Nick Drnaso on “Acting Lessons,” a short story

Acting Class is a new story by Nick Drnaso. On the occasion of the publication of the story in The Atlantic, Drnaso and Oliver Munday, the magazine’s design director, discussed the story via email. Your conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your story “Acting Class” is of course set in an acting class. It begins when a teacher asks two students to volunteer to improvise a scene. Improvisation is often used as a tool to enable people to express themselves more easily. What interested you most about acting classes as a setting?

Nick Drnaso: I’ve never taken an acting class, but there was something alluring about a place where you could express yourself seemingly without embarrassment or fear of judgment. In the most childish and idealistic terms, a space where you can just play with other people and create. Perhaps because my art practice has become so solitary and rigorous, it seemed tempting from the start to use this setting as the basis of a story. As the magnitude of the pandemic dawned on us all and I was working on “Acting Lessons,” there were moments when the story became a respite. It was comforting to go back to the classroom and its characters. It allowed me to envision and inhabit a community.

Monday: On the second page of Acting Class, Thomas, a student, steps out of the room to prepare for a new scene. In the hallway, Thomas encounters a janitor who asks him, “Can I help you find something?” In that moment, the real world asserts itself to ask a question that resonates deeply with the craft of acting. What do actors hope to find?

Drnaso: I can’t tell what motivates an actor in a traditional classroom setting, but I think the characters in this fictional story are generally looking for purpose and comfort. They are basically looking for community. Through taking up movies, TV and books (mainly biographies) I’ve tried to get a feel for what acting is like. It seems such a delicate balloon that could burst at any moment. I always imagine how difficult it would be to stay in character while people are watching. I was able to grapple with this idea in the safety of a fictional book. As for the janitor’s question, there’s something innocent about the exchange for me. Thinking about it now, I may have channeled some of the embarrassment of being an artist. I experienced something similar with an electrician working at my home while I was working on the book. He watched me and eventually asked, half-jokingly, “So that’s what you do all day?”

Monday: “Acting Class” is an excerpt from your book, Acting Lessons. Can you talk about how this story fits into the book and your work more broadly?

Drnaso: This is the first moment of contact between people in the class in front of the group, therefore an uncomfortable tension arises. When the background begins to change and they are transported to another room, that is the visual cue that they are immersed in their scene, which unfolds throughout the book. It probably sounds a little scary, but there’s a recurring theme in my work that I’m not keeping up with the modern world. feeling of some uneasiness. I’m always dealing with issues of isolation, and there’s also a touch of cynicism in this book that comes from isolation.

Monday: In their impromptu scene, Thomas and Danielle are asked to play the roles of clerk and boss, respectively. Thomas is fired by Danielle, and in a fit of improvisational pique, he flies out of control and becomes angry. Thomas is later asked if he has ever been fired and if he tapped into the memory. Does the best acting always deal with catharsis?

Drnaso: It’s hard to say which methods work for actors; it seems quite mysterious and the rules are arbitrary and somehow different for everyone. This book also doesn’t have much to do with the world of a professional actor, so I’m particularly hesitant to talk about it as an art form. The teacher in the book seems to have made it up over time and has no verified credentials, so there’s an element of charlatanry to the whole thing. Everyone in the class, including the teacher, is looking for comfort and belonging at some level. Acting allows them to engage with themselves in ways that add context to their own understanding of their identity. This sometimes involves catharsis, but other times the effects are subtle and far less dramatic.

Monday: Can you describe your process to us a little?

Drnaso: Right now I’m making notes and starting to write a new book. It’s actually just preliminary work. It’s slow and not going well as I sit here today, but these days are also part of the process. I started brainstorming ideas for this next book before I was done Acting Lessons, actually. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. reading and talking to people. When I sit down to write, I do it linearly. From there I tend to jump back and forth between writing and drawing throughout the process. It helps me keep the momentum going.

Monday: The drama class teacher questions Thomas’s improvisation. He accuses Thomas of rolling over Danielle in the scene. In return, Thomas is asked to try again and is forced into a more submissive role, a role that is closer to Thomas in his actual life. As a result, we feel unsatisfied for him. How difficult is it to dramatize situations that don’t seem dramatic, which is what you do so well in your work?

Drnaso: I went easy and cautious in those early scenes. I didn’t want the teacher to be some barking bully. I spent most of my time trying to figure out how the teacher should treat his students. I wanted to establish him as a gentle, low-level influence, not overly intrusive. The way he manipulates Thomas throughout the story builds on that scene and was therefore fundamental to the development of their relationship.

When I’m in the process of writing something, I’m really just trying to entertain myself. There are often many nagging, negative voices that help filter out the bad ideas. So I think there are some analogies between my creative process and what the class is going through.

Monday: What did you discover while working on your own craft – writing and drawing? Acting Lessons?

Drnaso: There’s a small moment later in the book where Danielle mentions that she counts her steps – not in the sense of an exercise, but in the sense of an OCD. In a moment of vulnerability, she seems to reveal a deep truth about herself. In hindsight, I realize that I also expressed something about my own OCD tendencies. After that, when I spoke about it more directly and went back to older projects, I realized I had done it in other places. Comics are a way of revealing certain repressed emotions and experiences. The act of writing has become a safe place to engage with these ideas. And to express them.

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