10 Things Playwrights Wish Their Actors Understood
A Love Letter
Actors are the reason playwrights do what we do. You bring our words to life. You challenge us and lift us up, you give us a reason to keep going. In this article, I share one playwright’s perspective on some of the triumphs and sticking points of this singular relationship. With all the love in my heart, here are 10 THINGS PLAYWRIGHTS WISH THEIR ACTORS UNDERSTOOD (A Love Letter).
We would move heaven and earth to get you happy with a scene.
While you’re off bonding with your fellow actors, we are not invited to the treehouse. Maybe invite us to the treehouse. We can bring "snacks."
We may not say it, but we appreciate when you notice holes in our logic, our timelines, and our arguments. Tell us these things as early as you notice them. It may be painful for you to tell us, and it may be painful for us to hear it, but it will save EVERYONE a lot of time and heartache in the long run if you do.
That stage direction you just “crossed out” is likely the secret to why you feel so “stuck” in this scene. At some point in your life someone will make a comment about how they "always delete the stage directions." Do this AT YOUR PERIL. It is CRITICAL that you "listen" to what your playwright is trying to tell you between your lines of dialogue. Case/point: In my play MAYTAG VIRGIN, Jack and Lizzy are on their first "porch date" when Lizzy--as marked explicitly in the stage directions--begins folding (without permission or consent), Jack's laundry. I have seen productions interpret this bit of stage direction as "just a suggestion" and give the business instead to Jack. This choice completely confuses the scene. The audience is left wondering, "Why on earth would Jack be folding his laundry in the middle of their date?!" There's a REASON why Lizzy is the one to fold Jack's laundry. It relates to her nature as a protector and a do-er. It suggests a greater familiarity between them, which is a critical step in their relationship. In this way, Jack gets to observe her in an all-new way, and she gets to quiet her nerves by doing "busy work."
When you paraphrase a line, understand that we understand it’s because you’re trying to make the line work. Congratulations, you fixed the line but now the scene is fucked.
When you “fix” the writing, neither the audience nor theater critic has a way of knowing that your choice was not what the author intended. Respectfully, we don’t like getting blamed for an actor's arrogance.
If you’re confused about a line or a scene, just email the playwright. She’ll probably answer. 😉
When we’re 3 days from opening and you’re still badly paraphrasing and fumbling for lines, we sit there and wonder why you don’t care or how it’s come to this. At this point, outside of making a list of all the line errors and entrusting them to the stage manager to pass along, our hands are tied. We are not allowed to give you line notes directly. And the SM is often overloaded with so many higher priority items, she may not always have the time or the inclination to hand out detailed line notes. This puts us writers in an impossible bind. It is one of the worst feelings in the entire world for us. We hate it just about as much as anything.
In a typical rehearsal cycle, the playwright is usually asked to join you in the room during the first table read + a day or two of staging and then asked to go away and come back again just before tech and/or previews. Otherwise, we are nowhere around when you’re actually getting the play on its feet. Let’s think about what this means. At the first table read, you don’t yet know all the right questions to ask because you haven’t yet been faced with all of the challenges of staging. At tech, it’s too late to make big changes and let's face it, everything is on fire. But what if you could have the playwright in the room with you, instead, during the staging process, even if just for a day or two? Well, you can! I do it all the time. Just ask your director to allow us to come during that more relaxed staging period when there’s time to chat and play. Have your questions ready.
In case we don't tell you often enough, YOU are the reason we're here. You give us fuel for the sleepless nights ahead. You give us life and a reason to keep writing. You inspire us and you open our eyes to what is possible. Thank you.
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Audrey Cefaly's plays (Alabaster, Maytag Virgin, The Gulf, The Last Wide Open, Trouble) have garnered the Lammy Award, the Calicchio Prize, the Edgerton, and a Pulitzer nomination. Her works have been produced at Signature Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Barter Theatre, Merrimack Rep, Florida Studio, Florida Rep, Gulfshore Playhouse, and countless others. Cefaly is a Dramatist Guild Foundation "Traveling Master," an Arena Stage playwright cohort, and a recipient of the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers Conference. She is published by Concord Theatricals.
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