Monday, October 24, 2005


An interesting post on a blog I recently discovered. It is written by one Joshua James, professional playwright. It pertains to among other things, actors paraphrasing lines from a playwright's script. Though I had not planned on addressing this issue today, the post got me to thinking.

Warning: Minority Viewpoint approaching!

Please bear in mind:

1) I am responding to the ideals behind his post, more so than to the specific situations mentioned. Truth be told, if I were in his shoes, I would probably freak a bit in those situations too.

2) Compared to Mr. James, I write from the much less confining (but no less passionate) position of an amateur actor who usually performs an already established piece; written by people I will never meet. Mr. James mentions stories wherein he was working directly with actors trying to bring a brand new piece to life.

3) There are unions and contracts and copyrights and all that sort of fun thing out there that would make several of my ideals impractical in the highest echelons of the theatre world. But they are just ideals, and maybe someone shares them at heart, even if not in practice.

4) Despite my views, I take every play I am in very seriously. I come to my unpopular conclusions based on my love of theatre and acting. They are not based on wanting to stir up a hornet's nest, though I am sure many professional actors and playwrights will view me as low life theatre trash after reading this post. (Hence the title.)

That being said, behold my heresy.

Shakespeare or Sophocles have earned the right to verbatim performances of their work by centuries of staying power that no one alive today can lay claim to. (Though even those works are sometimes edited.) Even if contemporary playwrights do view their scripts to be as "sacrosanct" as those of the Bard, once their works are mainstream, some things should be considered.

Paraphrasing of lines, in the personal absence of the playwright, simply has to occur sometimes. Sometimes it's intentional. The director makes a call. An actor makes a request. Locally, such decisions are made for the betterment of the specific production, if not always for the betterment of the play itself. This is the sting I wish more playwrights were willing to withstand, once they hit big. (Though I acknowledge it to be a sting.)

As often as not, a departure from script is unintentional. In the heat of the moment, a "could" becomes a "should", and no agenda is responsible for said change.

As abhorred as the notion is to many playwrights, as an actor I have found the performance of a play often is different every night. Not a different show every night, but the same show is often different in subtle ways. A fine line perhaps, but a line nonetheless, and one I think adds to the magic of theatre.

Of course, actors, professional or not, need to make every effort to respect a script in its entirety. Whole plays, or even whole scenes should not be improvised on stage. At the same time playwrights, once their own personal influence on the performances of their works is exhausted, should be willing to trust actors to make respectable choices. Most actors I know who change a "would" or "could" here and there do not do so lightly. We are not, by and large, out to ruin a piece or screw with the cadence. But we, as actors, do have a cadence of our own we have to follow as well. 90% of the time, it matches the playwright's. The 10% however cannot be tossed aside as "bad acting".

Assuming a cue line is not altered, and the intrinsic meaning and theme of a line is not diminished, (which it clearly was in the stories mentioned by Mr. James in his post), I see nothing wrong with a simple paraphrase.

Let's face it, as a playwright, if you are a wild success, at some point your work will be performed outside of the world of professional contracts and unions. The day to day, local, small town theatres will one day take their shot at it. As unfair and grating as it must be on the nerves of a playwright, changes and edits will be made, in order to give the piece the life it needs to survive in a given venue. I for one, if I wrote a play, would make every Zen effort to accept these inevitable, but usually well intentioned changes early in the writing process. I will simply not be able to keep track of and sue every production on the road that mixes a few lines up.

And who knows? Such changes may allow for more spontaneity on the stage than I, with a computer in a dark room far away from a stage, could come up with on my own as I wrote the piece.

Just some thoughts. Feel free to quote me. Or you can simply paraphrase.