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In Appreciation of the Actor

In Appreciation of the Actor
When writing a play, I find it helpful to imagine specific actors in the roles. I utilized this technique most often during the writing of my play "Grenadine," which I first wrote as a novel eight years ago. While I liked the characters, the novel itself was cumbersome, and the characters seemed confined by it. In frustration, I set the novel aside for a few years.

It was only after I moved to Buffalo, N.Y., and began to see more theater that I realized why the characters had seemed so confined: They demanded to be put on stage, to become actors; everything in the novel that wasn't dialogue was either superfluous or a stage direction. I began to imagine some of the actors I had seen as characters in "Grenadine." By imagining an actor deliver the lines, you get a fresh perspective, a more tangible visualization, and a clearer voice on the stage; you pay more attention to the actor's needs—the motivation behind a line, the physical presence, the appropriate irony. You must be careful, however, not to rely too heavily on this. You may subconsciously allow the actor to make more of a line than you've actually written; you'll convince yourself that though the line isn't quite right, the actor will make up for it. This is unfair to the actor and disastrous to the play. Another potential problem is the impossibility of truly hearing how an actor will deliver a line. You might get the approximate sound of the voice, but everything else—the interpretation, the physical manifestation—will be different. This all becomes quite clear when you actually hear an actor—whom you've been hearing in your head for months—deliver a line. Your first inclination is to hold up your hands and cry, "Wait a minute! That's not what you sound like!"

This experience is quite fresh in my mind as I was recently part of the rehearsal process for the world premiere of "Grenadine," which just opened in Buffalo at the Road Less Traveled Theater. One of the many reasons I wanted to work with Road Less Traveled is its mission to include the playwright, when possible, in the rehearsal process—a potentially maddening experience for everyone involved, but one of the reasons Road Less Traveled is such a great theater: its commitment to the text and the world of the play. The "world of the play," however, is necessarily transformed as it leaves the head of the playwright. How bizarre it was to hear some of the actors who'd convinced me, years ago, that "Grenadine" was a play—whom I'd been hearing and visualizing for so long—with completely different intonations. Before I could make any evaluation, I was stunned by my own misconceptions. It's startling that a voice could be so convincing—could change one's entire conception of a piece—and then turn out to be so different.

Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of the rehearsal process is the opportunity to watch an actor grow into a role—to perceive, day by day, how a line becomes richer, more nuanced. The actor discovers aspects of the voice that you hadn't considered before. The moment you begin to create a character on the page, the character starts to make decisions. At that point, as the writer, you're really just holding on; at most, you rein in the character from time to time. It struck me during rehearsals that the freedom a writer gives to a character on the page is comparable to the freedom an actor has to discover—and then to control—in that character. This is all part of the tantalizing world of the theater, the delicate balance that must be sought. Everyone who works on a play strives toward that perfection, with the knowledge that it can never be attained but that the attempt is possible.

Neil Wechsler lives in Buffalo, N.Y., with his wife and their two children. His play "Grenadine" won the 2008 Yale Drama Award for emerging playwrights. Edward Albee was the judge.

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