Someone once said to me – well, alright, actually it’s been said to me many a time but I remember quite clearly at least the first time I heard it – that I write “with a lot of rhythm.” At the time I think I nodded dumbly, and tried to feel good about what seemed to be a compliment but was something I hadn’t really thought all that much about as I wrote… it seemed strange to receive a compliment on something that I had no awareness of.
They were right of course… as I listened to the actors digging into and discovering the play, there was an amazing sense of rhythm and musicality to the language of the piece, and now I realize that the rhythm of a word or a combination of words has a lot to do with whether or not I’ll use it/them (or opt for silence) in my work.
Word selection, it would seem, has become as as serious for me as selecting the right wine, your child’s name, or which freeway to take during rush hour…
In other words, I take it pretty damn serious, but I also try to maintain a healthy sense of humor.
Because I have yet to meet an actor who hasn’t had to (on occasion) rearrange some portion of my text to suit his/her mouth.
Now, I used to act, and so I understand that sometimes getting your brain to remember a line that has been composed in such a way as to feel as comfortable in your mouth as a cheese grater, can be damn near impossible. I understand that sometimes an actor winds up spitting out the subtext of a line or some mutant hybrid instead of the original…
And as a playwright who understands actors but who is still a pretty persnickety wordsmith, I’ve learned to pick my battles on which lines are truly crucial to the rhythm of the thing and which can survive a few… abuses.
But I still wonder if, although they are treating the play with much reverence and care, an actor realizes the value of the words themselves (and their order) to the playwright… or if it is only I that see them as a magical, swelling, and lyrical recipe that must be said in the correct order and pairings, lest they loose their power and cast (instead) only a murkish sort-of spell…
And now I’m in the unique position of directing my own play for the Dirty Laundry fest, and I’m battling with myself on the merit of nit-picking vs. focusing on the cohesive whole…
That said, when I find myself bristling and silently screaming inside at some liberty taken with my text, I take a breath and gently task the actor with getting it right, even if we have to work the beat several times or break down the text line by line to get their brains to accept it as written rather than letting them put it in their own words. It’s avery interesting internal battle indeed to juggle egos (theirs and mine) with productivity and specificity.
And it’s taught me a lot about balancing expectations with function as well.
However, just because it might be fun to compare notes, here are my top three pet peeves in the line department:
- Don’t start every line with “Look” or “But” or “Well”… This is an actor trick that I DESPISE… Either they get stuck and need a second to recall the line, or they don’t quite understand the transition that brought them there so they add a beat of their own wordage to “help” themselves with, and if left unchecked it turns the whole thing into a play about humming and hawing.
- Don’t reduce poetry to “comfortable” language… Sometimes an actor will come across a more complex line than they themselves would use and instead of mastering it, they alter it to suit their tongues. “I left to fetch flowers” becomes “I went to get flowers” and I sit there and bemoan the lost mood of the line and silently curse the actor for their clumsy murder of my alliterative text, even though the same basic point has been made. To me, the care I take in selecting my words mean the difference between craftsmanship and an “anyone can write a play” vibe. There is very little in my characters mouths that I didn’t put there carefully and with specific intent.
- Don’t blast through beats. I use a lot of beats in my plays. I hate when actors (or directors) try to fly through them – even if a director decides a “Beat” need not be illustrated on stage with time, they risk missing important shifts in power, emotion, intent, thought, etc. if they don’t take the time to ask “Why is the playwright adding a beat here between these lines? What happens for the characters in this moment?”