The Play is Not the Thing

A blog post by Emerald City playwright S.P. Miskowski – Emerald City opens March 9th at West of Lenin. For more from the cast & crew visit the Emerald City Blog.

“The actor is the one irreducible element of theatrical performance.”

These were the first words from Jack Clay the first time the writers from the graduate program sat in on his master class for actors. I took these words to heart, considered them while writing my way through those rather grueling three years, and have returned to them many times since.

Professor Clay was not favoring the actor out of loyalty to his craft. And he wasn’t trying to insult the playwrights, who already knew that their elevated position in the hierarchy of theater was assured. He was passing along an essential truth that writers of drama ought to recognize before going any further:

You can make a theatrical performance without stagecraft, without technology, without a theater, without a director, without costumes and makeup, and without a script. But without a person, a performer, you have nothing. If you will allow your writing ego to fully understand and accept this precept, then whether your work is highly imagistic or dialog-driven, wildly experimental or well crafted and modern, you’re cooking with gas.

I got into theater in high school as a means to balance an academic load that included geometry, American history, Latin, and mandatory, daily P.E. I needed a laugh. When I bought my books for the semester I spotted a drama text and decided to drop journalism–simple as that. For three years my outlet, my self-therapy was theater. I acted in plays and wrote comedy sketches with my friends. It got me through.

In college I majored in Psychology for a year and then switched to English (with an Anthropology minor) to concentrate on the writing workshops I needed just to maintain the appearance of sanity. I knew I wasn’t talented enough as an actor to make it worthwhile pursuing a career in theater (although a T.A. who heard my rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” insisted that I could make a living in musical comedy–ha!). I wrote short stories, as I had done since I was eight years old, and now I revised, polished, honed them in workshops so vicious that we joked about hosing down the walls when the bloodletting was over.

Several jobs, several story publications, many literary projects, and a major award later I decided to try my luck at theater again. I was broke, my marriage had just ended, and I needed the same thing I had needed in high school to balance geometry and Latin: fun. I needed fun. If I had known how challenging the graduate program would be I might have reconsidered. Anyway, I jumped in with both feet and the first and most valuable thing I learned, which remained true throughout those sleep-deprived, caffeine-stained years was:

“The actor is the one irreducible element of theatrical performance.”

This statement runs contrary to what most writers and directors–and many actors–believe. Writers in particular like to think that their contribution to theater is the most essential. Time and again I’ve heard writers grind on about “the play” (meaning their latest play) and how everybody who touches it is ruining it. “They don’t get it,” writers will say of the actors struggling to make sense of some jumbo-sized nonsense left over from an earlier draft. “They’re messing it up.”

Two things.

  1. There is no ideal production of a good play. If it’s good, it’s open to interpretation. It has nuances and it allows room for delightful accidents to occur. It isn’t a mechanism the actor must fit into or die, crushed between its wheels and rotary blades. It is invisible and organic. It moves and it gives, and it changes every time it is performed. This is part of the very nature of dramatic writing, a built-in factor like earthquake engineering. Your job is to construct a platform on which the actors can run, jump, sing, dance, and hurl furniture. Your job is to build it so it doesn’t break. Your ideas have to be in the foundation, not blowing around on the roof like a windsock.
  2. The actors know their characters better than you do. They read the play more carefully than you do. They go on stage each night and–although they represent the playwright, director, designers, technicians, front of      house, and theater management–they are alone out there with an audience. The actor is the irreducible element, and no matter how stunning you think your precious play is, the actor’s butt is the one on the line. You can disown the show. The director can take an assignment in another city and leave. The people who handle lights and props and costumes can commiserate with one another even while the horror goes on under the bright lights, where the actors do everything in their power to make the damn thing work, night after night.

Maria Irene Fornes urges writers in her workshop to be more like actors when we write. Don’t say you can’t do it. An actor stands in the wings in costume, ready to walk on stage. Does he stop and say: “Hey, I’m not really feeling the inspiration tonight. I think I’ll have a beer and watch some Jeopardy.” No. He pulls back that curtain and goes on.

“The actor is the one irreducible element of theatrical performance.”

There are playwrights who will blame others for an inadequately constructed script. I’m not perfect, I’ve done my share of whining, but the more I learn about performance and what does and doesn’t work on stage, the more I see the wisdom of concentrating on the person, the performer.

Yes I have ideas. I have themes. I have a story. But it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got a human being at its heart. Theater is about people, and the people on that stage are the actors. Not the writer. My play is one piece of a much bigger project, one that incorporates the expertise of many artists and craftsmen. The people who build the set are as important as the person who builds the script.

Every element is important, but when the house lights go down and the audience looks up, they see actors and they identify with them–whether they are dressed like lions, speaking in rhyming couplets, pushing a bowling ball across the floor, or carrying on what sounds like a natural conversation. Theater is about people, and the actor is the core of it all. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a playwright.