“Suit the Word to the Action, the Action to the Word”: Keith Strunk Talks Acting and Writing
Recently, my university introduced a new MFA Creative Writing Program, and since its advent, we’ve been privileged to have some really awesome writers come and visit. This past Friday, though, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, the castle was host to someone a little different: Keith Strunk, an actor, writer, and producer who had come to Arcadia to discuss using the tools of acting in the field of writing.
The posters thumbtacks around campus bore the Hamlet quote, “Suit the word to action, the action to the word,” an excerpt taken from Hamlet’s speech to the players he’s hired to perform the “fictional” play about a malicious man who kills his brother, the king. Strunk, however, used this phrase to begin a discussion about something else: How can a writer use an actor’s approach to words to influence their work, or make it better?
Strunk started out as an English major at Ursinus College, and only after he graduated did he find his way to the world of performing. These days, the award-winning scriptwriter runs River Union Stage, is a member of the Philadelphia Liar’s Club, and is currently ghostwriting a non-fiction book. Most of his fictional work, he shared, begins with a line or two of dialogue, from which springs a bigger idea.
Due to my chronic earliness, I got to talk to Strunk for a bit before the event began. In person, Strunk is energetic and inquisitive, and his open, friendly manner make you instantly comfortable around him. After calling accidentally attention to myself as a “theatre person,” Strunk asked me if I was there for just the acting aspect of the talk, or the writing part as well. I told him both, and he even asked me about my thesis and how it was coming about. When he found out that I had been trained in the Meisner technique, he asked me to help him with an exercise during the event.
To begin his talk, Strunk defined Method acting. “How many of you roll your eyes when you hear the phrase, ‘Method actor’?” Most people, including myself, raised their hands. Strunk went on to explain that the approach to performance first only included the teachings of Lee Strasberg, but now a Method actor is anyone who has any affiliation with Stanislavski’s teaching.
“But what does that have to do with writing?” he asked the group at large. “Who cares?”
He went on to quote famous acting teacher Sanford Meisner, who defined acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” In the later stages of Meisner training, an actor learns that in order to make a scene live, they need to know who they’re talking to, how they feel about that person, what their own point of view is, and what action they’re playing- even if they’re onstage alone. One part of Meisner’s exercise is to have one actor in the room and another actor knock on the door. When Actor #1 opens to door to Actor #2, the latter must have a reason for being at that door. “Think about it,” Strunk pronounced. “No one goes to any door without an intention. Even if they claim they don’t have an intention, there’s an intention behind that statement.”
This is the same for writing. Strunk pointed out that all intentions stem from being specific- what does my character want? Why does he want it? What will happen if she doesn’t get it?- and looking at the specificity of an action makes a scene work, on the stage or on the page. Every scene must have a conflict, something to raise the stakes, and each character must have a point of view about that conflict. If none of these exist, the scene probably does not help the story move forward. “Characters,” Strunk told the group. “Need to need something.”
About halfway through the talk, Strunk called me up to demonstrate the Meisner technique of repetition. He explained to the crowd that the point of the exercise was to remain neutral in your delivery until you had the impulse to change something. This was a speeded-up version of the exercise; in my experience, it can takes weeks to be allowed to go beyond being neutral. He and I stood facing one another in front of the crowd and Strunk’s eyes landed on my polka-dotted rain boots. “Those are funny boots,” he commented. “Those are funny boots,” I repeated. “Those are funny boots.” “Those are funny boots.” Back and forth, we parroted the phrase, eventually allowing inflections from anger to joy to disbelief to understanding, to enter our phrases.
“But,” observed an audience member, “It seems as though you’re manipulating the meaning.”
“Exactly!” Strunk exclaimed. “And it seemed false, didn’t it?” The observer nodded. “The point of a Meisner exercise is not to manipulate the words when you feel they need a change, but to allow the words to be spoken differently because you feel an impulse to change them. It’s not premeditated.”
Strunk later used a similar example when a student in the audience asked how actors manage to keep their lines fresh every performance. Strunk explained that while improvisation of lines is frowned upon in performance, one must think of the recitation of lines as an improv with predetermined words. “You use techniques to build a framework, like walls of a log flume. You’re the car, and you set yourself on the top of the hill and let yourself go. Those walls, that framework, keeps you on track, but you still have room to play.”
The great thing about actors, Strunk pointed out, it their ability to be open and the fact that they never lose touch with their inner child. Writers could benefit from the same lesson, being open to play with their scenes and dialogue. “It’s that old writing adage: you can’t have a favorite character, scene, or line. You have to be willing to play around with it and throw things out if necessary.”
Strunk also remarked that even writing non-fiction can be fun. “It’s still about connecting with the audience, to the idea of things.” He mentioned an instance when he met with the subject of his ghostwritten book. The client works in what one might consider a dry field, one full of charts, graphs, and numbers, “but what I wanted his honesty and ability not to judge people to come through [in the writing.] I wanted to connect through the humanity.” Strunk pointed out that non-fiction is just as viable a form of writing as novelization, and just as difficult, if not more, because the writing has to be clear and connected for someone who is trying to learn about the book’s subject.
The most important thing I took away from Keith Strunk’s talk was that a solid foundation and willingness to play within that foundation can be the key to a successful career, both in acting and writing, as well as beyond. If you’re willing to trust your words to do some of the work for you, then you’re well on your way.