunity to knock, I built my own door. I started writing and filming my own material. Now, I was writing and acting, and starting to direct and produce. I collaborated with friends and others I had met in the improv scene and other classes. Short films, TV pilots, and even a horror web series. Everything I did helped me with everything else I was doing. The more I did one thing, the better I got at everything else.
Acting has helped me in many ways. It’s helped me get in touch with my emotions; it’s helped me realize that my accent performance is crude at best; and acting has helped me become a better writer. Here’s how:
1) Acting Helped Me Empathize with My Characters
Part of the acting process is putting yourself into your character’s shoes, and understanding what makes her/him tick. I use the same tools to connect with characters when writing. To create a character’s actions and lines, I place myself in that character’s mindset. I don’t believe I could easily slide in and out of a character’s head without the skills I developed from acting.
2) Write What You Know
When I started acting I worked a lot of background for television, film and commercials. It was a great way to experience a professional set, earn some money, and get fed. Otherwise, I didn’t care much for it but I did use a lot of my background experiences to develop characters and events in my screenplay “Zombie Extra.” The story’s protagonist is an actor that becomes a zombie, and the only acting job he can get is working background on a horror film. My time as a background actor inspired many things in the screenplay: from the psychotic director, to the crew and SAG actors finishing all the best desserts before non-union background could get to them.
3) Improv to Sketch to Screenplay
Most improvised scenes entertain the audience in attendance, but it rarely lives beyond that stage and that night. But sometimes improvising scenes can spark a bigger story. A few years back, some performers and I improvised a scene where a couple lose their daughter. One parent starts behaving childish and playing with toys, in order to replace that child. There was something about that scene that stuck with me and I soon turned that nugget into a sketch, and then into a screenplay. That screenplay became “It’s Time for Tea.” I was very happy with this screenplay, so happy in fact that I decided to dig into my savings to self-fund, direct and produce the film. The short film “It’s Time for Tea” is slated for a 2018 release. You might wonder if directing has also influenced my writing. The answer is yes, but that will have to wait for another time.
I understand that not every writer has interest in acting, but I do believe it can help. So why not? Take an improv class. Even if you don’t become a better writer, I promise you that you’ll have a whole lot of fun!
About Matthew J. Kaplan
Matthew J. Kaplan is a Brooklyn-based writer, actor and filmmaker. He is the co-creator of the horror web series Disturbances, and his short film It’s Time for Tea will be released in 2018.
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