Why reading plays is important for actors…
(Exclusive interview at the end of the article)
We recently interviewed a number of industry experts for our online course: StageMilk Drama School. We interviewed some of the best directors, actors, and theatre-makers in the industry and some common themes kept emerging. It was as if they’d all coordinated what to say, each expert reinforcing the last. We couldn’t believe the similarities in what every expert kept saying.
In reality, these experts just understood that there are some common habits and techniques that all successful actors implement.
The one thing they kept coming back to — read more plays! And ideally, read them out loud.
Andrew Henry, the artistic director of Red Line Productions, one of the best independent theatre companies in Australia, says he aims to read 8 plays a week.
8 plays a week!
I almost fell off my chair mid interview.
It seems ambitious, extreme even, but I think it’s a great, and very achievable, goal. The more you read, the more you build momentum. Reading this amount of plays develops your understanding of language and dialogue, as well as story structure. So why should you be reading this crazy amount of plays.
6 reasons why reading plays is important for actors:
#1 Understanding Story
Actors are storytellers. However elaborate a production may be, it always comes back to telling a great story. The problem is that actors get so caught up in “character” and “acting” that they often forget the story.
Regularly reading plays reminds us that as actors, we are one part of a greater story. We are a character who contributes in the telling of a compelling story.
You begin to see the commonalities between plays. How story structure works. How the flow of scenes, progressive tension and conflict, work to enhance a story.
The more you read, the better you become at telling stories.
#2 Having an Opinion
Directors love actors with opinions. When you’re auditioning for a play, or working on a theatre production, you need to offer choices. These choices come from having ideas and opinions on how to tell the story.
The more you read, the more confidently you can discuss plays and theatre more broadly.
Imagine working on an Arthur Miller show and being in a position where you’ve read all his work. What a great place to be in to discuss Miller’s language and the broader ideas surrounding his plays. Think how much more you could contribute to the discussion and the overall telling of the story.
Reading more plays also means you can begin to make decisions on what you like and don’t like. Yes we’re all told that Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller are the greats, but once you’ve read their work you can get involved in the debate. Is Shakespeare archaic? Are contemporary playwrights more direct and insightful? Have we lost our ability to tell stories?
Kevin Jackson, a former NIDA teacher and notable theatre director, actually has discussions with actors instead of auditions. He values actors’ insights and opinions so much so that he wants to talk with you instead of seeing a conventional audition.
Having an opinion is vital for actors.
Julia Moody, the head of Voice at WAAPA, often talks about how actors are “bastions of language”. I love this idea. As actors we need to have command over language, and reading plays, literature, poetry and more is how to achieve this mastery.
As actors, and storytellers, we are constantly working with a diverse range of language. Plays are sometimes hundreds of years old, or feature poetic, heightened language. You have to be working on complex text often in order to have any chance at being able to perform this kind of language, especially under pressure.
Reading more allows us to increase our vocabulary and understand the nuance of language. If you go for a Shakespeare audition without having read much Shakespeare, you’re going to be in trouble. Yes you can look up the unfamiliar words, but how often have you said “thy” and “In sooth” recently? These words often sound unnatural when spoken by actors who haven’t read much Shakespeare.
In short, reading a range of plays makes you an incredibly versatile actor.
#4 Cold Reading
Guess what – reading makes you better at reading. Cold reading is a really important skill as an actor. You would be surprised how often a cold read is sprung upon you: casting directors asking you to try another scene, or a theatre director asking you to read a new scene on the spot.
Being adept at cold reading could be the difference between booking the job, and not.
The more you read plays, especially if you can read them out loud (which I recommend), the better you will be at cold reading.
#5 Understanding Character
The more plays you read, you’ll find yourself beginning to see and understand character archetypes. You will also see how character informs a story and this is extremely important for actors.
You can also begin to see the intricacies and nuance of characters, and their motivations. You will see how great writing is built on characters with clear objectives, who have all the complexities of a human being – a past, strengths, weaknesses, fears, hopes, dreams. The more characters you read about and explore, the more complex and varied your choices as an actor will become.
As I touched on above, if you haven’t read the work of someone like Chekhov and all of a sudden have an audition for Three Sisters, you are going to struggle.
Chekhov’s language is so far from our modern, casual way of speaking. The more challenging content you read, the more you’ll understand dialogue and be able to speak it naturally – regardless of time period, genre, accents or character.
Andrew Henry Interview
Andrew Henry is the artistic director of Red Line Productions at the Old Fitz Theatre. This is one of the most exciting independent theatre companies in Australia and Andrew is a powerhouse of theatre knowledge. Check out Andrew Henry on why reading plays is important.
Which plays to read…
Reading plays is one of the best things you can do for your acting career. As Andrew says in the interview, grab a stack of plays and just read them. Don’t get too caught up in what you’re reading. The reading alone is valuable. A few techniques:
- Read one playwright. Read the works of one playwright and focus on them for a week.
- Grab and go. Go to a secondhand bookshop, shut your eyes, and grab 8 random plays.
- Find what you love. What are your favourite plays? Read more from the playwrights you love.
- Check out our list of best plays. (This is an awesome place to start)
Hopefully you are starting to see the value in reading more plays. As I mentioned at the beginning, almost everyone we have ever interviewed for the site has spoken about the value of reading more plays. So just do it.
Always ask yourself what you liked about a play and what you didn’t like – have an opinion.
I recommend taking plays slowly. Look up unfamiliar words and research the play if there are things you didn’t understand.
Reading 8 plays a week is useless if you’re just skimming through them. If you’re a slow reader, or you struggle with reading, aim to read one play a week.