Last night, after my regular Monday night acting class at the Actors Workout Studio, I stuck around for a few minutes to chat with a couple of actors and one of my acting coaches, Andrew Benne. I love Andrew — he’s an inspiring, intuitive, enthusiastic teacher and every time I work with him, I walk away thinking about something in a new way…
This time, I stayed up all night mulling our conversation about how writers often overwrite because, Andrew said,“writers don’t trust actors.” At the time I agreed.
Overnight, I changed my mind.
It’s not that writers don’t trust actors. It’s that most writers HAVE NO IDEA WHAT AN ACTOR REALLY DOES OR WHAT THEY ARE CAPABLE OF.
Before I took an acting class (my first class was about a year-and-a-half ago; I’ve been addicted ever since), I — the writer — trusted actors. I trusted them to memorize my lines and deliver them with emotion. I trusted that they would do the action I wrote, follow my suggestions in the parentheticals, and help tell my story. I even trusted that they would “bring the character to life.” I trusted them just fine.
What I didn’t do was give actors enough credit for what they could DO with my lines. I didn’t understand how much an actor could do by sitting back in a chair at just the right moment, or by taking a long sip of a cold drink, or by lowering the register of their voice, or picking up the cadence of speech, or by flicking their eyes just to the left…
I mean, I KNEW all of that — in my head. EVERY writing book addresses these issues. Before I took an acting class, I thought I was an expert on subtext. I often had characters “say the opposite of what they mean.” I let the action speak for itself.
But somehow, I was still missing something. As a writer, when I watched a movie or a television show or a play, I — truthfully — saw the WRITERS’ work. I saw the STORY. When an actor ran or jumped or cried, I saw it written as an action line.
I have worked in the industry a long time. I’ve produced a lot of actors. I respect them. I have always known how much they bring to every part. I’ve long appreciated a “great performance.”
But until I studied the craft for myself, I didn’t get it. Not really.
I was selling the work of an actor short — and by doing that, I was selling my writing short.
This is going to sound counterintuitive, but try this: give an “okay” or even “good” script to a great actor. Have them read the lines for you. You probably imagine that your “okay” words will suddenly sing with life and love and energy. Your dialogue will crackle and you will win an Oscar — if only Meryl Streep stars in your movie.
I hate to break this to you, but that won’t happen. If you give your okay script to a great actor, do you know what you’ll really find?
You will discover that a great actor can make perfectly “good” writing sound downright BAD. They bring SO MUCH to the table that the overwriting becomes cringeworthy. That extra line where you — the writer — went ahead and had the character say, “I love you,” feels SO OVER-COOKED because the great actor already “said” it when she handed him that cup of coffee.
(If you DO ask actors to read your work, please make sure they are well-trained and give them time to work with the material. But I’m telling you — if you do that, you will be SHOCKED by what you see and hear).
If you really learn to respect the work of an actor, you will never overwrite again.
By the way, this all applies to prose too, not just screenwriting or playwriting. Ever since studying the craft of acting, I trust MY actors more (you know, those people we call characters who walk around novels and do things and speak to people). The characters in my novels are talented actors, too. They SAY things with very few words. The way they pick up that glass and how they take that sip says much more than if they gave some long, heartfelt speech. How they react, in the moment — how their hand twitches, or when they walk away, or how they are suddenly frightened by another character’s tears — tells the reader much more than a whole page of description.
All of this to say, I don’t think the disconnect between writers and actors is a question of trust. I think it’s a question of ignorance.
Writers trust actors. And that’s a great thing. Because that means once a writer really GETS what an actor does, that writer will write better and maybe, just maybe, let an actor say everything that needs to be said by handing over a single cup of coffee.