Sympathy for the Actor

I recently found myself in the uncommon position of acting (which, given my rudimentary thespian skills, I rarely do, out of respect for the craft and for humanity); even more unusual was the fact that I was acting in a project that I’d written.  I was playing a character I’d created on the page, uttering lines I’d written myself.Which is too bad.  No playwright wants to be in the position of writing for a severely limited actor.  I’ve been fortunate in that, as a playwright, I’ve only intermittently encountered that situation in the past, and the way I’ve typically dealt with it has been by trying to assess what overlap, if any, might exist between the role and the actor’s limited strengths, and then using carefully guided language to herd the actor, through the director, into that little Venn-diagram patch of optimization.  (Doesn’t always work – indeed, as I think about it, it’s possible that it has never ever worked – but as I said: good news is that I’m rarely in this position.  Fortunately, lots of actors are awfully good at what they do.  Otherwise, I surmise, they might pursue some other career, something less overtly insane.)At any rate, this strategy definitely didn’t work when I was the actor.  Because I already knew all my tricks, I could tell when I was being herded, and I resisted and resented myself and there was a big writer-actor schism and I would’ve gone off and sulked in my trailer if I’d had a trailer.The least surprising outcome of this experience was that it increased my already semi-awestruck respect for what actors do.  I already harbored a fanboy-sized appreciation for the way actors find layers in dialogue, knit successive moments together into a character arc, and deploy a seemingly endless array of inflections to find twenty terrific ways to say a single line.  I discovered that I mostly only have one inflection available to me per line – that’s all I got, that’s the only one that comes up, it’s like I downloaded the free version of the acting software because I’m too cheap to pony up for the Pro edition that offers multiple inflections, a menu of facial expressions, and templates for What To Do With Your Hands.  (My operating system probably wouldn’t have supported it, anyway.)So as I delivered each line I did so with this sort of double consciousness: an awareness of how I was saying the line, paired with an awareness that there were funnier ways to say the line that other actors would find but that I couldn’t seem to find those or make my mouth do them.  (I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure none of this is what Stella Adler would have recommended that I be thinking about during a performance.)Additionally, I acquired a new measure of respect for actors on the seemingly fundamental level of just memorizing stuff.  I’d received occasional compliments in the past from actors – remarks along the lines of “Your stuff is so easy to memorize,” something about the rhythms or the train of thought or something, I didn’t analyze the compliments too much; I just accepted them in a cursory way because of course I’m getting compliments because of course I’m awesome – but now that I was trying to commit my own dialogue to memory I had a revelation: beat changes suck.  They fucking suck.  I don’t know how you burrow deep enough into a character’s consciousness to vault the conceptual gaps represented by these arbitrary beat changes.  There’s nothing logical or playable about these beat changes – they don’t have anything to do with character; they’re just about the writer needing to steer the script in a new direction.  Freaking amateur.  Who wrote this crap?All of which is by way of saying that I will either never write another beat change again, or  just never act in my own stuff again.  That second thing is probably more likely.