I recently stumbled into the opportunity to act in a local production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. There’s a lot I could say about the experience, particularly the joy that comes from getting together with other creative people and making something, but I want to hone in on what I learned, as a writer, from this experience acting.
Writer, Your Words Will Be Taken As Gospel
Actors will struggle to make sure to do your words justice if particular lines speak to them. They will wrestle with inflection, motivation, and the precise order of words.
And, in conversation with each other, they will praise the writing. They will adore it and speak lovingly of it, even as it gives them such grief to master it.
Actors will dig for answers. If you haven’t spelled out a detail to the character’s life that they think is essential to the performance, they will look for clues in what you’ve provided on the page and extrapolate. Reward their curiosity by suggesting a rich, inner life for each and every character and they’ll repay you many times over.
Writer, Your Words Will Be Ignored
I had a role where there were many stage directions to sigh. I ignored them all. Where the scene direction didn’t fit the stage or the performers or the moment, it was ignored.
One particular moment that stood out to me: The direction accompanying my line said that I should look to the heavens in despair. I looked down instead. There was no deep motivation behind my action. It was just more comfortable and natural to my sense of the character.
Those lines that the actor feels are sacred? That’s part of the character. They have to live and breathe as this person for the performance, so everything they do needs to make sense while in character. Anything they trip over either needs to be interrogated until it makes sense, or it’s thrown out. If it’s a moment that’s inessential to the story, it’s more likely to be thrown out.
Writer, Your Words Will Become Inside Jokes
The number of people who take part in any production, be it for stage or screen, are going to hear and see the same things multiple times. And there will be moments when they’re not actively working. These people have one definite thing in common: The production they’re working on at the moment.
Lines from the production will creep into everyday vocabulary. Words you intended for a specific purpose for your characters will come out of the mouths of any number of people, turned into a micro-meme. And this will lead the people working on the show to interact and find what else they have in common. Your words are a catalyst for events outside of the dramatic scenario.
Writer, Your Characters Are Waiting For You
In the best of circumstances (and it felt this production was particularly fortunate in this circumstance), there are clear connections between actor and character. There are aspects of themselves they can bring into the fiction, and places where there’s a bleed between the story and reality.
And in the best of circumstances, the actors will feel grateful to the writer for giving them the opportunity to explore and share that portion of themselves through the conduit of the story.
If your story isn’t finished; if you haven’t gotten it out into the world, know that there are people impatiently waiting for someone to tell their story. Don’t leave them hanging.