Dear Actor (Sincerely, Playwright)
Congratulations on being cast. Before you begin, please read this letter. I have a mystery I need you to solve.
I’d like to introduce myself: I’m the playwright. Please know that while this play might be labeled a comedy or drama, it is in fact a mystery that only you —the artful actor—can solve.
Before we get to the details of this mystery, let’s assume that you are the flavor of actor who refers to the character you are playing in the first person singular. “I want a cheeseburger.” Instead of “The character wants a cheeseburger”.
Now, let’s get to the mystery. Imagine that you just woke up. You’re in motel room. You have no idea how you got there, where you are, or even who you are. Your memory is a cold, dark void.
This motel room is the script. You are the mystery.
In the pages of the script, I have left a trail of clues—some blatant and obvious, others deviously hidden. Find all the clues, piece together their meaning, and solve this mystery. Who are you? How did you get here? What do you want? Who and/or what stands in your way? What’s at stake? What will do you next? Your job as an actor is not simply to act. Your job as an actor is to solve this mystery, and like any great detective, show us the truth.
To prepare you for your journey, I’ve created a four-point guide. Read the guide before reading the script.
1. Find the clues.
Everything you need to know about yourself is on the page — you just have to find it. The dialogue will serve as your trail of clues. Pay close attention to what you say (and what others say) —note every half statement and contradiction. A single word could be important.
Examine the punctuation. Know the cadence of a period versus a semi-colon or comma. Follow directions like Beat, Pause and Silence. Some clues can only be unlocked when the words are said in the beats and rhythms in which they are written. An added word or an ignored comma could throw you off the trail. This does not mean you should avoid experimentation (please experiment); just don’t overlook the clues.
2. Avoid distractions.
As an actor, you likely have an established and time-honed process (as you should). You might be the type of actor to create a backstory for yourself, complete with likes and dislikes, secrets and seductions. Depending on your training, you might be the type to hunt for clues along the dark alleyways of your recalled memory; you might even employ parallel dialogue or “as if” situations, attempting to place yourself into an empathetic emotional mind frame. Do so with purpose and only as a tool to reveal what is on the page. Create new facts at the peril of missing established clues. Do not distract yourself from solving this mystery.
3. Commit everything to memory—verbatim.
Your detective work will carry well past rehearsals and into performances, so it is imperative that you have all the clues at your disposal at all times. This requires one simple task: memorize the script verbatim. Do this immediately. Be diligent.
Your desires might drive you to make decisions about yourself from the very first read of the script. This is perfectly normal and to be expected, but you must avoid this temptation at all cost. Be steadfast. You can’t solve the mystery until you have collected all the clues. Memorization must come first. Solving the mystery comes second.
4. Follow your gut.
Your journey is long. You will face dubious doubts and dangers, frustrations and fears. Surprises lurk around every corner. You’ll face a cast of characters (literally), and at any moment, someone may try to force your hand.
If you feel lost, just say the words on the page. Listen to the dialogue. Listen to the other actors. Trust that the answers lie in what is written. And then: just follow your gut. You are the master of your craft. Trust that. Your instincts will guide you.
Good luck, detective. I’m honored and humbled that you will bring life to my story. I will rediscover my imagination through your eyes. And so, the script is now yours. Let your journey begin.
And I mean it: memorize.
Postface: This post has received a far greater response that I could have ever expected. Most of it positive, some of it negative. It’s inspired wonderful debates, but it’s also stirred the barbs of bullies. I’ve written a follow-up. I hope you will read: A Postface to “Dear Actor”