The Business of Show Biz: Actors Giving Feedback
Thursday, February 9, 2012
By Velina Brown
Q: I'm new to the professional acting community. I have been doing readings as much as I can to get to know people and hopefully get more acting jobs. Therefore, I don't want to offend anyone. But I am interested in collaborating. What am I supposed to say when the writer of a new play asks us actors what we think about the play? I've noticed the more experienced actors just smile and say the play's "great" or "sooo interesting," but they don't really say what they think until later, when it's just us actors at the bar. In school we mostly did plays by dead people, so I'm new to this. What's the deal? When the writers ask our opinion, is it just a formality or do they really want to know what the actors think? Is it career suicide for me to say what's on my mind and offer ideas?
| Actor and career consultant, Velina Brown.
A: Five playwrights were happy to weigh in on this important question. Michelle Carter, Mark Jackson, Jeff Raz and Michael Gene Sullivan all agree with Tanya Shaffer when she says, "I can assure you that if I ask for your opinion about the script, I really want to hear it." Unsolicited feedback is generally not appreciated. But typically if a playwright asks for your opinion after a reading, it's not "just a formality." They want to hear it.
But these writers would also like to clarify exactly what would be useful to them. Carter explains, "If the intentions of the playwright aren't clear to the actor but the actor shares—as the questioner says—'what's on his mind' and 'offers ideas,' those opinions may not be useful to the writer and may, as the questioner fears, even rub the writer the wrong way." So what do they want to hear? Raz says, "I want to hear each actor talk about their specific character from inside. A playwright has to balance the whole play, worry about the plot and the language and pacing and, and, and.... An actor gets to take one point of view and live it large." Shaffer concurs: "If you are acting in the piece, I especially want to know what is and isn't working for you as an actor. Who but you would have the deepest knowledge of your character?"
"First you have to realize the writer is conflicted: 51 percent of the writer wants honest feedback, even if it's painful, and 49 percent wants to hear that their play is the most wonderful, amazing theatrical epiphany you have ever experienced," Sullivan says. "What you don't want to do is give feedback so harsh and unhelpful that it make the writer defensive, and reverses that ratio. As a writer what I'm listening for in feedback is congruence—that as insane or wacky a character or situation may be, they still makes sense, they follow a logic and a reality. That's what the actors can tell me: Have I just created an interesting world, situation and peopled it with characters which make sense given the circumstance of their reality, or am I just living in a dream world where this crap makes sense only to me? I look to the actors to help me stay bound by whatever reality I've created."
Building trust takes time. But as Carter describes, "Once I have a strong working relationship with an actor, as far as I'm concerned, anything goes. My good actor friends who know me and care about my work can say anything and I'll be grateful for the candor. I just did a play with Warren David Keith; he would tell me in rehearsal why a line didn't work, and how to make it better, and he was always right. But if I'm doing a reading with an actor I don't know, I'd appreciate his beginning with questions."
Mostly, though, an actor's most powerful contribution to the play development process is their acting. "I find actors make great dramaturges simply by doing their job as actors," Jackson says. "As the playwright I build a car, so to speak, and the actors drive it. Their driving lets me know quite a lot about how the car takes to the road." Raz agrees, "Hearing a play read by good, committed actors is gold for a playwright."
As you can see, playwrights very much value the contribution of actors to the collaborative process. No need to fear "career suicide" when you participate fully. As Jackson puts it, "A fine rule of thumb is to give feedback when a playwright asks for it. But if the playwright doesn't ask, don't give it, and know that you may in fact already have given feedback aplenty with your performance."
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.