Nick Drnaso on Escaping From Isolation

“In my work there’s a recurring theme of being out of step with the modern world.”

an illustration of author Nick Drnaso's silhouette
Nick Drnaso
Editor’s Note: Read Nick Drnaso’s new short story, “Acting Class.”

“Acting Class” is a new story by Nick Drnaso, adapted from his forthcoming book Acting Class (available August 16). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Drnaso and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your story “Acting Class” is set, 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 readily. What about an acting class, as a setting, interested you most?

Nick Drnaso: I’ve never attended an acting class, but there was something alluring 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. Maybe because my art practice has become so solitary and rigorous, using that environment for the basis of a story seemed appealing from the start. When the scope of the pandemic dawned on us all, and I was at work on “Acting Class,” there were moments when the story became a reprieve. There was a comforting feeling in returning to the classroom setting and its cast of characters. It allowed me to imagine a community and also to inhabit it.

Munday: On the second page of “Acting Class,” Thomas, a student, steps outside 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 this moment, the real world asserts itself to ask a question that resonates deeply with the craft of acting. What are actors hoping to find?

Drnaso: I can’t say what motivates an actor in a traditional class setting, but in this fictional story, I think the characters are generally looking for purpose and comfort. They’re looking for community, basically. From absorbing movies, television, and books (biographies mainly), I’ve tried to get a sense of what acting is like. It seems like such a delicate balloon that can pop at any moment. I always imagine how difficult it would be to stay in character while people are watching. I was able to engage with that idea in the safety of a fictional book. As far as the janitor’s question, to me there’s something innocent about the exchange. To think about it now, I might have been channeling some of the embarrassment of being an artist. I experienced something similar with an electrician that was working at my house while I was working on the book. He was observing me, and at one point asked, half-jokingly, “So this is what you do all day?”

Munday: Acting Class” is an excerpt from your book, Acting Class. 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, so there is an air of awkward tension. When the background begins to change and they are transported into another room, that is the visual cue that they are becoming immersed in their scene, which is something that develops as the book progresses. It probably sounds a little angsty, but in my work there’s a recurring theme of being out of step with the modern world. Feeling a certain discomfort. I’m always engaging with themes of isolation, and in this book there is also a strain of cynicism that emerges from the isolation.

Munday: Thomas and Danielle, in their improvised scene, are asked to play the roles of employee and boss respectively. Thomas finds himself fired by Danielle, and in a fit of improvisational pique, he flies off the handle and gets angry. Thomas is asked later whether he has been fired before, and whether he was tapping into the memory. Does the best acting always engage with catharsis?

Drnaso: It’s hard to tell what methods work for actors; it seems pretty mysterious and the rules are arbitrary and somehow different for everyone. This book also doesn’t have much to do with the world of being a professional actor, so I’m especially reluctant to talk about it as an art form. The teacher in the book seems to be making it up as he goes along and doesn’t have any proven credentials, so there’s an element of charlatanism to the whole thing. Everyone in the class, the teacher included, is on some level looking for comfort and belonging. Acting enables them to engage with themselves in a way that adds context to their own understanding of their identity. This sometimes involves catharsis, but sometimes the effects are subtle and far less dramatic.

Munday: Can you describe your process for us a bit?

Drnaso: Right now, I’m making notes and beginning to script a new book. It’s really just preparatory work. It’s slow and not going particularly well as I sit here today, but those days are also a 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. Reading and talking to people. When I sit down to write, I do so in a linear way. From there, I tend to jump back and forth between writing and drawing throughout the process. It helps me maintain momentum.

Munday: The teacher of the acting class questions Thomas’s improvisation. He accuses Thomas of steamrolling Danielle in the scene. In turn, Thomas is asked to try again, and is forced into a more subservient role, a role that’s closer to Thomas in his actual life. As a result, we’re left feeling unsatisfied for him. How difficult is it to tease drama out of situations that don’t seem dramatic, which you do so well in your work?

Drnaso: I was treading lightly and cautiously in those early scenes. I didn’t want the teacher to be some barking tyrant. I spent the most time trying to determine how the teacher should interact with his students. I wanted to establish him as a mild-mannered, low-level influence, nothing too overbearing. The way he manipulates Thomas as the story progresses builds from that scene, and so it was foundational to how their relationship develops.

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

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

Drnaso: There’s a minor moment, later in the book, when Danielle mentions that she counts her steps—not in an exercise sense but in an OCD sense. 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. In talking about it more directly afterward, and returning to older projects, I realized that I’d been doing 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.