Monday, May 6, 2013

When It Goes Wrong, When It Goes Right by Gary Garrison

From The Dramatist-March/April 2012:

from the desk of Gary Garrison
Department of Creative Affairs

When It Goes Wrong,
When It Goes Right

"I learned very early on that I'm not the kind of writer you want regularly in the rehearsal room. Why? I'm too nervous and impatient. I want what I want when I want it, and that translates in my scenario to actors making acting choices that are identical to what I see in my imagination. I want actors to go from Point A to Point Z in an instant and show me the brilliance (?) of what I've written. That, of course, would rob them of any creative process and frankly, isn't realistic.

I truly love actors and what they bring to the process of making theatre. I'm awed by their insights, talent, daring, courage and unbridled creativity. And if I'm really honest, I know so much of my work could have never been realized without their significant contribution. So as I've aged in my career, I've thankfully discovered how the process goes wrong, when it feels right and my part as the dramatist in each of those events.

Actors are not computers; they're human beings. So I shouldn't expect an actor (as much as I'd like to) to replicate the exact, same performance night after night after night. And if I do have that expectation, I'm sure to be disappointed. Part of an actor's skill is to be consistent within a certain boundary, but even in that consistency there's going to be some small variations. And that's what makes theatre-theatre. It's the danger and thrill of the unexpected and unknown for the actors and the audience.

Despite what happens in rehearsal, an actor continues to explore in performance. That means, at least to me, that new insights are going to filter into the actor's awarness. If the actor is living in the world of the play, new-hopefully appropriate-choices will be made. If I'm connected to the world of my play, I'll see th actor's discovery as insight into my characters, and not carelessness.

When an actor makes a text or character suggestion, my obligation is to listen to the suggestion and not dismiss it because I'm the writer and they're " just the actor." I can trace really good lines of dialogue in my plays back to some actors because I listened, I thought it through, I didn't make a decision in the moment and I thought, ultimately, the suggestion was helpful. I did not see the suggestion as an uninvited intrusion into my art.

Though I'm often tempted, because I'm a control freak, it is never my responsibility (or authority) to make a direct suggestion to an actor that's not filtered through the director. Though I love my work, I have to equally love the collaborative process and the hierarchy of authority.

Because an actor doesn't get a laugh or gasp on the same line one night over another, it does not necessarily mean that the actor is off his/her game; it could be that the audience had too many enchiladas before walking through the front door of the theatre.

Actors transform themselves. A 40 year old man can become a seven year old British school girl, if he finds the honesty and essence of such. My responsibility as the writer is not to be so rigid in my own imagination.

I see an actor as my equal, not simply as my mouthpiece. When that happens, we're both off to a good start.

I recognize that some actors audition really well, but ultimately reveal that they are not right for the role in rehearsal and I have to say something to the director. When I do that, I've taken a step towards empowering not only my voice, but strengthening the integrity of the production. While it's painful to dismiss anyone from the process, it's more painful to watch my play in performance with an actor who just isn't up for the challenge of the character I've created.

When I see an actor stray away from the logic of what I've written (in rehearsal or performance), I have to say something to the director (or stage manager, if that's who's been left in charge of the performances). If the actor continues to stray, I can't give up, give in or resign myself to it. I keep talking until someone listens to me. I owe it to myself as a playwright, and I owe it to my other collaborators to educate them about a dramatist's rights.

When an actor consistenly paraphrases my dialogue, I say something. And I keep saying it until someone listens to me. That's particularly hard for me because I'm someone who wants/needs to be seen as a team player. But c'mon-the integrity of my work is at stake.

Actors create a shared ownership of my characters. It's natural (though not necessarily comfortable) to hear an actor say, "Oh, John would never behave that way. He would never say that. He would..." and I'm appreciative (not challenged) that the actor is so invested in the character.

I'm often seen as the outsider in the process. and I'm not threatened that actors don't really understand why I'm there or are nervous that I'm there. It feels good or "right" when I can help them understand-through my good actions-why I'm there and what I can contribute to the process of making theatre.

If I'm smart, I'm generous with my praise and thanks. Actors want to know I approve of what they're doing. They need my support (and gratitude), and frankly, they deserve it.

Because of their own anxiety or stress, some actors will aggressively challenge/confront me as the writer and I have to understand that. When an actor has a question about why her character says something or takes a specifc action, I should have a cogent answer for her. Or, I should say, "Maybe it's not clear...let me think about it," and then I do and report back. 

A therapist of mine once said, "Good mental health is in direct proportion to how well you sit with grey; meaning, how at ease are you when something's not black or white?" Sometimes in the theatre, things just don't work. All the rehearsal, time, effort, passion, commitment, financial resources just can't make the difference. Is it your work? Is it the director's work? Is the actors' work? Sometimes you won't ever know, and that's the truth of it. All you can do is the very best work you're capable of.

Theatre is about drama, on AND off the stage. Let's face it, a lot of theatre artists wear their emotions on their sleeve. Tempers erupt, gossip is spread, fear is bouncing around the walls of the theatre and some people need attention, power and assurance. My job as the dramatist is to focus my energy on the drama on the stage and not indulge the drama off stage. It's a lose-lose situation.

I was an actor for years (too many to count) before I started writing. So I've been whacked with both ends of the stick. The education I gained as an actor has proven to be invaluable to me as a writer. If what I've written above feels foreign or unknown to you, take an acting class. Challenge yourself. Learn by doing, then do by learning."

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