Listen to your actors

There’s a pervasive feeling among many directors and playwrights that actors are tools. The feeling is that actors are malleable, that they are there to do as they’re told, move as they are instructed, say the words as written, memorize the lines, perform as commanded. This is a mistake.

I was in rehearsal on Saturday morning for a short play I’ve written for NY Madness. The play is called “Wormy,” and it’s not about worms exactly, but more like feeling like worms. Anyway, there we were in rehearsal, and I’d written the thing, so custom dictates that I’m meant to be super attached to my words, that I’ve chosen every single word for some precise-even-if-only-known-to-me meaning. And maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s decisive. I’m not the ones saying the words. The words have to work on stage level, not just page level. Actors are on the stage, and they are responsible for what happens there. They know how it works.

Take for example this rehearsal we had on Saturday. So Anna says something like: “it feels weird to say this.” “Okay,” I say, “what do you want to say?” So she says something like “I don’t know, lemme try it out and see what happens.” She did. And what she came up with was better in terms of the page, and also led her to a a stronger place with the character. Double win. Actors know things, they are not tools. They create and recreate in every moment, and we need to let them use their abilities, in addition to the writing and the directing, to do that.

I went to a panel on women in acting a few years ago. Diane Wiest and Olympia Dukakis were there on the panel. Swoon. These are smart women, talented artists, and actors who have created timeless roles for which they will be remembered basically forever. For me, Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters and Rose in Moonstruck are eternal. I was just out of grad school, or in the process of finishing the degree, or maybe it was a year later and I was still mired in the muck of digging out of grad school. I was writing plays, and I thought, y’know, that my plays were set in stone; that the word trumped all else, that if an actor couldn’t make a connection between one line and the next, a connection easily made for me in my own internal language, that this was their problem, not mine. I thought actors should shut up and do the script.

Then Diane Wiest said “write for actors,” and kind of blew my mind. “Write for actors, what does that mean?” I thought. “Why shouldn’t I write for myself?” That’s what I’d been doing, and it had worked out okay so far. I’d been taught that a playwright is basically the antagonist of the director and the actors, that part of what it meant to be a playwright was to fight for your play, and that this was a fight that would happen in the rehearsal room.

It’s a simple concept. Write for actors. But what it means is trust your actors. Trust your actors to know the script, to know your intention, to create an intention of their own, to know how best to use their own instrument. Trust your actors to be smart, to have done the work, to apply their whole selves, to tell the true story. It took me a while to learn the lesson, and looking back at some collaborative, developmental projects I participated in before I learned it, well, let’s just say I would do them differently if I could go back. I would get to know the actors, use their voice, and their movements, to create character. I wouldn’t try to create out of whole cloth what stood before me, living and breathing, ready and alive.

It’s an amazing thing, in NY Madness where you cast the play before you’ve written the play. The initial theme meeting took place one week ago today, and today is the day of the performance. As soon as the meeting ended last week, I talked to my director, Michele Travis, about casting. We made a safe decision, to cast one woman and one man, Anna Van Valin and Jimmy Pravasilis. Then I wrote for them. I’ve worked with Jim lots, and had seen Anna’s work before, knew the sound of their voices, their intonations, movements, and wrote specifically for them. I don’t think that’s exactly what Wiest had in mind, but it’s a start, and I think it gave Anna and Jim a good place to begin: their voices fell perfectly into the words, and we were able to spend the rehearsal not learning how to talk, but digging into the script, talking about how we live our lives in public, and what it means to be loved.

My son C gets in the most trouble for not listening, and I try to teach him how important a thing that is. I wish it was easier for me to learn, too.

Want to check out NY Madness? It’s tonight at 8 pm in midtown! Here’s a link.

Jimmy, Michele, and Anna in rehearsal.
Jimmy, Michele, and Anna in rehearsal.
Jim and Anna hiding in rehearsal for Wormy.
Jim and Anna hiding in rehearsal for Wormy.

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