Nick Drnaso on ‘Acting Class’, a short story

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

Olivier Munday: Your story “Acting Class” takes place, naturally, in an acting class. It opens with a teacher asking two students to volunteer to improvise a scene. Improvisation is often used as a tool to allow people to express themselves more easily. What about an acting class, as a set, which interested you the most?

Nick Drnaso: I never took acting classes, but there was something appealing about a place where you could ostensibly express yourself without embarrassment or fear of judgment. In the most childish and idealistic terms, a space where you could just play and create with other people. Perhaps because my artistic practice has become so solitary and rigorous, using this environment as the basis of a story struck me as appealing from the start. When the scale of the pandemic dawned on all of us and I was hard at work on “Acting Class,” there were times when the story felt like a reprieve. There was a heartwarming feeling returning to the classroom and its cast of characters. This allowed me to imagine a community and also to inhabit it.

Monday : On the second page of “Acting Class”, Thomas, a student, walks out of the room to prepare for a new scene. In the hallway, Thomas meets a concierge who asks him: “Can I help you find something?” Right now, the real world is coming out to ask a question that resonates deeply with acting. What are the actors hoping to find?

Drnaso: I can’t say what drives an actor in a traditional class setting, but in this fictional story, I think the characters are generally looking for purpose and comfort. They are looking for a community, basically. By absorbing movies, TV, and books (mostly biographies), I tried to get a sense of what acting is all about. It looks like such a delicate balloon that can burst at any time. I always imagine how hard it would be to stay in character while people are watching. I was able to engage with this idea in the safety of a fictional book. As for the concierge question, to me there is something innocent about the exchange. To think about it now, maybe I’ve channeled some of the embarrassment of being an artist. I experienced something similar with an electrician who worked at my house while I was working on the book. He was watching me, and at one point, half-jokingly, “So that’s what you do all day?”

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

Drnaso: This is the first moment of contact between people in the class in front of the group, so there is an air of awkward tension. When the background starts to change and they’re transported to another room, it’s a visual sign that they’re immersing themselves in their scene, which develops as the book progresses. It probably sounds a little scary, but in my work there’s a recurring theme of being out of step with the modern world. Feel some discomfort. I’m always interested in themes of isolation, and in this book there’s also a strain of cynicism that emerges from isolation.

Monday : Thomas and Danielle, in their improvised scene, are invited to play the roles of employee and boss respectively. Thomas finds himself fired by Danielle, and in a fit of improvisational spite, he flies off and gets angry. Thomas is later asked if he was ever fired and if he tapped into memory. Does the best acting always engage in catharsis?

Drnaso: It’s hard to say which methods work for actors; it seems quite mysterious and the rules are arbitrary and different for everyone. This book also doesn’t have much to do with the world of being a professional actor, so I’m particularly reluctant to talk about it as an art form. The teacher in the book seems to be making it up as he goes and has no proven references, so there’s an element of quackery in all of this. Everyone in the classroom, including the teacher, is at some level seeking comfort and belonging. Acting allows them to engage with themselves in a way that adds context to their own understanding of their identity. Sometimes it involves catharsis, but sometimes the effects are subtle and much less dramatic.

Monday : Can you tell us a bit about your process?

Drnaso: Right now, I’m taking notes and starting to write a new book. This is really just preparatory work. It’s slow and it’s not going particularly well as I’m here today, but these days are also part of the process. I started generating ideas for this next book before finishing Acting Class, Actually. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of research. Read and talk to people. When I sit down to write, I do so in a linear fashion. From there, I tend to go back and forth between writing and drawing throughout the process. It helps me maintain momentum.

Monday : The theater class teacher questions Thomas’s improvisation. He accuses Thomas of dragging Danielle into the scene. In turn, Thomas is asked to try again and is forced into a more menial role, one closer to Thomas in his real life. As a result, we feel dissatisfied for him. How difficult is it to disentangle drama from situations that don’t seem dramatic, which is what you do so well in your job?

Drnaso: I walked lightly and carefully in those early scenes. I didn’t want the teacher to be a barking bully. I spent the most time trying to figure out how the teacher should interact with their students. I wanted to establish him as a low-level, mild-mannered influence, nothing too bossy. The way he manipulates Thomas as the story progresses builds from this scene, and so it was fundamental to how their relationship develops.

When I’m writing something, I just try to entertain myself. There are often a lot of negative and nagging voices that help filter out bad ideas. So I guess there are analogies to be found between my creative process and what the class experiences.

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

Drnaso: There is a minor moment, later in the book, when Danielle mentions that she counts her steps, not in the sense of exercise but in the sense of OCD. In a moment of vulnerability, she seems to reveal a deep truth about herself. I realize, in hindsight, that I was also expressing something about my own OCD tendencies. Talking about it more directly afterwards, and coming back to older projects, I realized that I had done it elsewhere. Comics are a way to reveal some repressed emotions and experiences. The act of writing became a safe place to engage with these ideas. And express them.

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