One question I get all the time is “how precise do I have to be with the text I am working on?” “Does it really matter if I change a few words?” “Do I have to be word-perfect?” Actors have wrestled with this question from centuries. Even Shakespeare had to reprimand his actors: “let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”.
Within StageMilk, I get to talk with many of the best playwrights, screenwriters, acting teachers, casting directors and actors, from across the industry, and after discussing this with many of these industry heavyweights the resounding answer is…
ABSOLUTELY 100% YES!
Always Aim for Perfection
So my first point is that we should always aim to be word-perfect. The reality is this will not always be possible, maybe you have 24 hours notice and 20 pages of dialogue to get through and you have to paraphrase a little. Or maybe you just make a good old fashioned blunder. It happens.
But I think we have to remember that our role as actors is to bring stories to life, stories written by playwrights and screenwriters. As Larry Moss would say there is no greater relationship than that of writer and actor. When it works well it’s truly incredible. And when does it work well? When we both respect each other. And what is more disrespectful than to say to a writer I can write better than you, and start mucking around with their words.
These are the words the writer has given you, and as hard as they may sometimes be to speak in a fluent, natural and truthful way, we must endeavour to do so.
However, let’s get into some of the grey…
I want to stand firm on my first point, but I also want to share a good standard rule when it comes to this question. The better the writer the more word-perfect you have to be. If you mess up even a syllable of Shakespeare, a discerning audience member will know. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Aphra Benn, Lucy Prebble. Their words are not to be toyed with.
However, you’re doing a local student film or small commercial casting, and you’re already picking your way through a labyrinth of typos, you may have a little more freedom to play. And this may even be encouraged.
Golden Rule: The better the writer, the more word-perfect you have to be.
So I’ve now shared my golden rule: the better the writer the more precise you have to be. But there are other examples where we can explore being a little looser with the text…
First of all, an interesting area is in auditions. Auditions should be a playful environment where you work collaboratively with the director or casting director. I don’t recommend going in and rewriting the script on a first read, but if you have an idea and you feel it suits the tone of the production you can definitely be playful here. Though, you really have to get very good at reading the room. In auditions all the same rules apply, but I have interviewed a number of casting directors that have openly encouraged improvisation and ad-libbing. So if you feel it works and they are open to it, you can sometimes loosen things up a bit more here. That being said, there’s no need to go changing WHOLE lines just for the sake of it – that could come across as abrasive, rude and egotistical. Be humble about it.
Note: remember it’s so important to understand what it is you are auditioning for before you start mucking about with the text. Aaron Sorkin is not going to be impressed with you ad-libbing around his dialogue! But a comedy TV series audition, however, you might have more room to move to make the text your own. Which brings me nicely to my next point…
Next is the world of comedy. This is where there can be a lot of freedom to play and again it is often encouraged. Don’t start messing with Moliere, but if you were working on a set of a show like The Office or Parks and Rec, you may be given a lot of license to drift off-script. Again it comes down to the culture of the set and understanding the production you are in. You will still have to take into account limitations such as continuity and framing. So even in a comic setting you still have to have structure. (It’s always fun to look at bloopers from shows like Parks and Rec, this is where you get to see just how much improv they have, and how hilarious it can be – even to the other cast members).
Finally, even outside of comedy, scripts aren’t always set in stone. There are plenty of directors who encourage ad-lib and improvisation. In fact, entire films can be improvised. The famous example here is British director, Mike Leigh, who uses improvisation in most of his major films.
It’s always good to have a conversation with the director and never assume this will be the case, but if the director views the script as more of a fluid starting point, then get ready to play. I would also add that even on a production that is sticking strictly to the lines, you can always discuss issues with a director. I was interviewing Jack Thompson recently and he told me a story where he was preparing for a real-life character by listening to a recording of actual clips from a courtroom. He heard something in the tapes that he felt had to be used in the film and went to Clint Eastwood (who was directing) and asked to add the line in. And he did! Directors and writers are often open to these suggestions, but this is very different from being lazy in your preparation on a script.
We as actors must always aim to honour the work of the writer, no matter how bad the script may be in your own opinion. And, if we are working on truly great writers, we must be even more diligent.
However, there are plenty of times where bringing your own creativity and augmenting the script might even be the reason you book the job! At the end of the day, you have to understand the tone of the production. If you have an impulse and you feel it will be supported, go for it. I know actors who even when auditioning for major productions add little extra lines or make changes to give it a point of difference. Though in general, I don’t encourage this, we have to always trust our own impulses.
I hope that helps answer this important acting question.