Fantasy author Jon Skovron discusses how his theater background impacted his writing process and the experience of narrating his book Hope and Red.
I make a distinction between “writer” and “author”. To my mind, a writer is anyone who practices the art of writing. An author is someone who has turned being a writer into a career. I have been a writer in some form or another for as long as I can remember. I decided to become an author when I quit being an actor.
Well, sort of quit. But I’ll get to that.
I was a professional actor for less than a year. I did get my union card (a coveted thing for a new actor), and performed in two professional Equity theater shows during that time. But those experiences and a handful of TV pilot auditions was all it took for me to realize that while I loved the art of acting, I didn’t much care for the business of acting. There were a number of reasons, but foremost among them was the fact that I had to wait for someone else to hire me before I could perform my art. By contrast, as an author I can practice my art any time I like and all I really need is something to write on and something to write with, both of which can be obtained from any convenience store for the price of an espresso drink.
Before my brief time as a professional actor, I studied acting at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. It was an intense conservatory program that focused on acting to the exclusion of nearly everything else. In fact, though I often had classes and rehearsals from 8:30am-11pm daily, I was only able to take one non-theater class per semester.
The program also a cut system, and nearly all the classmates I considered my close friends had been cut from the program by the end of my sophomore year. I could write an entire piece on the stressful and often toxic atmosphere of such “merit-based” systems, but I’ll save that for another time.
Instead, I want to talk about one of instructors who made all the negative aspects of the program worthwhile for me. Someone who instilled such a ferocious love of performance in me that, despite having left the business for over a decade, when my publisher said they wanted to produce an audiobook for Hope and Red, I felt that old desire well up inside me, and I pleaded with them to let me audition.
That beloved instructor’s name was Victoria Santa-Cruz. Her class, which I was lucky enough to take for three full years, was called “Rhythm”, although that title belied the complexity of what it was actually about. Victoria was an Afro-Peruvian woman of indeterminate age famous in her native Peru as a poet, musician, and actress. Her goal was to use music and rhythm to teach a bunch of young actors how to be “in the moment”.
But before you start conjuring up visions of a yoga teacher gently extolling the virtues of mindfulness, I hasten to add that Victoria was less a cuddly New Age Guru and more a brutally strict Shaolin grandmaster. She was kind and generous in her way, but she was not at all “nice”. Rather, she was a harsh instructor who refused to accept anything less than our full commitment to the work. She regularly reduced her students (myself included) to tears. I am certain that if you ask Patrick Wilson, Zachary Quinto, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kim Director, Cote de Pablo, or anyone else who studied at CMU’s School of Drama during that era, they will agree that we all spoke of her in equal parts reverence and dread.
For my part, commitment was not the problem. I was obsessed with becoming a “great” actor. I approached this, as I do most things, with single-minded determination, sacrificing my health, happiness, and social life in my often ham-fisted attempts to achieve that goal. Of course, those of you who have some idea of what “being in the moment” actually entails will already know that this is not the way to go about it. You can’t force yourself into such a state through sheer will. If anything, trying so hard is often counterproductive. But I had trouble wrapping my mind around that idea.
During one of our private tutoring sessions (yes, I was that bad), Victoria tried to give me some much needed perspective by telling me a nugget of wisdom that I did not understand at the time, but which has since become a central tenant in my life:
“You think the art matters?” she asked. “It does not! The goal is not the art, kid! The goal is the human being!”
At the time, I was furious. Of course the art mattered. To my mind, it was all that mattered.
But as I have matured as an artist, I have come to believe that art is actually a means to an end. Its purpose is to reveal and illuminate humanity. Sometimes it reveals greatness, other times it reveals a profound ugliness. Yet art is not there to judge. It is there to empathize and inspire.
When I began to see art and creativity from this new perspective, I realized that the specific medium, be it acting, writing, music, painting, or anything else, is somewhat immaterial. Certainly each one requires its own mastery of craft, and each artist is more inclined toward one toolset over another. But the underlying act of creation is the same for all of them. The goal is the human being.
People sometimes ask me if I ever miss acting. I do miss the camaraderie of theater. That special sense of belonging that comes from being in a cast, with everyone focused on the same endeavor. But I don’t miss the performative art itself because I haven’t completely left it behind. Author events involve an element of performance, after all. And now and then, I get to do some proper acting when I record one of my audiobooks.
Now you can enjoy that curious fusion my author and actor identities for free, since Orbit has kindly agreed to release my audiobook of Hope and Red as a serialized podcast. Who doesn’t love a podcast?
I would be the first to admit that not all authors are well suited to performing their own work. But at the risk of sounded conceited, not all authors are also classically trained actors. And the best part is, when I perform my own audiobooks, I don’t have to do any of the preparation that another actor would find necessary. After all, I already know every character in the book better than anyone else. Some of them have been living in my head for years. To me, they are already real, each one a facet of humanity, removed from our world, yes, but perhaps not so different after all. And maybe Hope, Red, and the rest of the cast will offer you a chance to recognize some aspect of yourself in a new context.
After all, the goal is not the art. The goal is the human being.
In other words, the goal is you.
Hope and Red is an action-packed audio epic fantasy about an empire on the brink of war, a warrior on the path of revenge, a necromancer on the hunt for power, and a thief who’s really just trying to stay alive.