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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Playwright/Actor Dynamic

Ken Baltin and Steven Barkhimer
Richard Schotter stops me in the hall of Boston Playwrights' Theatre. “So how’s Jonathan coming along?” He’s asking about Jonathan Sussman, the character I’m playing in his latest play, The Sussman Variations, here at BPT, starting November 1. My kneejerk response is to say, “Hey, you’re the playwright; you tell me!” (As in “What do I know? I’m just the actor.”)

But I don’t. I say “Good; how is he coming along for you?”, because I realize Richard is not asking me how my “character work” is coming along, or whether I’m “ready” for opening in five days, or giving me “notes” about how to portray the character. What he’s asking me – as a colleague, and this is the remarkable thing about him, and about work at Boston Playwrights' in general -- is “does what we have feel good to you, make sense to you, does it flow properly, give you time to adjust?” etc. Are we working together as best we can to tell this story? He is asking me, with the confidence of a playwright who knows what story he wants to tell, and the trust of a fellow artist, what I think.

We usually don’t imagine Shakespeare’s actors turning to him with brows furrowed, squinting at their scripts, and offering “This whole ‘to be or not to be’ speech -- I don’t know, it just brings everything to a screeching halt for me.” And we tend to regard many play texts, especially classics, as fixed Final Products, rather than as works that evolved from a playwright’s initial vision to its practical realization on a stage. (You think Aeschylus didn’t have to find funding for the Oresteia, and that he had carte blanche on everything from content to costumes? Think again.)

It’s easy to imagine playwrights bending and twisting to accommodate purely practical considerations: time, space, money, audience, talent. But for playwrights to actively invite other influences, namely, the opinions, intuitions, and abilities of a director, a group of actors or designers, as they collectively labor to bring a project to light for the first time, on a particular schedule at a particular theatre, seems refreshing, magnanimous, and – certainly from a “mere” actor’s point of view -- empowering. And I think the result is that everyone shares the wealth as the ideas cross-pollinate and mutually enrich one another.

Steven Barkhimer, actor
The Sussman Variations

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