5 THINGS I LEARNED FROM THEATRE AND DRAMA // a guest post by my cousin

January 13, 2018

This week I have something cool for you guys!! My amazing cousin from Singapore is guest posting for me, and her choice of topic is quite different compared to my own! She's been into acting and drama since before I can remember, so we though maybe she could share some of her wisdom with you XD Now, I'm not sure how relatable this will be to most of you -- I know many of you don't act. But then I do know that there are those of you who do! And for those of you who don't, this will be rather interesting new information to store in your brain, and perhaps you can even put it to use in your writing! You never know.

So without more of my rambling, let's hear it from Gabs :D

Hi! Many thanks to Lisa for giving me the chance to guest post on her blog, and to share a small part of my thoughts. ^^

Now, a disclaimer: I am NOT a theatre expert. I am far from being a professional, and every passing year has only added to the sad truth that my acting isn't really great. But I was quite involved in it when I was small, and the last 3 years have seen me getting back into the student theatre scene, so it's become a significant enough part of my life that I feel I can make some comments on what it's like, and both Lisa and I agreed that it would be something interesting to talk about. So here we go ...


When I first started doing plays again, it took me some time before I realised how technical things could get. 

Let's say that you're staging a heated argument between family members A, B, C, D, and E, at the dinner table. Are there too many pauses in between the characters' lines, or will one or two awkward moments of silence be enough? How should the dialogue/conflict flow? If A yelled at B, only for C to yell at D and E, and then have E snapping at B, it would not only be somewhat unrealistic but also difficult for the audience to follow. Real family arguments are usually a little more focused, where you just pick on one other person about the same thing over and over and only OCCASIONALLY yell at someone else to shut up or something. 

So if you have A sniping at D about not coming home more often, and B and C yelling at each other about money, with E as the failing mediator, the conflicts are a lot more clearly shown and, if done well, it's already enough to give a sense of chaos. 

And this attention to detail extends to stuff that's not always clearly shown on in the script, too. Because theatre is a visual medium, and spectacle sometimes speaks louder than the actual dialogue. During blocking (where you decide how to position/move actors onstage), is there too much or too little space between or around the actors? Are the actors all wearing the same colour; is it too monochromatic? Or is that the "feel" that you're going for? Going back to the family argument example, it'd be kind of boring if you had A and D and B and C sitting in pairs, with E off to the side:

The arguments are too concentrated, and E is just kind of left sitting there with nothing to do. Contrast this arrangement:

See? Now because the arguments cross, people are literally yelling over one another, and E looks physically caught in the middle of the chaos.

(I recently learned that this same idea applies to film too, except instead of blocking and positioning, the directors need to look at choice of shots and angles, e.g. wide shots, with large empty spaces surrounding the character, to impart a sense of loneliness.)

You have an audience to play to, so you need to pay attention to every little thing that they see and hear where the focus of the action is and so on.


I'm serious. This phrase has pretty much fallen into cliche, but I think everyone often underestimates just how much of a play's success rests on cooperation. Once, I watched a student-run play about a murder mystery, and I don't think the tech people really knew what they were doing -- the microphones were spoilt, screens refused to come down, and it ruined an otherwise brilliant script and decent acting.

I think it's difficult to get rid of the idea that stage = stardom/showing off. In the worst-case scenarios people actively compete to the most impressive, but most of the time, one just tends to slip into the idea that if they're not the main characters, if they've been given a backstage or cameo role, they can afford to slack off. But the building blocks of a play are its scenes and their "feel". It takes the whole cast/crew to maintain the "feel" or a moment of every scene, so if even one person/mistake breaks the illusion, it's gone! Side note: if any of you happen to join a school theatre group, a culture of equality is always healthy ... e.g. have everyone help to build the set/get the costumes if they're free, even if they're in the cast, or use the scripts where there is no clear starring role, so everyone gets an approximately equal amount of stage time. Builds teamwork AND reduces competitiveness and/or nasty stage politics!


Yes, it is possible to make something look good while keeping things cheap. My school's theatre group was more of a school group full of noobs like me rather than one of those that actually tried to be like a professional theatre company, meaning we also didn't have a large fund to spare. But when I was part of the crew ans sourcing for costumes and materials, I learned that making something look good on a budget means you've got to explore and keep your eyes peeled. Thrift shops! Flea markets! Parts of the city you didn't even know existed until you had to! Or just be shameless and ask your friends and family if they can loan you things -- chances are someone will have something. Make things yourself, instead of mass-ordering or renting! In fact, it's during that time when you're making props, costumes and sets from scratch together that you'll really get to spend time and have fun with your friends.


So in college, we were staging a Singaporean play, and my friend landed the role of a wide-eyes, innocent young woman who would later struggle with her attachment to her slowly-decaying house, and her long-lost husband. During the cast's first meeting, my friend said that after reading the script, she was a little shocked by how much she saw her own mother in her character. Being part of that play, then, became a way for her to understand her mum's insecurities and empathise with her; in a way to overcome the misunderstandings and personality clashes that often marked their relationship.

Most people get that the whole point of acting is to step into the character's shoes, feel their struggles, get in touch with their psyche, etcetera, etcetera. You've got to watch even the little things, like the way you laugh or sigh or scream, and do it in character (which can be a real challenge for someone like me who still tends to slip back into self-consciousness!). But as important as it is for you to find the character within yourself, I've realised that finding yourself within the character is sometimes more powerful. Okay, not always yourself -- it can be anyone, like your friends or your family. And that's where interpretation comes in; when the actors make the role their own, or when the director makes the play his/her own. When you realise that you and the character are not so different, or when you see the people you love reflected in your character and you learn to embody that, you're not just entertaining the audience anymore. You're sharing a part of yourself too, and that brings you and the audience just that little bit closer.

We were staging A Midsummer  Night's Dream during my graduation year, and my drama teacher left us with the line: "The best in this kind are but shadows". (I didn't know this, but apparently "shadow" is the old term for an actor.) Why was the American public so moved when the Death of a Salesman was first staged? Why did my college friends cry so much when they watched my friend's play? I sometimes find theatre a little more raw and emotional than prose because it's more mirror-like, like our own lives are playing out before us (pun intended). It literally shadows us, and helps us understand ourselves, and the people around us, more intimately.


So, you've spent weeks and weeks learning the lines. The props and sets, lighting and acting, have finally come together. But no rehearsal is free from mistakes, and you just can't get that last line, or that last nuance of your character, down. And inevitably, you start to worry. Will what you've spent so much blood and sweat on actually work?
f it's any comfort, I've found that performance night itself (or day, actually ... but usually night) adds the last spark the whole play. It's something like what we call in Chinese 画龙点睛, literally "painting the eyes onto the dragon" -- the last stroke that brings a work of art to life. I'm still not too sure what it is, but suddenly, when you're performing for real and the lights are on and you know you have something really special to show your audience, suddenly something crazy happens and the play ends up being better than you ever expected it to be. It's almost like magic.

But like my teacher said, theatre is full of magic.

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Gabrielle Cheong is Lisa’s 20-year-old cousin. A fluffy, floppy dreamer, her life goals include visiting the Shire, expanding her brain as much as possible before the age of 26, and trying omakase. She is currently studying Liberal Arts at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, while trying to find ways to spend her time more wisely (aren’t we all).

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hope you all enjoyed! leave Gabs some comments below ^.^ I'll make sure she reads them, and probably she will even reply!

have you ever been part of a play?
can you relate to any of these tips?

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  1. Nice post.... ( Even though I only skimmed through it.) ;)

  2. I love theater! I wish I had more time to participate in shows, though. :/
    Great tips! Super helpful, thank you so much, Gabrielle. ^-^

    -Gray Marie | graymariewrites.blogspot.com

  3. I do theatre at school and seriously this post was really helpful!!

  4. Wow. This post was SO DIFFERENT from what I'm familiar with, but in the absolute best way possible! Reading about the theater even though I'm not into theater myself was INCREDIBLY INTERESTING.

    Thank you for the wonderful post, Gabs! :D

    Lila - The Red-Hooded Writer

  5. I've always wanted to participate in theater but have never been able to. I have written and directed several lil' plays tho, and I absolutely love the experience! So cool reading this post!

  6. This was such a great guest post! The theatre has always held a special place in my heart, and I was avidly involved in productions through middle school and high school. This post made me feel so much nostalgia! <3

  7. This. This is awesomeness!! Though now I feel the need to sketch out conversation scenes and see how the blocking and stuff might change things up a bit...

    Never been in a play, but I have friends who are filmmakers, and occasionally help them out, from getting sets and props, to doing extras and such.

    Thanks for guest posting, Gabrielle! (And for hosting this, Lisa!)

  8. I've only done one play before, but I had a fairly principal role (I played the Russian orphan who received an Operation Christmas Child box.) I was only 9 at the time. At this point I don't have much time for theater, but I wish I did. This was a super fun post to read! Thanks, Gabrielle (and Lisa!)

    Faith/Florid Sword--thefloridsword.blogspot.com