What Every Actor Needs to Know about Good Writing

William Shakespeare. Personal photo of Texas Shakespeare Festival Brochure, 1992.

The beauty of live theater is it requires animated human beings to bring words to life. That’s where the magic happens.

As you move deeper into rehearsals, the quality of work will become increasingly important.

So, what is the work?

Well, there are two levels of work in theater: The macro work, and the micro work.

Project management

The macro work — the overarching, broad view of the production — is old fashioned project management at every level. The producer, director, stage manager, set designer, costume designer, lighting designer, and others are all actively engaged in managing their portion of the show. This is the roll-up-your sleeves side of the business. Budgets, blueprints, lighting, sound, time-frames, schedules, material, props, all need a clear plan for a seamless production.

According to the Project Management Institute, there is a basic progression to every project: Initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing.

  1. The initiating is complete — the play is chosen; the cast and crew are set.
  2. Planning answers the questions “who, what, where, when, why, and how much?”
  3. All parties are now engaged in execution. This is the actor’s primary area of focus.
  4. And control? Well, the theater is nothing if not a controlled environment.
  5. Closing. As Chaucer once wrote, “All good things must come to an end.” (Troilus and Criseyde). The director will make plans for closing night — which, of course, will not arrive for a very long time.

Because most of these tasks are out of the actor’s control, she must now focus on what she can control, the words on the page: The script.

This is the micro work.

The script

And what is a script? A rhetorical question, no doubt — I am confident you know what a script is. Nevertheless, let’s break down the definition.

Merriam Webster dictionary describes a script as: 1 (2): the written text of a stage play, screenplay, or broadcast; specifically: the one used in production or performance.

In my view, a script is simply this: a specific collection of words placed in an exact order.

These are not random words. Any decent script is the result of arduous, meticulous discipline. The actor must have respect for the writer and the painstaking process he went through to get to the final draft. These words are the foundation of the play.

If you doubt writing a script is very hard, please visit Michael Hague online. Or allow me to recommend two books: On Writing by Stephen King and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Steve and Steve do an excellent job of explaining the work of the serious writer.

Brevity is the soul of wit. (Hamlet)

The best writers are masters of brevity. Or as William Strunk states in his classic The Elements of Style, “Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

In theater, the most vigorous writers are often the most successful.

Shakespeare is the undisputed king. He provided little to no character description in his plays, yet the words they speak create worlds that continue to transcend time. He understood the fundamental truth that characters come to life by the words they speak.

  • Favorite Shakespeare play: Henry V

Renown British playwright Harold Pinter is similar. In 2005 Pinter was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature after a long, storied career. Here is just a slice of how the Nobel committee described Mr. Pinter’s work:

“Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution.(nobelprize.org, 2005)

While I have no idea what ‘interlocution’ means, the strength of Mr. Pinter’s purposely sparse approach has stood the test of time.

  • Favorite Pinter play: Betrayal

In America, David Mamet is notorious for his use of raw, salty language and for his mastery of economy of words.Mamet, who was awarded the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Glengarry Glen Ross, about the cut throat world of American real estate salesmen, has a knack for packing a punch with slim dialogue.

  • Favorite Mamet film: The Edge

“Good evening, Clarise.”

To this day, that phrase sends a chill down my spine.

Great actors relish economy of words. Especially veteran actors like Sir Anthony Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins has optimized the power of stillness over his career.

Whether in Silence of the Lambs, Remains of the Day, or even his 2011 portrayal of King Odin in Thor, Hopkins barely moves his body, yet keeps us on the edge of our seat with his delivery. He is so good, in fact, I think someone needs to start the Anthony Hopkins school of acting, if only to teach actors how to remain still.

The pen and the sword

According to the BBC.com the famous phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” stems from the 1839 play Cardinal Richelieu by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it or seen a production, but what is interesting to note is the full context of the line:

“The pen is mightier than the sword…take away the sword, states can be saved without it.”

The power of a play ultimately rests in its writing. Those words carry the power to persuade minds, move hearts, and perhaps even alter the course of a nation. Well written books, our favorite films, and unforgettable songs all capture a place in our hearts through their words.

The best writers work on their scripts for years, enduring multiple revisions, until it rings true.

The work of the actor is to bring those words to life.