Why more actors should write plays.

Yesterday’s Sunday giveaway was for two tickets to Zach Braff’s new comedy at Second Stage.  As I was ‘giving it away,’ I started thinking about how surprised I was to hear that Zach Braff had a new comedy at Second Stage.

But why?

There have been a lot of actors that have written plays before.

But in my opinion, there should be more.

What’s unique about writing a play as opposed to writing a novel, short story, poem, etc. is that a play is not meant to be read on the page.  It is meant to be performed on a stage.

Therefore, an actor/writer, whose job it is to interpret written dialogue and turn it into the spoken word, may have an advantage over the writer who doesn’t have performance experience.

A writer who writes a line like, “Hey, can you turn on the AC, it’s hotter than the devil’s breath in here,” may not see or hear as many things in the line as someone familiar with the turns and twists an actor could take with the same line.

As a re-read what I’ve written here, it’s beginning to sound like a sweeping generalization that playwrights can’t be great unless they have walked upon the wicked stage as well as written.  That’s obviously not true.

My point is, that more actors should write . . . because they may get it more than they think.  (Come on actors out there, I know you have ideas . . . start one today!)

And more writers should act.  At any level.  It’s not going to guarantee any type of career.

But I’d bet money that it would help.


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You can’t sit on your audience’s shoulder.

I saw a show recently that frankly didn’t make much sense.  I just didn’t get it.

Afterwards, I found myself at the same table as the Author, and an informal post-show talkback ensued.  A very honest friend/audience member spoke up and said, “That scene that happened in the garage . . . I didn’t quite get that.  What was the character trying to say when he was asking about the XXXX?”

The Author then proceeded to give a very lengthy and somewhat eloquent explanation of the symbolism of the speech and the metaphors and so on and so on.  When the Author wrapped up this defensive monologue of his own, there was silence.  Then the audience member said, “Huh.  Didn’t quite get that.”

The Author looked a little perturbed and looked around for the rest of us to support him.  But we just kind of shrugged our shoulders and agreed that his statements, however brilliantly sheathed in symbolism they may have been, just weren’t getting through to the audience.

It was a very awkward rest of the evening.

But this convo reminded me of my very first college creative writing class at Johns Hopkins University, which was taught by a guy named Greg Williamson.  I loved this class, and whenever I asked for some extra help, Greg was always there to meet with me before or after class to look at what I wrote and offer some advice.

One day, I asked Greg to read a poem I had been working on.  He read it and then he asked me what it meant, so I explained it in a rush of 18-year-old emotion.  Like the Audience Member above, he said, “Huh. Didn’t get that.”  I started to explain some more and Greg cut me off, and said, “Ken, when someone reads your work, you can’t be there to sit on their shoulder and whisper in their ear what it’s about.  They’ve got to get it on their own.”

Greg was a smart guy, and his ‘on-the-shoulder’ principle applies to playwriting as well.  Brilliant writing is only brilliant when an author successfully communicates his message to his or her audience.

Otherwise, you might as well just write a journal, since no one is supposed to see that but you.


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