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Craft Notes by Ed Hooks
Some place I read that the first thing actor Christopher Walken does when he commits to a new script is go through it and cross out all of the punctuation. He doesn’t want to be tempted to get into a line-reading situation that was suggested by the playwright.
Most really excellent directors will tell the actors at the first read to cross out those italicized stage directions that the playwright put in there. Words like “Lovingly” and “Tearfully” and “Excitedly” are eliminated.
I’ve directed maybe more than my share of plays and make it a point to instruct the assembled cast on the first day to eliminate blocking. Things like “She crosses to pour a drink.” Or “Sally gazes out the window”. Most often, those stage directions were put in there by the stage manager of the very first Broadway production. Amateur actors and directors can follow them if they want to, but it isn’t a requirement.
An exception to this is a playwright like David Mamet or Neil Simon, both of whom make a big deal about how they don’t want side directions taken out. If I’m not mistaken, Simon even has that in his movie contracts.
But let’s forget for a moment who the few exceptions are and focus on the averages. Most playwrights, once they get on a writing roll, will “see” the play unfolding in their heads and, if a character says something a particular way, will make a note of it. That doesn’t mean you have to say the words the way they heard it in their heads.
An actor has an obligation to say the words of dialogue as written. Period. There is no obligation to say them in any particular way, even if the script suggests that there is. Indeed, part of the fun of staging a play is making the character’s words your own.
Personally, my artistic respect for a director plummets if he or she does not instruct the cast to take out the italicized guidance at the first rehearsal or read through. I take that to mean that this particular director is going to be more like a traffic cop than a director. If the script says a line should be spoken “sadly”, this kind of director will make certain it is spoken sadly. Bah! Humbug! Don’t tell me to say a line sadly. The way I say the line will come out of the playing of the scene and depends a lot on what the other actors are doing.
By the same token, lines can be broken up to great advantage. Suppose a character has this line: “Jesus Christ, don’t you dare talk to me like that, mama!” Just because all of that is in one sentence doesn’t mean you have to run it all together. You might, for example, exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” out of exasperation, intending to say nothing more. Then the rest of the thought comes to you. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that, mama!” In other words, the actor might well make two lines out of one.
I have always advised my acting students that the best gift an actor can give his scene partner is to surprise her. Don’t be predictable. The two of you have rehearsed until you have a good idea what one another is going to do. Now, in the playing of it in front of an audience, forget about all of that. Reading a line of dialogue is not intended to be frozen. It comes out of the moment. I figure that, even if I have seen a play fifteen times, I should be surprised by the sixteenth production.
Writing about this takes me back thirty years to summer stock outside of New York. There was a young actress in the company whose idea of acting was to get your performance “right” and then never vary it at all. She said every line the precise same way every single time, and it was the most boring thing in the world to act with her. Sweet girl, though. I wonder whatever happened to her? She’d have made a great mom because her kids could count on her to be consistent.