Stick to the words on the page

Sometimes actors think they are creative artists. But I actually believe that we actors are interpretive artists. The writer created the character, and the words the character says. Actors bring that writing to life through our interpretation of the roles we play.

Yes, when you get cast, you may have some room to make adjustments, but be warned that for auditions, it’s important to stick to the words on the page.

Why? It’s all about respect! In television, the producers are actually the writers! Whether they’re producing a new TV pilot, or a long-running series, they have been honing their craft for a very long time! When you have a “producer session”, you are actually auditioning for the writers of the show!

Think about it! Imagine how they feel when you behave as if you know what’s better for their script than they do. They’ve lived with their characters for a good while. They want to hear you interpret the lines they wrote for that character. You bring the lines to life. But you are not to be creating your own version of their lines.

Also – the “showrunner” is the creator of the show, and that person was originally a staff writer, and in many cases, still is. For instance, the creator of Mad Men was originally a writer on other TV shows, including The Sopranos.

What does all this mean for the actor?

When you audition for seasoned professionals, you really have to get the lines word perfect, as written on the page. If something wonky happens in the moment, due to nerves and adrenalin surging, and the words don’t come out perfectly, well that’s life! The creative team can sense that you intended to do what was on the page, but in the moment, things happened a bit differently. But if you have deliberately changed their words, because you feel you’ve come up with a better version of their script, they’ll know that, too, and you’re then stepping on toes, and they will not like that. For obvious reasons!

Some top Hollywood casting directors warn against making any changes to the script,  even with punctuation, and especially for comedy: one comma out of place, and the whole line is different, and the carefully-crafted comic timing start to fall apart. In Drama, there may be a bit more room to play, but why risk it? Some casting directors frown heavily on actors making the words their own.

You must take the words you are given, and make it your own from there. We don’t improvise Tennessee Williams or Harold Pinter or William Shakespeare. The precise rhythm of Mamet and Pinter dialogue would fall apart if we started changing it all around. So offer the same respect to writers of shows that could make you a successful working actor!

Gaby’s Top Tip: Be wary of adding a “button” at the end of the scene…a “button” is your own verbal ending, that adds a cute/clever line to what’s already there. And it may very well be cute and clever. But don’t do it! You can and should add a “look” that silently “indicates” the line you’d like to say, that “buttons up” the end of the scene. You can even think the “button” line in your head! But do not add your own words. They may laugh at your cleverness, which may even make them remember you. But resist the urge to be more clever than they are; you will rarely be rewarded for it.

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