Won’t somebody please think of the actors?

Several years ago, I wrote a play for one of the most egotistical actors I have the pleasure of knowing. She wanted to perform every role, and insisted that they all showed off her dramatic range; her impeccable comic timing; and her knack for inhabiting diverse characters.

That prima-donna was me. The play? Merry Christmas, Bitches! Yes, I originally wrote this play for myself as a one-woman show, playing six different characters.

In the end, this actress had to admit that the play worked better with a cast of six than just one. But in spite of this eventual reworking, I realised that the demands of my muse had produced a script far better than anything I’d written before. I had worked my arse off to appease my inner actress: making each role as dynamic, rich and funny as I possibly could. I had an awareness of the human performer who would be giving life to my script, meaning that I wasn’t just writing a ‘character’ who would one day be played by an ‘actor’ [identity unknown].

I believe that at some point as you write, you really have to be considering who these complex, messy individuals will be who will bring your story to an audience. Not just vague actor-people, but real human beings.  Consider these people as you write: think of them as your imaginary collaborators.

And how exactly do you do that? Well, here are my five tips:

1. Find your dream cast

I first learned about this exercise years ago from a wonderful workshop run by Hannie Rayson: she imagines the perfect actor for each character, finds a picture of them, and sticks it up above her writing space. It allows you to actually see your characters in front of you, reminding you of the particular traits you’re trying to convey. So, yes, go forth and cast Cate Blanchett as your protagonist, if you like. Personally, I like to find pictures of unknown actors or just everyday images of people on the internet. 

2. Read your play aloud… no, properly

I know this is common advice, but you need to read it as if you’re going to be acting in it. Focus on one character at a time, as if you’ve just been cast in that role. Are you excited to play this part? Do you feel like your character has a journey, that there is some emotional truth and trajectory throughout their scenes? Is there something unique, surprising, or funny about each and every role? You may find some characters exist simply to set up great lines for other characters, or they play the same note over and over again. Are they actually a well-rounded character, or are they just someone else’s foot-stool?

3. ‘There are no small parts, only small actors’… mmkay.

“As a writer, I don’t give Spearholder no. 3 roles. Everyone will get their moment in one of my plays because I know what it’s like to be the actor.” 

Kate Mulvaney, from the PWA podcast ‘Playwrights: this is how we do it.’

Be like Kate: don’t make actors play Spearholder No. 3.

If you absolutely must include a small part, make it incredible; make actors yearn for that juicy cameo. Or consider the possibilities of thoughtful doubling. Look at Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ – the doubling is deliberate, and becomes symbolic, almost hallucinatory, as if people merge and mesh.

Be aware: writing those tiny, one-scene roles means more people in your cast, which means additional costs, which, of course, means an extra barrier to getting to production. This isn’t a hard and fast rule – community and youth theatres love large casts – and if your sprawling epic with a chorus is amazing, then it’ll find a home somewhere. But you should be able to defend the inclusion of every single character in your play. If you can’t– cut them.

4. Talk to actors!

Find out what they’re looking for; what sorts of parts engage them. And no, it’s not the size of the role. As Lucy Norton, actor and director, explains:

“You can have as many lines as everyone else, but do they forward the story, progress an idea or conversation that a society/community is grappling with, advocate or share a point of view that is outside the mainstream?”

Obviously, you don’t need to (and can’t) cater to every actor’s dream roles, but actually speaking to them may open up new conversations, avenues for connection, and inspiration for your own works.

5. Recognise your power

It’s easy as playwrights to consider ourselves pretty low down on the ladder of production: we’ve all heard about writers getting banned from rehearsals and their scripts cut. But we also have power and we need to use it well. Our scripts determine which sorts of people will be employed and – ideally – paid. We are setting up a space for those people to contribute their own life experiences and opinions in rehearsals, and we’re ensuring that those faces, voices and stories are seen on our stages. Remember this when you consider the mix of men, women, people of colour, people with disabilities, young and old, straight people, Indigenous people, etc. within your cast.

Alongside this, you also have a responsibility to authentically create those characters when they have lives and backgrounds very different to your own. Research, have conversations, pay sensitivity readers, and listen to feedback from people of that group.  Australian actress, writer and producer, Lulu McClatchy, immediately stops reading scripts when asked to play a character –

making in-your-face, self-deprecating comments at an attempt at humour, when you can tell it’s written by someone who hasn’t experienced it for themselves…” 

Joanne Nguyen, actress and producer, has similar frustrations, often being asked to play Asian characters that are clearly “depicted through a non-Asian lens/narrative.” If you can’t be bothered to do the work to make these characters real and complex, then – I promise you – it will show, and actors will walk away.

This point is really a much larger conversation – something I can’t do justice to in a short blog post. If nothing else, at least consider adding something of this nature to your scripts:

I encourage anyone producing and casting this work to consider performers from diverse backgrounds, including for roles where a character’s ethnic or cultural background, age, gender, sexuality or disability need not be specified.

(from Playwriting Australia)

At least then you are drawing attention to the fact that casting should not rely on the same old tropes of cis, white, straight, able-bodied actors.

Scripts are not meant to be finely-sculpted works of art that we admire from a distance; they become bulldog-clipped and torn, and scribbled over and highlighted, and shoved into backpacks of real human beings who are going to give flesh and voice to these characters you write. Actors are not empty vessels waiting for your words; they can be your collaborators.

Even before you meet them.

Thanks to the following creatives for their thoughts and contributions to this post: Joanne Nguyen, Lee Foyster, Lulu McClatchy, Ana Mitsikas, Perri Cummings, Jennifer Monk, Lucy Norton and Phoebe Taylor.

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