Saturday, May 14, 2011



     One day in a beginning scene study class, two young actors were working on Act II, Scene 7 from Angels In America: Louis and Joe sit on a park bench in front of the Hall of Justice, eating hot dogs. It’s a wonderful scene, one which I often assign, and in the middle of the scene Joe has what might be termed a short monologue, interrupted only by an interjection from Louis. (In actuality I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “monologue,” but that is a subject for another day.) When the scene was over, I asked the actor playing Joe — let’s just call him “Joe” — to read the monologue directly from the script. He did so, and when he was done, I asked him to find the phrase “you know” in the monologue, and tell me how many times it appeared. He looked through the script for a few moments. Then he looked up at me and said, “It’s not in there.”
     “Do you care to hazard a guess as to how many times you said it?” I asked.
     He hesitated, and it seemed for a moment that he was going to say that he hadn’t said it at all. But by this point in our working together, he knew me, and knew that I was driving at something, so he took a flyer. “Thirteen?” To his credit, he was close.
     “Fifteen,” I said. Then I asked him to close the script, look at the cover, and read what it said at the top, above the title.
     “The Pulitzer Prize-winning Play,” he said.
     “That’s right,” I said, “and the Pulitzer Prize is awarded to a playwright for writing, and we must respect that.” Indeed, it is noteworthy that in the submission guidelines for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it states that “A videotape of the production is strongly urged but is not required.”
     The great actor and teacher Herbert Berghof said, “Words are the messengers of our wishes.” The playwright reveals the desires and intentions of the character using both description of action and the lines the character is to speak. When a stage direction prescribes an action, perhaps saying “Louis mimes barfing in Joe’s lap,” as in the scene from Angels in America, we would never think of changing that to suit our own idea of an alternative action. We might be free to perform the “barf” the way we want, realistically, cartoonishly, — in that freedom lies the art of our interpretation — but “barf” we must. We should no more think of eliminating that action than we would an entrance or an exit. So it is with the words that the playwright assigns to us. They are the “messengers” of the character’s wishes, actions that define the character every bit as much as entering, exiting, slapping, barfing, falling, dying. Your work as an actor is to find an interior life that will let you own the actions and the words of the character as set down by the playwright, not to alter those actions or words to suit your own ideas as to what the character should be doing or saying.
     Sometimes, it might seem impossible to speak the line as it is written by the playwright. You look at it on the page and don’t believe that it could ever come out of your mouth in a natural way, and so you back off of it, swallow it when you say it, pull the energy out of the scene and the playwright’s design. But by backing off of it, you preordain a negative outcome. Rather, you should invest in it fully, give it everything that you have. Attach the arrow of your intention to the words, and in so doing, you may discover that it does indeed hit its target.
     I had a lesson in this phenomenon while rehearsing for Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends, another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in which I was playing the character of Gabe. At one point, confronted with a situation both devastating and confusing, the only line Gabe is given is “Huh.” At first this left me, the actor, feeling incredibly uncomfortable. It didn’t seem to even be a line, but rather just a sound, and I tried many different ways of swallowing it as I said it, glossing over it, sliding it in unobtrusively, avoiding it. None of these half-assed attempts, none of these readings, worked. I could tell that both my performance and the play were suffering as a result, that in that moment, I was amateurish, a pale reflection of a real person. It was only when I tried to say the word with vigor, not swallowing it, that I discovered that it was not an aside, nor an inarticulate way for Gabe to express something. Rather, Margulies was choosing a word that was perfectly articulate. The word “Huh,” spoken clearly, with strength and intent, was the most exact expression of what Gabe is experiencing at that moment. Any other phrase would not do. I also discovered that, although the discomfort I was feeling did not disappear, it was now Gabe’s, and not mine. And that is what we want to be doing as actors: Live the life, experiences, and thoughts of the characters, on stage, in front of the audience, so that we can tell the story set down by the playwright.
     Theater is, of course, a collaborative art form, and one of the most exciting things you can do as an actor is to engage with a playwright during the creation of a new work, to be at those first table reads where the text is dissected, your character’s journey tracked and modified, his voice refined. But this is a privilege earned by those that have the chance to work on the play at the various stages of its development, and even throughout the development process, the playwright is king. You, as an actor, may contribute to the refinement of your character’s dialogue, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the playwright. But once he or she has determined what the lines will be, then those are the lines you must speak, and once the play is produced and published, it is set in stone.
     In the end, we do our best in the telling of the story framed by the playwright, illuminating the lives of the characters, when we focus on the words we are given. If we divine the wishes that these words signify, and invest ourselves in the meaning of those words selected by the playwright, we will not need to add “You know?” We will be sure enough of ourselves and our actions to know that our intentions will land. We will not need to interject “I mean,” because we will have the confidence that we are already meaning it. As Hamlet said, “ . . . let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.” Although Hamlet is speaking here specifically of clowns, it is advice that we should all take to heart. For he goes on to say, and I agree, that taking liberties with the text is “villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.” So please, speak the words, speak only the words, and speak all the words. Now, “Go make you ready.”

© 2011 Matthew Arkin


  1. Fantastic, Matthew! You succinctly articulate what all playwrights these days suffer through, "you know?"

  2. Thanks Matthew. Reminds me of our journey last year doing SURF REPORT at the La Jolla Playhouse, and I was struggling getting the exact "and...uh...that...uh..." etc that the playwrite had interspersed throughout my dialogue. I remember complaining privately to you what a pain in the ass it was having to learn the precise stutterings of my character, and you just smiled and said, "yeah, but that's your job". Ha! You were right, of course. You reminded me of Stella Adler back in my early days who always bellowed at us "respect the author!!". Wish I could take your class, my friend.

  3. I thought that's what acting was meant to be. When I read a story I don't add words to the author's, even Dr. Suess aloud - especially Dr. Suess. Everything else is improv. Someday I will take an acting class.

  4. As an amateur actor I find this article to be very enlightening. Thank you!. I often struggle with certain lines in plays and like Joe i'll default into saying things like "I mean". I find that in the end it doesn't help my communicability with certain lines by adding phrases like "I mean." If anything it make me more uncomfortable.