Place at the Table

Hello, everyone!
It’s been a while due to a combination of moving, pulling weight at the Addison Recorder, and submitting some new projects to Boom!/Archaia, but now that I am set up in the new home and the wifi is working properly, I’ll be adding more and more.
I have been working on a post about the absolute brilliance of Giant Days but No. 5 ended on such a phenomenal cliffhanger that I am waiting to see the resolution in No. 6 (which was supposed to be the end of the series anyway until Boom! in their wisdom expanded it to twelve issues). So instead I am going to talk about a bit of alchemy that happened a couple weeks ago and proved to be an instructive experience.

One of the major projects that has consumed me since 2013 is my screenplay, and at the beginning of July, I had my first table read ever as three superb actors and improvisers borough it to life.
This is something I would recommend any writer attempt to set up, even for non-dramatic writing, and there are several reasons for this, but the largest is: IT GETS YOU OUT OF YOUR HEAD.
Writing (unless you have a terrific partner) is by nature a solitary activity; it is hard to share a creative process or a particular logic on how a story is supposed to play out, so the solitude is in many ways necessary. However, for writing to connect with a lot of people, it has to be relatable in theme and character, and the latter point is where the solitary side of writing works against you. No matter how diverse your characters are, you are controlling what they do and say and guiding them to express your themes. The danger is obvious: they’ll all come out as variations on the same melody, their manners of speaking indistinct from each other.
Actors performing your work is both a test and a revelation. A test to guarantee that your dialogue isn’t samey and the conversations feel like actual conversations (thankfully, mine did) and a revelation in that your characters who lived in your head are now fully alive, and that much more able to surprise you.
Let me explain with what I learned at my table read. The small cast was due to the screenplay having only four speaking parts, one for a true supporting character. The three leads are a man and two women, and I conceived one of the women, and wrote her through seven drafts, as a sharp, sardonic know-it-all in the vein of Katharine Hepburn. The actress reading her dialogue is a very funny comedienne and I was sure she would bring out these qualities in the character. To my surprise, from her very first lines, she was speaking with a flat, drawling boredom. It took about two or three scenes for puzzlement to turn into understanding. The character was someone thoroughly dissatisfied with with what on the surface seemed a successful life; her journey through the film is of her wanting out but not sure how to get out, and she slowly falls in love with a man who shares her dissatisfaction and who she thinks might help her out. Given her situation and a connection with a kindred spirit not insisting she change, her boredom and mild dejectedness made perfect sense.
Equally importantly, this new understanding put the character in clearer contrast to the other female lead, a passionate woman with a loquacious, rapid fire, almost free verse way of speaking. Life and lifelessness now stood side by side to better dramatic effect.
I never would have figured this out had not an experienced performer dug deeper into the text and understood what was truly going on.
Actors are great in many other ways. If a line reading clearly confuses them, then you know you have to make the point more defined. If the overall plot doesn’t fully make sense to them, then it’s time to add a brief exploratory scene. And performers have read so many scripts that they know when you are being too wordy or piling too many unnecessary details into the text.
The result now is the tightest 107 pages I may have ever written.
In the aftermath, the other actress in my cast sent me a very gracious thank you, describing my writing as “an actor’s playground.” I would not go that far, but she and her colleagues have inspired me to try to give that feeling to all my work; not necessarily strictly in terms of acting, but in the hope that anyone who reads my writing will experience it as a world full of people they can interact with and relate to.

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