Playwright Frank Strausser shares the benefits of working with actors to figure out why your scenes are not working.
Every writer is on a solitary mission to solve their own story problem. But must it be so?
I’ve had considerable success as a playwright, including having Sally Kirkland, an Academy Award Best Actress nominee, star in my first play, and my plays have been performed in London’s West End and Off Broadway. But I started out as a novelist who couldn’t get himself arrested until I found my voice as a dramatist.
Referencing my first attempt at a novel, a literary agent said something very poignant, “Your writing needs to be not true to life, but bigger than life.” At that time, I had difficulty accepting this criticism. It was the writing guru Robert McKee who during his seminar offered an insight into how I might move forward when he challenged the writers in the room to take an acting class.
Fortunately, an actress referred me to the late Milton Katselas, one of the foremost acting coaches in America and an estimable theatre director. After looking at my work, he took me under wing as a writer in his “scene study” class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. There I found myself studying with a hundred actors, among them Anne Archer, the late Doris Roberts, Giovanni Ribisi, and even the accused murderer Robert Blake. I was expected to write scenes for class and did, workshopping my first two plays there.
The typical scene was twenty minutes long. Many were rehearsed for weeks before being staged for class. After watching Milton from his director’s chair eviscerate these performances usually for an hour apiece, I began to realize what that literary agent was getting at when she spoke of making my writing “larger than life.” Drama has to be activated. And you don’t learn how to do this in most writing classes.
Stories Have Conflict
The truth is that every story lives or dies because it has conflict, whatever the genre. Milton gave the note once in class, “A scene needs trouble.” I’d argue that there are many writers who have the bones of a good novel but fail because moment-to-moment and scene-to-scene they haven’t found the trouble to test their characters and activate the drama.
The process actors go through in assuming a role is to figure who they’re playing. They have to think about what their character wears, what his or her backstory is, and they have to think about “behavior.” What is it that makes this character an individual? Does he or she have a limp? Or how ‘bout a lisp? What does the character desire? Or fear? These last questions are particularly important because suddenly we have to give our character a point-of-view. And all characters have points-of-view as well.
The actor then has to meet another actor or actors in a story, and this is where the trouble comes in. The actors don’t behave as it appeared in the script because of the above choices. What if the backstory an actor has chosen is to be terribly impatient and rude? Suddenly Character One’s well-rehearsed lines don’t seem right, particularly since Character Two keeps talking over them and interrupting. This requires adjustments, which may even amount to Character One tossing his or her lines and assaulting Character Two. Why not? It’s worth exploring in the context of the scene.
Activate the Drama
But there’s more, in shaping the scene we want our characters to have opposing points-of-view. That’s where the author comes in. We must create trouble or, better yet, conflict. We must look for it wherever we can find it and the more deeply rooted it is in opposing desires and characterizations, the better.
When I staged a scene from my first play The Powder Room for Milton at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, he tore into me because one of my characters wasn’t written into the scene, since she wasn’t reacting to what was happening. The drama of the scene had not been activated. A man sat next to her and in that moment, we don’t know what she feels. I’d intended to have her move away from him, because she found him objectionable, but this had to build from the moment he walked into the room. I hadn’t considered that I needed to present her reaction to him from the first moment. Since I hadn’t given her any direction in the script whatsoever, she was just a prop. And that’s bad writing because it doesn’t reveal conflict. Where’s the trouble in the scene? It can’t come out of nowhere. It has to be developed.
Too often authors try to write their way out of story problems, but then we’re telling and not showing and this inevitably leads to reliance on clichés. You avoid this by raising the stakes enough that the characters propel the drama. If you stage the scene with actors, you’ll realize there needs to be another plot point, something to activate the drama that isn’t there. In the best writing the characters are sufficiently motivated that they take over the story and push the author aside.
In the theatre, we talk about a “kitchen sink drama” which is about characters engaging, as I’ve described above, in a single room. It’s unadorned. No special effects. It’s what we call “simple reality.” Yet, there is enough drama in that for a full story—or certainly a great scene.
As novelists we have more freedom than even filmmakers or playwrights because we are not confined by budgets and locations or time. If we want to set a scene literally on the moon, we can. However, we are well served when we focus on character and character motivation above all else. When we ground our stories in this, they become electric. The challenge is to ask ourselves if there is enough trouble going on.
Benefits of Actors Reading Your Story
For all the great instruction I’d received from Milton, I still struggled with my novel Plastic because the drama wasn’t sufficiently motivated and the stakes simply weren’t high enough. I tabled the book for a number of years until someone suggested it might make a good film. So I wrote a screenplay. Suddenly, I had a script and cause to bring actors into the room to read it. Thus I found myself able to evaluate the whole story theatrically and it became easier to apply some of the lessons I’d learned as a playwright. Once I stripped away some of the prose, the story was exposed. It became obvious that certain scenes were flat. That my characters weren’t compelling enough. In effect, I was able to take my dramaturgical approach and apply it to my novel. This made all the difference.
Another key benefit is instant feedback. You can invite an audience and they can respond. For some, this is scary, but if you think your work is ready for prime time, then test it. Make sure it is. One of the big differences between writing a novel and theatre is that live performances can be changed, but there comes a point where a novel is set in stone.
Frankly, it wouldn’t hurt for novelists to get out from behind their computers and grab a few actors or even friends and have them play out their writing. Free the work from the page and get it up on the stage, as it were. Hear it. Put it into another medium so that it can be revealed seemingly for the first time. Toss aside all those words and see your story in skeletal form. See if it can stand that exposure.
Tell one of the actors or readers privately even though it isn’t on the page to shamelessly flirt with the other reader the whole time. See how that feels. Try stuff. This is what directors do. This is also what theatre writers and screenwriters explore in workshops. There is no reason why this collaborative approach can’t be employed by the novelist too, even if it’s just to fine-tune a five-minute scene.
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