We’re having the first workshop rehearsal for my new play, The Viking Suicides. Two of the cast members have been through this process with me before, so they know what to expect. They know I want to hear everything they're thinking, and that I’ll hear all suggestions without comment and later decide what to do. They are comfortable with me and the process.
The other five actors are new to me. Of these five:
I had seen three of them on stage at least twice and have enough confidence in their stage abilities to want them (and their analytical brains) at the table.
One actor I had seen only once, but she definitely impressed me with her stage work. She also came enthusiastically recommended by two trusted professional friends.
The last had given a great audition.
None of these five had ever been at a table where the script was discussed with the playwright sitting right there.
So you actually want us to say--out loud--whatever we think about your baby? Really?
My answer is always the same: Yes, please
And I'll show you why in a minute.
Seven actors around a table. Some know each other, some don't. All thinking about four things: Making intelligent critical remarks about the script; Wondering if they'll be able to work productively with each other; Will their acting interpretation be good enough/will they give the director and playwright what they want; and Is the playwright a prima donna?
First thing is the intro. The director/dramaturg explains the process. Everyone nods. Then I explain that I am not a prima donna and open to hearing all thoughts, brilliant or otherwise. Everyone nods again. Then the bullshit is over and the script is read.
Note #1: The actor playing M approaches me early in the session and asks what I have in mind for her character. I turn the same question back onto her. I want to know (a) has she really read the script, and (b) what is her impression of her character? She has indeed read the script. She tells me that she has two different ideas about playing M but is not sure which one will fly. The director and I tell her to run with the one she likes best and we’ll see. When I first hear her tone and accent, I think “Omigod. I’m in Bob’s Burgers.” But with this completely unexpected choice, she finds the opps for the humor and pathos all through the script. Three minutes later she and the actor playing W are kicking and clicking, catching each other’s rhythm and finding ways to make it work. The signs are all there: accidentally stepping on each other’s lines to keep a rapid rhythm going, harsh snaps followed by meek retreats. They’re into it. They’re acting.
The actor playing S is a long-time professional actor whom I’ve seen in several productions. Out everyone at this table, she has the most acting experience by far and has a stellar rep. Our production Venn diagrams have never overlapped. It’s a little daunting having her here.
She picks an interpretation and continues to develop and play with it all through her scene. Pretty soon she arrives at her “First Identity” (my term for the first attempt at characterization that an actor presents in rehearsal, one that almost always requires adjustment and refinement). She and W and M play the scene almost effortlessly, getting into playing with and against each other.
One of the things I love most about early rehearsals is exactly what these three (and soon all of the actors) are doing: playing with actor-y things. I get to see and hear the result of the different thoughts and instincts they’re moving through. Which in turn tells me more about these characters I’d created in my head.
(Note #2: I created the characters two years previously and have been living with only my idea of who they are and how they sound and what they are like at toga parties ever since. I know these entities extremely well. Seeing other people manifesting them is a shock because they are no longer my mind’s eye incarnation but suddenly much different.)
I make a few notes about word changes (With this intonation this word would be better. With this attitude, this word is more appropriate).
After 90 minutes we finish the reading. The director starts the discussion with a couple of easy questions to get people talking. People answer, somewhat tentatively. More things are then said, and shyness starts to go away. More observations and discoveries follow, without any tentatives at all. Dynamics are explored. Purposes, needs, wants, decisions are suggested. What’s mostly left out of the discussion are the politics and themes; they are discussed, but only as secondary topics or as supporting evidence for the characters’ actions. One actor asked “Well isn’t the theme of this ‘power’?” Others replied accountability, feminism, racism. Then that was dropped and they went back to discussing various choices made by characters through the play.
It’s a great thing when the actors discuss the characters themselves, and their actions—not the play’s themes. That tells me I have a story about people. Themes are a director’s purview; that and things like mood, style, color, etc. (and they’re the purview of grad school theses and all that stuff).
During the post-reading conversation the actors soon all seemed to largely forget about me at the end of the table. This is what happens when the playwright actually shuts up. I am by nature a passive and reticent person, but even so, this is always hard.
But to not shut up would be counterproductive as hell. If Mommy starts responding to every comment made about Little Junior, the creative process gets shot right in the heart. But once you as the playwright actually listen, it becomes fascinating. You don’t have to take every suggestion, or even any of them. But you should consider them. They should inform your decisions about how and what to revise, if anything, to make your play as great as it can be. And remember: playwrights are under no obligation whatsoever to accept any critique.