Who’s Right? The Director or the Actor?

Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash

Recently I’ve realized that I have, on different occasions, written contradictory statements:

The first was that the director has the last word.

The second was that the actor has the final say.

Even I can see that’s a problem! So what gives?

Sometimes the director and an actor are in conflict about the meaning of the play, the character — whatever. I’m talking major disagreement here, not the little stuff. The question is:  how does this get resolved?

The optimistic answer is, through honest and open discussion, wherein a happy medium is found or where one person convinces the other of the “rightness” of their argument. But truthfully, optimism does not always carry the day. People can be very good at digging in their heels, and I can tell you from experience that two directors can view the same play through radically different lenses.

I once worked with an actor who really knew how to chew the scenery. He was a smart, thoughtful guy, and very good as an actor when he stopped trying so hard, but he was inclined to think that he wasn’t interesting unless he went very broad (always in an unbelievable way). I directed him in a very funny “letter” play, and I really worked to get him to pull back to a “normal” over-the-top place. He grudgingly went along with me and delivered a wonderful performance, only to go slightly off the rails on closing night, when a rollicking audience laughed so much that he couldn’t stop himself from giving them more of what he thought they wanted. (Although I had “tamed” him enough at that point that even his “over-the-top” wasn’t quite so out of control as it usually was.)

Then I acted in a very challenging play with him, one which he interpreted his role in an entirely different way than the director (and I, in all honesty) thought the playwright intended; indeed, he’d found psychological subtext that was dark and humorless (and this was a comedy). He pontificated for quite a while on the elaborate meaning he’d arrived at while Charlie (the director) and I listened in disbelief (I can’t speak for the rest of the cast). Ultimately, Charlie refused to back down and the actor agreed to play it his way since he was the director. He never fully gave himself over to Charlie’s interpretation and the play suffered for it, but he respected that it was Charlie’s call to make and at least got himself in the ballpark of where he was supposed to be.

I would argue that this this is what you need to do. If you disagree with the director, it’s unfortunate, but ultimately, the director is the one who is holding the rudder and determining where the ship is headed, and you, as the actor, need to go on the director’s journey and not your own. The reason for this is that there are other actors in the play, and if THEY are going along with the director’s vision and you aren’t — well, that’s a disconnect, isn’t it? You matching the rest of the cast in terms of where they are going is less disturbing to the audience than you being “right” and everyone else being “wrong”. It’s the old story of the mother who told the colonel after a military parade, “My Johnny was the only one in step!”

But here’s what I’m going to suggest before you get to that point:

Consider the possibility that you might be wrong.

I know, that’s a painful thought. But stay with me. . .

First, operate on the assumption that the director has done his homework and might have a point. Put aside your own notions for the moment and consider the director’s points. Are they logical and justifiable? (Because people are such interesting creatures, it is possible that there are two ways to explain behavior, and you and the director might have separately latched on to these two possibilities for your character.)

Incidentally, that honest conversation with the director should be had as soon as the disagreement is apparent, and hopefully this is early in the rehearsal process. Don’t consider the director’s points on your own.  Dialogue between the two of you is really critical.

If you can answer “yes” to this question, then you might consider adjusting your own interpretation. But let’s say that despite seeing the director’s point of view, you can’t seem to modify your interpretation. Yes, the director’s choices are logical and justifiable, but they are still WRONG!

Now check out the other actors’ choices; are they in line with the director’s vision or your own? If you are the odd man out, then you should probably consider changing your own interpretation. “Right” is not the only consideration here; a coherent and consistent production is also important, and probably trumps your own needs.

I once directed a play in which one of the leads and I saw her character VERY differently. I loved her audition, which was SO on the mark, but in the first two weeks of rehearsals, she talked about the character in ways that were diametrically opposed to both what I thought about the character and what I saw her do in auditions. We had some conversations about this difference, and I thought we’d resolved them, only to have her, two weeks before opening, start making choices I found inexplicable and which had a very negative impact on the production as a whole. It was a very funny comedy, and her choices took much of the humor away. Nothing I did or said seemed to make a difference in her interpretation.

I got lucky in that production, because the actress had some actor friends who helped her work on the character in a way that I couldn’t, and she came to an interpretation that was very much in line with what I’d hoped for, but to which I had not contributed at all. I took from this that I failed as a director; actors are all so different that we spend a lot of time figuring out just how Actor A needs to be treated to get the best performance from him, and so on down the line for as many actors as you’ve cast. Usually we’re right about how they need to be handled, but not always.

But since I couldn’t seem to communicate effectively with this actress, that’s my bad. Still, I think that had the actress (who while blessed with a lot of natural talent, had only been acting for a couple of years and had things yet to learn) would have been better off (as would the entire show) had she been willing to engage in an open-ended dialogue that didn’t assume a “right” answer at the beginning.

Or was I the one who was unwilling? In this case, I don’t think so, but sometimes I am. Sometimes actors have a completely different take on something that absolutely works, a take I didn’t even see before they mention it. Sometimes we don’t come to agreement on small moments and I concede the point, because (after all), they are the ones in front of the audience! But I don’t think I’ve ever watched a performance and thought (aside from the over-actor mentioned above), “Gee, I wish they’d done it my way, it would have been so much better!” Their choices have ended up being just fine.


Playing the Emotions

I just realized that when I talked about playing the verbs, I contrasted them with adjectives, as in, “my character is bossy”, as opposed to “I am bossing people around [tactic] because I need everything about the party to be perfect because it’s the first party my new in-laws are coming to, and I want to make a good impression, because I don’t think they like me.”

The verb in this instance would be, “To impress”.

But there is another, perhaps more common, route that actors go instead of using verbs (and I am stunned to realize I only vaguely referenced it in those posts.  Ah, I guess I’m human.  Or else my students at the time were really locked into adjectives.)

Once they move beyond the stereotypes of bossy, etc., actors tend to focus on their character’s feelings.  So, in this party example, my character might be frustrated, or angry, or anxious, or any number of other feelings.  Let’s say that this is a large lawn party, and I have a dance floor and want good music, and my cousin has told me he can be my DJ, and he’ll handle all matters about the sound system, etc.  An hour before the party, however, it’s clear that he is just a wannabe, he’s completely clueless and nothing is working, and I am upset.  Or angry.  Or frustrated.  Or anxious.  Or any number of other emotions appropriate to this circumstance.

And a lot of actors will focus on playing upset, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.

Why doesn’t this work?  First, it’s just as generic as playing “bossy”.  Second, it’s arbitrary (my character is probably upset, angry, frustrated, AND anxious all at the same time, but if I choose one emotion, I’m only playing one and bypassing the others.)  And third (which relates to the first reason, but is really a separate item), it’s approaching the problem from the wrong end of the stick.

If I play “I want to host a perfect party because my in-laws think I don’t deserve their son, but if I pull this off, their attitude about me will change,”  I don’t have to think about whether I am angry or frustrated or whatever.  My lines in the play will lead me in the right direction.  If I really know who my character is and stick to my guns about what I want, the rest tends to fall into place pretty naturally.  (Okay, that may be a little simplistic, but it’s not far off from the truth.)

More importantly, however, the emotions that manifest themselves will seem perfectly natural, and not forced.  If main concern is making sure that the audience knows that I am angry or shocked or delighted, the degree to which I am any of those things is not necessarily in correct proportion to the scene.  It’s easy to (particularly) overdo the emotion.  When you focus on your verb for the scene — what you want and are working very hard at getting — the emotions tend to take care of themselves in absolutely the right way.

Focusing on the emotions rather than what you need also runs the risk of anticipating the “event” that triggers the emotion (often what someone else has said to you), and the split-second difference is enough to make the audience find the moment to be unbelievable.

Ignoring the emotions and just going after what we want with all the determination we can muster is so counter-intuitive to the human experience and our assumptions about what actors are doing onstage.  Emotions rule, don’t they?  Well, yes, they do.  But they are also sly devils that make their way into a scene whether you like it or not.  This is actually a blessing for the actor.  When you learn the lesson inherent in this (which is to focus on what you WANT in a scene), you learn that being open to whatever emotions arise in you when you rehearse is ALL you really need to do.  The rest takes care of itself.


When the Stage Directions Matter

Cinderella wedding

The inspiration for my play, Happily Ever After, came about because I started thinking about the fact that all fairy tales end with the wedding, and so kids who grow up reading them know how to aspire for a wedding, but have no real understanding of what happens next or how to navigate the next 50 years.  The emphasis on courtship over marriage has probably led many couples into a morass, pre-marital counseling notwithstanding.  I had no idea where I was going to go with it, but that was what put my seat in the chair.  What followed wound up being more layered and philosophical than I had anticipated, or even than I knew prior to attending the rehearsal of it.

While watching the rehearsal, I put on my director’s hat, contemplating how I would deal with the issues the director was facing if I was in his shoes.  As a result, I had to analyze my own play in a way that I hadn’t done, and so I learned some interesting things about it!

It was in analyzing the play that I finally figured out why I was uncomfortable with the changes made to the stage directions that end the play.  It turned out that the changes left the audience with two messages that were both in direct contradiction to what I had been trying to say over the course of the play.

Surprising that movement could have such a dramatic effect, huh?

Without reading the play, you may not fully understand why this is, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.

Here’s the original stage directions (remember, this is the continuation of the fairy tale — in this case, Cinderella).  I should say that the dialogue that precedes the stage directions makes it clear that, in the privacy of their bedchambers, the Prince invites her to dance.

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance.  They start to waltz, and one of them — it doesn’t matter who — starts to hum.  Da-de-da.  It doesn’t matter whether the one humming can carry a tune.  It may even be better if they can’t.  Now they are both humming.  They may even laugh at how bad they are, which only emboldens them to sing louder.  As the song goes on, they gradually move closer together.  And eventually, they are kissing.  Not the chaste sort of kiss as at the beginning of the play, but the happily-ever-after sort of kiss.)

Now, here’s the changed version:

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance as an orchestra begins to play.  They waltz a few steps.  She stumbles and nearly falls, but he catches her.  She looks up at him, and there is a spark.  She grabs his head and pulls him to her, planting a firm kiss on his mouth.  He sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the bedroom.)

Without knowing anything about the play, there are five distinct differences between these two descriptions:

  1. In the original, there is no orchestra, or else it is too faint to be heard, and that is why they start humming.  In the revision, we clearly hear the full orchestra.
  2. In the original, there is a shared experience which has nothing to do with kissing or sex (humming while they dance, in a silly sort of moment between two people who barely know each other but are going to be spending their lives together).  In the revision, this is replaced by her stumbling as they waltz.
  3. In the original, the kiss is a gradual melding as they begin to relax together.  In the revision, there is sudden switch that goes off in her head that provokes the kiss.
  4. In the original, the kiss is mutual.  In the revision, she clearly kisses him.
  5. In the original, there is a blackout on the kiss.  In the revision, he whisks her off of her feet and takes her into the bedroom.

Without having the entire play to view it in context, #1 can fairly easily be dismissed as not being critical.

The other four may be critical.  First off, the original seems to emphasize the romantic over the passionate.  Sexual desire is clearly at play in the revision.

Secondly, the original has the shared moment of non-romantic, non-sexual silliness, and the revision doesn’t have a comparable moment.

So what can we take away from this?

Before changing stage directions at the beginning or end of a scene or play, you need to carefully study them in the context of what the playwright was trying to accomplish or is trying to say.  Opening moments set a tone, and closing moments — especially at the end of a play — are the playwright’s final word on the subject.  You want to make sure that you are, up to the end, telling the playwright’s story, and not your own.  Also, when the stage directions are more than the minimal (he doffs his hat and exits), they are effectively substituting for dialogue and so probably deserve a similar fealty, at least in terms of intention.

Understanding the playwright’s intention is critical in changing stage directions that are more than simply practical (she sits down; he pours a drink; they turn out the lights and exit upstairs).  If the director had kept the sexual overtones out of it and found a comparable non-sexual moment to replace the humming and laughter, I might have been disappointed (or not, if he found a better way of accomplishing it than what I wrote), but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it.  He would clearly have gotten the point of what I was trying to say and simply found an alternative way to say the same thing.

I could have written the “la-di-da” into the dialogue, and probably will so that future directors will understand that it is a non-negotiable element of the play.

So here’s my argument for why the changes reversed the intended meaning of the play:

I associate the sexual desire and attraction between a new couple with the fairy tale story; while critical to beginning a happy ending, it is insufficient in and of itself.  Love and friendship are the more important elements.  By removing the humming, you remove the friendship; by dispensing with the gradual, mutual kiss, you remove the love; and in its stead, you’ve got passionate desire on both sides (her kiss, his carting her off to the bed).  A misplaced emphasis on sex has ruined many a marriage, and that was part of why I wrote the play.  When you end on that note, you are saying, “This is a fine way to go about it.”

The director said he chose to have her initiate the kiss because she had been avoiding it up until that point.  That’s fine, but if I wanted that 180 degree turn, I would have written it that way.  Making her the aggressor makes her a very different girl (and him a very different man).  Before you make a 180 degree change, you need to be sure the script supports it.

He also said, “she stumbles and he catches her before she falls, as he will for the rest of their lives”, and it’s a sweet, if traditional concept.  However, it plays into the old-fashioned myth of the fairy tale — the white knight who will come along and save the damsel in distress and make everything perfect forever — that I had spent ten minutes unraveling and arguing was not going to produce a healthy marriage.

So change the stage directions if you have a really good reason to (I’m still not sure why they decided to change mine), but if you must, please make sure that you are being fully faithful to supporting the playwright’s intention and theme.

Hoisted On My Own Petard, or What About Those Stage Directions?

ArrowsI’ve taken to writing plays lately (not really the reason I haven’t posted in a while — my life has been somewhat tumultuous for months, but is returning to normal).  One of them, a short play called Happily Ever After, is about to be produced.  The director invited me to a rehearsal.  Most of what they are doing is just fine; some of it misses the mark, but I also think playwrights have to accept that.  However, the ending of the play is not dialogue, but rather stage directions, and the director and cast decided to change them.  I noted the change, wondered about it, was disappointed in it, but it took a good 24 hours to fully understand why I was uncomfortable with it.

If you’ve read my posts on stage directions, you know that as a director and an actor, I largely believe in disregarding them.  For the most part, I figure that if the stage directions are really good ones, I’ll find them myself in rehearsal.  I believe in hanging on to stage directions that are needed to make the play comprehensible (e.g., he hides the gun under the seat cushion).  I believe in hanging on to the stage directions of complicated business — the climactic fight scene in Wait Until Dark not only has plot points, it is well-crafted.  The nature of Wait Until Dark is that you can’t really use a set that is much different than the original, so the fight scene can’t be much different than what Frederick Knott wrote.

I believe in hanging on to stage directions that help to indicate what I should be striving for in a scene.  Eric Coble wrote a wonderful satire, Bright Ideas, that I badly wanted to stage once upon a time.  (I still do, but directing doesn’t seem to be in the offing right now.)  There are a number of scenes where the stage directions help to clarify the playwright’s intention.  I wouldn’t blacken those out, but would keep them to remind me of what he was going for.  I might end up using his ideas, or I might come up with something more clever, but in the same vein.

For instance, Coble has a scene that involves using puppets in the way that child psychologists use dolls to help children talk about the scary things in their lives.  I may not use every puppet move he suggests if I can find a different movement that is funnier, but I’ll keep his stage directions in my script to give me a framework within which I can be creative.

The scenes that end each act also have a good bit of business that I remember thinking might need to be modified in some way, given the theater I was doing the play at.  We were a very low-budget company that rented a stage for Tech Week and the duration of performances, and so needed a very easy set that could be loaded in in a matter of hours.  I hadn’t come up with a solution by the time the production was cancelled, but I remember thinking that I needed to find a way to accomplish what Coble wrote without spending the money that it would require.  The set changes would have meant some small tweaks to the stage directions.

(If you haven’t read Bright Ideas, you should.  Coble is a very talented writer.)

So back to my play, Happily Ever After.

Some of my plays are pretty straightforward.  Happily Ever After is a play that requires a bit of thought, and I sat in the rehearsal and tried to figure out what I would say to the cast if I were the director (it was an early rehearsal, so there were still wrinkles to be ironed out.)  I realized pretty quickly that I needed to understand what it is about.  Surprised by that?  Playwrights don’t always know their play as well as you might think.  They know it works, but a certain amount of it may happen so instinctively and fortuitously that they don’t fully comprehend its idiosyncracies unless they choose to dissect it as a director or scholar would.  I put my director’s hat on with Happily Ever After and understood what I’d written as a result.

So I realized that there is yet another situation in which a director (and the cast) should at least be cautious about changing stage directions.  But I’ve reached my word limit, so that’s for the next post!

On Staying in the Moment


Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).


The Stage Director as Film Editor

The stage director has a number of functions.

  • She chooses the tone of the play and makes sure that every aspect of the production supports that tone.
  • She identifies what she thinks the playwright is trying to say, and makes sure that all the actors’ choices are consistent with that point of view.
  • She is in charge of the mise en scene, and in that role plays traffic cop.
  • She is the Big Picture artist of the production.  Actors are little picture people.  She controls the scope and feel of the evening.  We are responsible for the moment-to-moment details.

film editorIn other words, she’s a film editor for the stage.

Having a strong sense of the big picture is an essential ingredient in a quality director.  The ability to attend to detail is an asset, but it isn’t critical.  You can be a very good director if you have people around you to handle the details.

The reverse is true for actors.  The more you can work with the minutiae of what happens in a single moment (giving oneself over to it without overthinking it, that is), the better your work is apt to be.  If you can also see the big picture, so that you can tailor your work to intentionally enhance the grand scheme and ease the director’s burden a little bit, then your performance is apt to scale some impressive heights.  But it isn’t necessary, because the director is your film editor.

Unlike a film editor, who works after all the filming has been completed, the stage director does her editing throughout the rehearsal process.  That means that you, as the actor, need to provide her with quantity of film to select from.  Take after take.  And each take should be a little different.  Each take should offer something slightly (or majorly) different to the director.  Your job is to provide choices.

Now, truthfully, you’ll do a lot of the editing yourself.  You’ll try stuff in rehearsal and realize this works and that doesn’t, and select accordingly.  But there will be times, as in The Rainmaker scene I’ve cited, where you may try two materially different approaches, and both seem to work on some level.  What to do?  Which to choose?  How do I know what’s right???????

You don’t have to.  The director will.

Isn’t this a beautiful system?  You don’t have to worry about it.  The obvious choices?  Go ahead and make them.  The ones that panic you so much that you think you have to make them early and often?  Let the director shoulder that responsibility.  That’s what she’s there for.

And this frees you up to try everything you can think of.  Because a good director will give you immediate and solid feedback about what works and what doesn’t.  Good feedback, I believe I said, speeds the learning process.  So you don’t have to worry that you won’t get it all done in time.  You will.

How to Make Decisions About Your Character

chrysanthemumBefore I get into how to use trial and error effectively (and why it matters) in the first half of rehearsals, let me answer the questions that have probably flitted through your brain by now, if they haven’t taken up permanent residence:

“But I have to make choices eventually, don’t I?  Ultimately, even if I’m choosing what is ‘best’ rather than what is ‘right’, I have to determine what is ‘best’, right?  So how do I do that?  And when do I do it?  When is it safe to make choices without worrying that I am choosing the wrong ones?”

Truthfully, I’m not sure how many active decisions you need to make if you are working properly.  Try enough different things often enough, and those decisions will start to make themselves.

Let’s say you’re working on Scene 1.  You try it three or four different ways, and they each have their merits.  Should you weigh their merits, debate the pros and cons, and make a choice to use Option C?

Not yet.  No need to, yet.  You’re still in the early days of rehearsal.  There’s still a ton of things to learn about the character.

Characters don’t reveal themselves easily.  If you think they do, then you’ve probably chosen a stereotype.

No, characters reveal themselves over time, over the course of weeks, as you read and reread the play.  As you rehearse each scene again and again.  The more you review the play, either through study or performance, the more it will open itself to you, in the same way that a chrysanthemum moves from a tight bud to a fully open blossom with a hundred petals revealed to you.

As you work on each scene, trying a variety of approaches, a pattern will start to emerge.  You’ll start to see some consistencies in the character from scene to scene.  You’ll start to see how a character trait in one scene is more fully developed in a second scene.  How something that happens later in the play reveals something about your character in an early scene.  That something which was confusing to you is suddenly explained by a line you never took much notice of before.

By remaining open to possibilities for longer than you may be comfortable with (thank you, John Cleese), you will discover that the possibilities that don’t work will simply fall by the wayside.  It’s like letting the chaff blow away in the wind.  Give the wind enough time, it will reveal the wheat to you.  What you will be left with is a focused performance with both adequate consistency and surprise.

Decisions get made for you over time without you having to do much about it, if you’ve explored sufficiently.

To read Can’t I Make Any Decisions?, go here.

How on Earth Can I Be Creative As An Actor?

creativity_or_Art_by_amr_nkim5Dictionary.com calls creativity the ability to transcend the traditional and to create something new.  In other words, don’t settle for the obvious, the stereotypes, the ordinary.  Don’t go for hackneyed line readings or hang on for dear life to the first decent idea that comes down the pike.

But something new?  Really new?  Well heck, if that doesn’t put pressure on you, I don’t know what will!  So let me rephrase that in a way that will put a lot less pressure on you.

Creativity is about making something unique.

Fortunately, since you ARE unique, you are completely capable of creating something unique, as long as you stay true to yourself.  That means avoiding all those obvious choices, because you know what?  They aren’t new, and they aren’t you.  They are copies of what you’ve seen before, in movies and on television, or on Broadway the last time you visited NYC.  They are an imitation of things that impressed you on some level.  But even at their best, they are an imitation of someone else.  They aren’t uniquely “you”.

Let me repeat what John Cleese said in his 1971 presentation on Creativity:  It is NOT a talent.  It is simply a way of operating.  A way of going about things.

Exactly how you go about being creative depends on your own personality type.  Certain types of creativity are easier for each of us, and certain types harder.  If you know what it comfortable for you, you can use it to your advantage, probably without thinking too much about it.  And if you know what isn’t comfortable for you, you can intentionally go after it, because you’ll be inclined to avoid it otherwise.  You expand your own creative potential when you work this way.

The most important thing is to recognize that deep inside you is a completely unique interpretation of any role you might play.  It’s deep inside you.  It’s not the stuff floating on the surface.  What you’ll find there is whatever you’ve most recently absorbed from others, or the stereotypes.  You’ll find the flotsam and jetsam.

We’re looking for sunken treasure ships.

It’s okay to start with the obvious, with the stereotypes.  Use them as warm-up exercises.  Use them to get them out of your system, to understand their limitations.  Just don’t stop there.  Keep looking for the sunken treasure.

Sometimes you can intentionally dive for it.  This is called trial and error.  You keep trying different stuff until you yell, “Eureka!”  Sometimes all you do is open the hatch to the hull of the ship and get out of the way, and trust that the jewels will float to the surface in their own good time.

Avoiding the stereotypes and seeking out the less obvious alternatives is an act of courage, and some people find it easier to do than others.  Trying things you think will fail or at the very least, aren’t sure will succeed is hard.  Isn’t it a waste of valuable rehearsal time?

No.  As Ben Franklin said, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

Very often, the stuff that falls on its face helps you to find the thing that soars.  Something you would never have found if you hadn’t tried that stupid idea.

To read What Is Creativity?, go here.  To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.

What If I’m Not Creative?

hard workYou’re human.  You’re creative, by definition.

I hope the previous post goes some distance to convincing you that creativity isn’t just inspiration.  The famous Thomas Edison quote on the matter is “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”  It’s not about sitting around waiting for something good to show up.  It’s intentionally working toward your goal and creating opportunities for good stuff to happen.

Creative geniuses don’t just produce works of genius at their first attempt.  Yes, apparently Edward Albee wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in one sitting, but I guarantee you the play had been in his head for quite a while before that.

But even so, that’s the exception to the rule.  For most of us, quality work is trial and error.  We’ve all seem film images of the writer tearing a piece of paper out of the typewriter and crumpling it up, tossing it on a pile of one hundred similarly treated sheets and holding his head in frustration at his inability to produce one decent paragraph.

We’ve seen images of the composer at the piano, tinkering with a melody and not finding a tune worth keeping.

We’ve seen the tormented artist, unable to capture the light with his paintbrush in the way his eye sees it.

Why the heck do we think, as actors, that we can arrive at our destination any more easily?

I said this before, but it’s worth repeating:  You just met this character.  How can you possibly know what the RIGHT choices are (or even the BEST ones) until you’ve lived with the character for at least a few weeks and have learned something about him?  Would you expect to learn everything you need to know about someone on a first date?

Of course not.

As actors, though, we rush to judgment.  We are so scared that we won’t be ready in time that we lock choices into place as quickly as possible.  In doing so, we close the door to our own creativity, to spontaneity, to surprise.  We suck the life out of the character and the play when we stick with these early and invariably obvious choices.

Yes, the author churns out more words than he keeps, but finally, there IS a moment when he types “The End”, and the paper comes out of the typewriter with a flourish.  Mozart, suddenly inspired, starts scribbling notes like a madman.  And the artist springs out of bed and takes up his palette, sure of what his painting was lacking.

It is the element of surprise that keeps our attention as theatergoers.  When we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we are on the edge of our seats.  That’s not just a function of plot twists.  When characters don’t follow the stereotype, we want to know more about them.  If they do follow the stereotype – the well-worn path – there is no need to stay awake.  We can let our attention wander without missing much.  “Wake me up when something interesting happens.”

How do we find the something interesting?

Well, it’s this thing called creativity.  And as John Cleese says, creativity is NOT a talent.  It is a way of operating . . .

To read What is Creativity?, go here.  How on Earth Can I Be Creative As an Actor?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.

What Is Creativity?

creativityI’m going to shut up for this post.

I know.  Can I even find it possible?

I’m going to let others speak.  And then I’ll pick up the train of thought next time.

“It is a commonplace among artists that masterpieces are made in passing, not by the focused attempt to create one.  That very attempt often skewers the spontaneous internal process, the inspired hunch or ‘fine madness’, that makes great art a happy accident that seems inevitable only in retrospect.”Julia Cameron, Chicago Tribune, 1986.

“You don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace.  By grace I mean those precious, rare times when exactly what you were expecting gives way to something utterly different, when patterns of thought and behavior we have grown accustomed to and at times despaired of, suddenly cede to something new and marvelous.  It may be the moment when a warrior unexpectedly lays down his weapon, when the sternest disciplinarian breaks into a smile, when an ideologue admits error, when a criminal seeks forgiveness, or when an addict hits bottom and finally sees a future.  Grace is the proof that hope is not groundless.”Andrew Stillman, “Untier of Knots”, 12/17/13.

“I don’t just use bad writing excerpts as prompts for workshops.  I also produce a tremendous amount of bad writing myself.   In fact, if some poor graduate student were assigned to do an audit of my entire literary output over the past twenty years, this person—before killing themselves—would find that about 70 percent of what I write is dreck.

“And I know I’m not alone.  If you go visit the archives of your favorite writer, as I did with Kurt Vonnegut several years ago, you will find a treasure trove of unpublished work.  And, if you’re anything like me, you will be heartened by this discovery.  It’s a great relief to realize that all those published writers we idolize aren’t cranking out epic prose every day at the keyboard.  Sometimes, they’re stinking it up, just like we do. …..My basic theory is that most pieces of failed writing—whether stories, poems, or novels—are usually attempts to tell a story that the author simply wasn’t ready to tell yet.

“This is why so much of my bad poetry is clogged with overwrought language, because I’m stonewalling basically, trying to sound profound and beautiful rather than telling the truth. …..My own belief is that writing is too intimate and arduous an activity ever to perfect.  We need to stop viewing our task as the production of transcendent work. Instead, we should emphasize the process as a gradual reduction of our (necessary and inevitable) imperfections.

“I realize how frustrating it can feel to produce weak work.  Believe me.  But I’ve also come to accept that bad writing doesn’t just mark a creative dead end.  It’s a necessary station on the path to good writing.”Steve Almond, Blog Post on AWP Website, Feb. 2014.

“Fine writing is never one to one, never a matter of devising the exact number of events necessary to fill a story, then penciling dialogue.  Creativity is five to one, perhaps ten or twenty to one.  The craft demands the invention of far more material than you can possibly use, then the astute selection from this quantity of quality events, moments of originality that are true to character and true to world.  When actors compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your choices.”  They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful moment, it’s because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different ways, then chose the one perfect moment.  The same is true for us.

“Finally, it’s important to realize that whatever inspires the writing need not stay in the writing.  A Premise is not precious.  As long as it contributes to the growth of story, keep it, but should the telling take a left turn, abandon the original inspiration to follow the evolving story.  The problem is not to start writing, but to keep writing and renewing inspiration.  We rarely know where we’re going:  writing is discovery.”Robert McKee, Story, 1997.

A few thoughts from John Cleese:

“…the most creative professionals always played with a problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it.  Because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven’t solved a problem.”

“Now, the people I find it hardest to be creative with are the people who need, all the time, to project an image of themselves as decisive.  And they feel that, to create this image, they need to decide everything very quickly, and with a great show of confidence.  Well, this behaviour, I suggest sincerely, is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth.”

“And if while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say:  ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide until Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then, that’s too easy.‘  So, to summarise, the third factor that facilitates creativity is time.  Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.”

And I’ll leave the final words to Thomas Edison:

“Negative results are just what I want.  They’re just as valuable to me as positive results.  I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” 

To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read How On Earth Can I Be Creative As an Actor?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.