I like working with actors when I write. It’s such a powerful experience. Actors love a script because they glean from it nuances that I, the writer, didn’t intuit or even intend. It’s like when you fall in love with someone and they start to notice little things about you that you didn’t even know were there yourself. It feels very validating. For the writing process it can be invaluable. Working with actors can enrich a script even right at the early stages of writing.
You might work with an actor on a completed script in order to deepen a character or to make the dialog flow better. Working with an actor on a script that has stalled can breathe fresh life into it with the added bonus of breathing fresh enthusiasm into you the writer. You can even start off a script project from scratch armed with just an idea, a tape recorder, notepad and an actor.
I was lucky enough to meet Mike Leigh at the London Screenwriter’s Festival a couple of years ago. As a writer and director, he works with actors and lets them find the performance before the script is written. This really appealed to me as a way to work, so for me working with actors is nearly always part of what I do. And it makes good sense. Actors are going to be performing the script, so why not let them get in on it as early as possible? The actor will interpret the script eventually, why not let the writing be an interpretation of the actor too?
Fundamentally what is required is a willingness to play along. A spirit of playfulness is vital. Likewise it helps if you can check the egos at the door, at least for long enough to get the ideas flowing. There is a wonderful synthesis that can happen when a writer and an actor work together. Here are a few guidelines that are best acknowledged from the start:
- Check your egos
This is vitally important. Make the creative space a safe place. All ideas are good. No one is right and no one is wrong. If you work well with the actor you may find that a little creative friction can be a good thing and your differences can work to push the ideas, but monitor this carefully as it can easily go too far and destroy what you've set out to build. Remember your goal is to create an environment where you the writer can get ideas. Personally I prefer to approach it from a more open position and try not to defend or reject ideas too strongly. Not all writer/actor combinations are going to work well but that doesn't mean you can't get a lot out of the session.
- Structuring the Session
Take some time to set up an atmosphere of playfulness and creativity. You can do this with some improv exercises (more on this soon!) and be sure to set out clear rules for acceptable behaviour during the session, especially if working with multiple actors/writers. As the writer, this is your show but you have to play a genial host and be accommodating of your guests. You can choose to set an an agenda for the session or you may just like to keep the agenda in the back of your head just in case things don’t go to plan organically on their own. Set a time limit for how long the session will last. Actors and writers alike can get carried away when a session is working out well, but remember everyone has finite energy. Breaks, refreshment and time limits are important. No one wants to end up feeling too drained for their bus ride home, and it won’t help good feeling in the long run.
- Respect your Roles
Everyone thinks they can write, just like everyone thinks they can act, so from the off there’s likely going to be an element of thinking we can do the other person’s job. It’s important then that you both recognise the skills and the training that each of you has. Actors are skilled at intuiting character and subtext and using their knowledge of behaviour and emotion to build their performance from that. Writers are masters of crafting their knowledge of style and story with their own experiences and research into a complete and satisfying whole. It’s important for both of you to recognise these strengths and do the part that you do best. The writer’s job is still to write the script. Likewise for the actor it is a chance to get a deeper insight into the character to strengthen and enhance their end performance. But as the writer you are running the show. If you can check your ego and see yourself more as a facilitator then you will find that the session runs better and you will get more benefit from it. Don’t preempt the results of the session beforehand. Try to let it be what it is. Trust me you will get more out of it than you realise. Remember that writers are actors to some degree as we play out what we write in our heads before it goes on the page. It’s not uncommon for actors to feel a little insecure about the idea of writing and this can lead to them being more forceful than perhaps they need to be. Remember they are there because you want their input so it is in your interest to have them be as relaxed and secure as possible. Help the actor to do what they do best. They are used to being directed and they are used to improvising so you have the best of both worlds and it will work if you let it. Be a gracious host and it’ll work better for everyone.
- Stay fluid
It’s vital not to get too attached to a particular scene, storyline or plot device. The idea here is to try out possibilities for size. Let your writer’s mind feed off the skill and experience of the actor. Let the actor feed off the boundaries set by the skill and experience of the writer. Writers afraid to ‘kill their babies’ as the popular phrase goes, whereas actors will often want to hold on to what they see are precious moments and opportunities. Writing this way is about exploring. Don’t be afraid to let the actor run with things as it will deepen the character you’re writing. Remember you get the final say on what ends up in the final script.
- Meet the moment
If you’ve ever jammed in a band, you’ll know how sweet it is to find yourself in that moment where you’ve found a groove that’s borne out of the gestalt of the players and the essence of the moment. The vital thing to remember is that it is AWAYS temporary. A creative jam session between writer and actor works in exactly the same way. That sweet groove you’ve discovered will disappear as fast as it materialised. So enjoy it while it’s happening, try not to think about it too much, and above all respect the ephemeral nature of it. Nothing will kill it faster than trying to hold onto it. Have faith in the moment that you will be able to preserve and recreate the best elements of the improvisation session later. What’s important will stick. Don’t try to force it. Respect the moment.
- Record your session
Set a recorder well in advance of getting down to business. That way you can forget that it’s there and you won’t feel self conscious. Once there’s a recorder running very often you can relax and stop stressing about remembering everything that’s been said. And guess what? Yep you’ll start naturally remembering what’s been said. That said check your recorder is still running. I rarely end up listening to these recordings, but you can bet your boots that if you do want to recover a particularly important part of your session that can never be recreated, yep, it’s two minutes after the tape ran out.
- Webcam vs Video
Using webcams can be great for recording an entire room during a creative session. It’s easier to forget that it’s there and there tends to be less performance to camera which can lead to an actor getting too attached to a particular scene or storyline because of the performance opportunities that it offers.
- After the session
If the session was successful then you’ll most likely go away from it feeling good. Now you can sit straight down to write and pour it all out onto the page. Or you can sit on it for a few days to let it gel a little before starting to write. Personally I prefer to do the latter. It can be tempting to go with the heady excitement generated by the session, but I generally find that the writing works better if I let the session settle into my memory a little longer and my writer’s head clicks back into place better. Write too soon and I find that I’m trying too hard to stick to the story elements that came out of the session. Plus you will be more stressed about getting everything down just as it was in the session. Stress inevitably creates poorer writing. Trust yourself that the important stuff will stick in your memory and make it into the finished script.
- Respect the session
Long after the session you will undoubtedly remember it, whether or not the discoveries you made there made it into the final script, whether or not there even was a final script. It’s important to respect the session and remember that, for the actor, it was a performance for which you may have been the only audience. That’s a sacred thing and a valuable memory. Treasure it!