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Thursday, October 25, 2012

When an omelet is more than just an omelet

Steven Barkhimer
Playwrights who act. Actors who write plays. This fall, Steven Barkhimer has been both: He was singing at Stoneham in Lumberjacks in Love while his Blood Rose Rising (co-written with Ben Evett) played 20 minutes away in Cambridge. Next, you can find him onstage at BPT in Richard Schotter’s The Sussman Variations, which opens Nov. 1. Here Bark tells us some of the things actors bring to the playwright-actor collaboration:

Ok: your brother suddenly shows up on your doorstep; for thirty years you’ve thought he was dead; you invite him in to breakfast. As the actor, you try to find some truth, connect with your scene partner, be faithful to the script, execute your blocking, which includes making a cheese omelet on a real stove. Then there is that delicious revelatory moment – maybe a few days into rehearsal, or just before opening, sometimes not until a live audience makes it clear – when you realize, “Oh, I’m not making him an omelet to reconnect with him; I’m boasting that I’ve become a world-class chef when the last thing he said to me was that I would never amount to anything! I never say it, but the whole thing actually comes out of resentment!” You think “boy, this little suitcase is expertly packed, so much content in a such a tiny space.” And part of your pleasure – when it’s a well-written play – is feeling that the playwright left it there for you to discover in your own way, trusted you with it, accepted you as a contributing artist, and not just a puppet dutifully trying to approximate an imagined scene.

Having been an actor has unquestionably influenced the way I go about writing for actors. Even the most exacting novelist, the one who painstakingly constructs the most unambiguous portrait, must concede that readers inevitably bring their own peculiar imaginations to the book. But a playwright invites, as a fundamental condition of production, a director’s vision, a set-designer’s feel for space, a lighting designer’s sensitivity to mood, and the actors’ fertile imaginations. And while the playwright needn’t welcome purely whimsical additions and “improvements,” it is VERY useful to know what actors specifically bring to a script, and what a huge resource playwrights have in their actors. It not only saves time and aggravation to have both parties understand the significant latitude they enjoy as co-creators, but it usually enriches the product as a whole. It’s good teamwork when a playwright watches an actor and says, “You know what? It’s all in your face; it’s more powerful if you DON’T say that line.”

Each year, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre sponsors a festival of ten-minute plays written by high school students. When I visit the schools to help them start writing, one thing almost always occurs. The first time around, a young playwright will frequently write detailed instructions for the actors in every line – I call it “stage-managing” the actors:

Bob (combing his hair, not looking at Sally): Hand me the potato chips.
Sally (smiling and picking lint from her dress): We ate them all.

It soon becomes very clear that the playwright’s “idea” of the scene can actually be a restriction to creativity, and that in dictating acting choices too insistently, the playwright wastes one of his or her richest resources, the instincts and imaginations of the actor! Once you learn where one job ends and the other begins, it is both more liberating and more challenging – and more fun! – to write. Of course, the caveat that rings in my ears is from Derek Walcott, who cautioned us as playwriting students: “Beware of really good actors; they can fool you into thinking you’re a terrific writer!”

Steven Barkhimer

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