Act It Out

If you’re feeling rusty as a storyteller and sense the need for a little guidance and direction, I’d like to suggest you audition for a role in a local community-theater production. In the arena of storytelling, I am finding that the experience and training resident in stage work is directly transferable to our tellings.

I was recently cast in the supporting role of Col. Kenneth Penmark in a local production of the stage/movie thriller “Bad Seed.” It was not the role I auditioned for but I accepted it because I believed that whatever I was to learn from the director, I could apply to storytelling. I was not disappointed in the experiment.

I recall one evening’s rehearsal when the director was trying to draw from one of the other supporting cast members a character other than what he was presenting. He was playing an author/criminologist named Tasker. At one scene during the rehearsal, the director called out, “OK, stop for a minute.” She walked up to Tasker and said, “Let’s spend a minute and try to find this guy’s voice. I don’t think Tasker grew up in a well-to-do home, went to Harvard, received a degree in criminology, and then went on to write 75 novels. I see him as one who came up from the streets. Middle class working home. He probably got a job with the local newspaper as a copy-boy and worked his way up. Someone probably just saw that he had a talent for writing and gave him an opportunity to do a story. From then on, he was hooked. He didn’t learn criminology from college; he learned it from the streets. Play him that way.”

Tasker found his voice.

This episode reminded me that to find the voice, I must consider the character in toto. Voice distinction is not limited to age, gender, and locale. Rather, it is found in the total make-up of the character. Was the person from a wealthy, middle-class, or poor family? Is this person without education, some education, or is he/she a graduate of higher education? The director of the play also reminded the cast that because the character lives in the south, does not necessarily mean they would have a southern accent. Perhaps they’re a transplant from another part of the country. Did the person learn his trade from books or experience? Does this person approach life with a cup half full or half empty? Answers to these and similar questions will help us “flesh out” our characters.

I recently saw a video in which Dean Jones, the actor, aptly demonstrated this concept. The video is called “Saint John in Exile.” Dean Jones as the Apostle John in exile on the island of Patmos recounts to the audience his life and the Gospel story. When he speaks in the voice of other characters in his story, the transition is flawless, quick, and unmistakable. His body language also changes with the voice. When he recounts Thomas’ words, “Unless I put my hand in His side and see the nail-prints in His hands, I will not believe,” he speaks in the manner of a wealthy, upper-crust graduate of Yale or Harvard. The voice and mannerism are reminiscent of the Thurston Howell character from the old Gilligan’s Island television series.

Certainly to the western ear, Thomas didn’t sound like Thurston Howell. The point Jones was making through his performance was the universal fact of dialectical differences among people of the same language. In this case, Jones simply imagined then translated these differences germane to first century Palestine to his 20th-century American audience. It added humor to his presentation and “flesh” to St. Thomas. Hmm, what if Peter was from the Bronx, or Chicago?

If your storytelling seems a little stagnant, try a stint on the stage. Observe. Listen. Learn. Act it out. Afterward, apply what you learned to your tellings. Your audience may thank you for it.

Jim Carroll is from Nebraska. This article first appeared on in 2003.