What the Writer and Director Can Teach the Actor

Pete Sheldon

  • OnStage Columnist

Actors lead a tough life. Not that you needed me to tell you that. They run from audition to audition. When they don’t get cast they’re left muddled in a pool of their own doubt before decidedly running towards the next project that comes their way. They are constantly under pressure, and shoved under a microscope. They’re the subject of every whim and nitpick of directors, agents, themselves etc. You get my point but what’s that to do with the title of this article? What I’m going to divulge is some of the discoveries an actor can make if they have possibly hit a creative barrier and want to try delving into the world of a playwright or a director.

First, I will start with the playwright, or as they are also known as: The people posing with coffee cups in all their New Play Exchange profile pictures. I encourage all actors to write. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a good writer, that doesn’t matter. As a playwright, the actor can learn elements of world-building that can transfer into acting work. For example: Before you write a scene, you must identify the setting. In the setting, you can create the key elements of the world you’re building. Do you set the scene in a back alley littered with neon pink graffiti, crushed beer cans, and cigarette butts? What song would play in this background? How do you describe the characters? Would you describe the protagonist as a woman who wears biker jackets with tie dye shirts, walks with a limp, and has a hint of a Jersey accent? Here, the actor can use playwriting as a supplemental tool for opening up the imagination of the actor.  This can aid in the creation of a character, and create a world to play in. No matter what methodology you adhere to as an actor, carrying atmospheres and inhabiting the world of the play is an essential part of storytelling. 

Next, there’s the exploration of the personal voice of playwriting.  At times, as actors, it can be hard to find a personal voice and easy to feel like it can be lost. Directors can pull actors in different directions, which can be good, but it can also overwhelm the actor. Playwriting is an excellent way to find a personal voice and truly own a creative work. I usually find that the writing and dialogue in a play reflects the writer. That opens up an opportunity of self-exploration for the actor, and that is also important aspect of acting. The feedback you receive from a play can be just as insightful as feedback from an audition. People might describe your play as “Brechtian,” “Dark,” or “Beckett on steroids.” These can all be informative hints that the actor can explore, but also, it is a chance for the actor to own who they are in their own voice. Again, whether you consider yourself a “good” writer is not important. What is important is the exploration and discoveries to be made.

Now I will move to the director. It’s an interesting moment when an actor gets in the director’s chair for the first time. Some have described it as an almost out of body experience. This is because the actor is viewing things from the opposite end of the spectrum, and then something extraordinary happens. The scene somehow hits a wall. The director tries to guide their actors through it, but it’s still not quite clicking. The actors get frustrated. The director gets frustrated. Then, the actor-turned-director realizes something. They were in the exact same position in rehearsal not too long ago. They are then forced to remember how they worked through the scene with the director and how to translate that for the actors they are currently in the room with. This helps the actor become familiar with the view from the other side, so to speak. When the director returns to acting, they will then know more about the director’s perspective and the translation of direction into action. This enables the actor to become more communicable in the rehearsing room. Not only do they become more receptive to direction, but more creative in the direction. Like writing, directing might not be your cup of tea, but the experience is valuable one. 

In the theatre, there are many forms of creativity. Here, I have just given brief accounts how three can intertwine and enrich each other. The writer, the director, and the actor obviously never have to be three separate entities. Instead, they can mold and shape each other. Each can embody each other with skills and perspectives that can strengthen the other. While I believe an actor should try writing and directing at least once, I am more trying stress the importance of finding different creative forms to play in as an artist. This just happens to be the examples I most familiar with.   Again, what’s important is the exploration of other artistic skills can only contribute to and enrich the whole of your artistic capabilities.