How Do You Collaborate With Actors?

Cusi Cram

'A Lifetime Burning,' 'Normal,' 'Trepidation Nation'

I like to think of a play as a blueprint for a house. All of the people involved in the production help build the house. In the context of a new play, the actors are the heavy lifters—they are the ones laying the foundation, brick by brick, of the emotional substance of the house.

As I come from an acting background, I tend to pay a lot of attention to the questions actors ask about the play and take note of the stumbling blocks they encounter as they delve into their characters. The initial process of a rehearsal can be quite painful for a writer. It is the time when everyone tries to find their bearings in uncharted territory, and all manner of questions and concerns emerge. But those questions are often very important and can change the course a play takes. As a younger writer, I would often change things immediately if an actor had a problem. I would try to solve the play after the first read-through. Now I tend to take more time and keep a list of questions, which I let percolate in my head through the rehearsal process.

In my most recent production, "A Lifetime Burning" at Primary Stages in New York, there was a beat at the end of the play that the actors and director were encouraging me to cut. I waited until I saw the play in front of audiences during previews to finally make the cut. It was a decision that came out of collaboration, and yet the play was ultimately my "house" and, as its architect, I made the final decision on my own.

Daniel Talbott

'What Happened When'

I think because I started out as an actor, and still mostly am an actor and director, everything I write and do is mostly influenced by the relationship between the actor and the play. I love writing and work that forces collaboration, where the play wouldn't be able to live or happen on its own without everyone in the room coming together in some way to tell the story. I love when actors find the heart and center of something and then start to play with it, ask tons of questions, and are honest and vocal about what they need to play a scene within the language and the physical beats and actions.

I know for some playwrights, they think it's the actor's job to just interpret the work that they've already created, but for me, I don't think the play is finished or actually happens until the actors and the director and designers are able to bring their work to it as well and start to embody it and play. I think there needs to be an immense amount of mutual love and respect in the room and that, as Shakespeare said, the play is the thing. And for me, that doesn't mean the playwright is the center of the room, but that the play itself is, and it's everyone's work that brings it alive—it's everyone's play.

Paul Cohen

'The Confidence Man,' 'Cherubina,' 'Mourn the Living Hector'

It is great fun to collaborate with actors, because each one brings a unique perspective to the process. Working with actors is one of the most rewarding parts of the theatrical experience.

When you write a play expressly for specific actors, this collaboration begins before you even pick up your pen. I've written plays in which the actors are a part of guiding character and story from the start. This allows you to lean on the people who will eventually say the words, and it gives you an ongoing gauge of how things stand.

But it can go very differently. For example, in the piece I'm currently working on with the Woodshed Collective, we have almost 50 actors, none of whom I'd met before. It's an adaptation of a Herman Melville novel called "The Confidence Man," and it's being performed on board a boat in the Hudson River. Some actors have strong feelings about Melville's intentions, some have strong feelings about boats, but because of the size of the project, it is difficult to get into a very close collaboration with any one actor. Still, when an actor comes up with something great—an alternate line or shade of meaning—there's no reason not to stick it in the play. The actor feels good about a lot of things, and you can pretend you wrote the line. This is very positive all around.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

'Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train,' 'Our Lady of 121st Street,' 'The Little Flower of East Orange,' 'The Last Days of Judas Iscariot'

For me, I don't care much about the set, the lights, the music cues, or the pretty stage pictures directors sometimes are tempted to create. All I really care about is the acting. I'm an actor myself; my only training as a playwright has come from acting. The acting is always the beginning, middle, and end. It's why I write.

So how do I collaborate with the actor? I don't go for improvisation, but I listen to actors. I listen earnestly to whatever they have to say, and I listen intently to how they use the dialogue on the page to achieve their characters' objectives on the stage. If a good actor can't say the line right, it tells me the line is likely wrong. If a good actor, after honest effort, is still confused as to what he or she is doing in a scene, I probably need to rewrite it.

Beyond that, my part of the collaboration is the script itself. My job is to create characters and situations that actors would want to play for free. My litmus test for any role I write is: Would I want to play it? Because if it doesn't excite me, it sure as hell won't excite the actors or the audience.

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