I first met Gary when my good friend and collaborator M. Bevin O’Gara cast me in the Boston Theater Marathon 10-Minute play Verticals and Horizontals directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Little did I know, Gary and I would meet many years later in NY and this play would reoccur in my life over the following years.
Brooke M. Haney (BMH): When I worked with you at NYU in the playwriting program, you would bring in a director and actor to work with your students; what do you think the value was for the students in having both an actor and a director look at their plays?
Gary Garrison (GG): With a director you have to learn how to negotiate a relationship that is advantageous to the work that’s being done. For example, how do I sit in the room? How do you want me in the room? How do you see the writer in the room? What do you see as the writer’s position in the process? There’s that kind of negotiation between writer and director.
And actors become the articulation of the director’s vision of how he or she likes to work. You will have one director say I like to work with a writer and the actors all together, all at the same time, all in one stroke. And there are some directors that say, “I’m gonna talk to you (the writer), I want an understanding of what you are trying to achieve, what you want, need, desire, etc… Now I’m gonna go translate that to the actors. And you can witness, and respond.” So there’s a simultaneous approach, and then a kind of compartmentalized approach.
I don’t think either is right or wrong.
BMH: When you work as a playwright do you like to be in the room all the time?
GG: I don’t like to be in the room. I’m a control freak. I started out as an actor, so I know what it should be, so I want you to get there fast. So get to where I see it, and then let’s go further. And that’s not fair to the actors. It took me you know, 6 months to 2 years to write this story, and it’s not fair to expect that of the actors, you know they’re not a chip in your brain. They don’t know what you know, they have to discover it on their own and you have to allow them that discovery. And I found that I am impatient to watch their discovery, because I know what it should be, I think. That could just be my arrogance or assumptions, but it’s better that I come and talk, then you go have your process and bring me in whenever you have questions. I don’t need to witness the discovery, I need to witness a little bit further into the development.
BMH: At the reading phase of new play development, what are the things you need most from an actor in knowing where your play is at?
GG: For me, I want you to make a big bold choice, then we’ll talk about if you’re in the ballpark with that choice. Because you know time is precious, so there’s no time for your discovery. Your discovery is at home, eating soup, with your cat, it’s not in the rehearsal room. Because we don’t have any time. You come loaded and I will tell you whether or not you have the right ammo in that gun or not.
BMH: I know Stephen Karam, in Speech and Debate, a play I teach from all the time, has a note to actors and directors that specifies that the play isn’t meant to be super broad, it’s meant to be grounded and that the actors should heed that. Do you think there’s a value in putting that in a script, as a playwright?
GG: I mean there’s a part of me that thinks you shouldn’t have to do that but there’s also a part that believes you should. You know it’s the same thing as saying, “he’s Italian I’d really like an Italian accent.” It has an influence on the rhythm and the wording of the place. As opposed to just the casual reference that he’s Italian. Since so much of our careers happen when we aren’t present, the clearer and more specific I can be with the writing and stage directions…
BMH: If you’ve asked an actor to do an accent for a workshop and they know they aren’t great at it, do you have feelings on what would be more beneficial for you?
GG: I just wrote a play that has an English woman in it from a very specific part of England, and it is not only where she’s from, it’s part of her moral code. Not only do they sound a certain way, they talk a certain way. And if that actress can’t nail the accent, she’s not telling the story of that character. Or, there are some cases where you can say “He’s from London, who gives a shit?” Sometimes it’s not integral to the story and in that case I wouldn’t care.
Hannah Herbert-Hunt (HHH): How do you see the actor’s involvement in the collaborative and feedback process?
GG: I think actors are indispensable to this process, and they’re not thanked enough. They’re not just tools of an expression, they are collaborative artists that should be acknowledged for their collaboration. They’re not puppets is what I’m trying to say. Of course you enjoy that process and you love learning how to inhabit a character, that’s all great fun: it’s play!
My work would never have improved without the help of intuitive actors, I don’t care what kind of director I have. This isn’t to say that actor’s don’t miss the mark sometimes, of course they do, they’re not robots. They are people who are hungry, who broke up with their boyfriend last night, whose mother died the week before, who are dealing with issues of sobriety, I don’t know what it happens to be but they are people.
BMH: Part of that is also on the actor to learn to communicate with as many people as possible, to learn to take in a particular type of communication and figure out how to translate in themselves to what that means to them. That’s an important part of our job.
GG: Here’s where I think we fall down in the actor’s education in this country: they’re not taught how to really walk into an original work.
BMH: If you were to write the syllabus for that class, what kinds of things would you teach?
GG: Cold reading. Bold choices. It would have to be a scene study in that class to some degree, because you’d have to analyze that text when you don’t have a frame of reference. You have to make a choice off of a cold script in an audition or a callback: you have to be able to sight read. And you have to sight read with accuracy. There are too many people who can do it really well, who can scan and rarely miss a word. And then there are people who butcher the thing as they can, transposing and dropping words: that’s the quickest way to become unemployed if the writers are around.
I would be in real favor of putting something into rehearsal with the actors in the room with something that’s under-written and something that’s over-written and teach and talk about how the actors navigate those scripts. It’s the difference between something that is so prescribed where there’s little to no interpretation and then there’s something that’s so underdeveloped you could go in 100 different directions.
BMH: When you are working with actors at any phase, how much do you want them to be the advocate of their character? For example, where they come in and say “okay everything makes sense to me but this one moment, what was your intention?”
GG: Absolutely, right on. Ultimately the actors are the ones standing on that stage with the lights on their face. They are the ones carrying the character onstage in front of a live audience, it’s not me, I sitting in the back somewhere. They have to make sense of it for their safety and well being. At some point the actor’s should become the authority of that character, at least in that moment and the writer needs to shut the fuck up.
BMH: Do you appreciate or dislike actors asking for a line back that you’ve cut or asking to cut a line?
GG: I’ll always consider anything someone says, but it’s not a given. Writers forget they have this kind of glorious authority to say no. I usually ask why someone is asking the question, because I’m curious to know the reason behind why they want it. I think that what I do is irrefutable as the writer, what you do is irrefutable as the actor. So I think there’s nothing but love here, I don’t hold my position any higher than you should hold your position; we’re in it together.
BMH: What’s the question I haven’t asked that I shouldn’t have asked?
GG: Here’s a question, it’s not for us, but I’m going to put it into the universe: There’s something going on in American theatre and it’s been going on for a while, it’s devised theatre. When actors help create and there’s an author in the room and you have to ask: who’s responsible for what? It gets really muddy really quick, unless there are ground rules, and ground rules are usually set by the theatre company and not the creative team. How the writer functions in that environment is different from how a writer functions in a traditional environment, same goes for the actor. Some actors are helping write the script, some are not, some are just improvising. It’s crazy and we need to get ahead of this process and figure out what are the ground rules and best practices for creating this so that everyone feels safe, appreciated, supported, respected, and that everyone feels they have contributed whatever they have and that their contribution is acknowledged.
BMH: Yeah the contribution acknowledgement is an interesting thing because I have worked in devised work where I don’t get any kind of a writing credit, I just get to perform it later. And I’ll think “you know I really did help write that, in some ways.”
GG: Or in significant ways. In some ways where it was just improvised and then I went and wrote something and brought it back to you. And then you might think, “But those were my words, you helped create that scene, you transcribed that, did we create this together?” I don’t know the answer to these questions because they are complicated but I do know that in the American theatre we better start paying attention to it.
GARY GARRISON is the Executive Director of the Dramatist Guild of America. Prior to his work at the Guild, Garrison filled the posts of Artistic Director, Producer and full‑time faculty member in the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Garrison’s plays include Ties That Bind, Skirting the Issue, Caught Without Candy, Game On, The Sweep, Verticals and Horizontals, Storm on Storm, Crater, Old Soles, Padding The Wagon, Rug Store Cowboy, Cherry Reds, Gawk, Oh Messiah Me, We Make A Wall, The Big Fat Naked Truth, Scream With Laughter, Smoothness With Cool, Empty Rooms, Does Anybody Want A Miss Cow Bayou? and When A Diva Dreams. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, The Playwright’s Survival Guide: Keeping the Drama in Your Work and Out of Your Life, Perfect Ten: Writing and Producing the Ten‑Minute Play, A More Perfect Ten and two volumes of Monologues for Men by Men. He is on the Tony Administration Committee for the Tony Awards and the program director for the Summer Playwriting Intensive for the Kennedy Center. In April of 2014, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts instituted the National Gary Garrison Ten-Minute Play Award given to the best ten-minute play written by a dramatist.