The importance of 'play'

November 1, 2016

It’s a funny thing, advice on acting.
There’s thousands of books on it, with authors ranging from the revered to the completely unknown: coaches, directors and yes, even actors themselves.
I'm a relatively unknown actor, but I think a lot about observable behaviour, from stage and screen to people on public transport.
I'm left to conclude that you can't learn in drama school the things you see on a night-bus!

Acting theory makes a lot of money for itself, which is extraordinary when you consider how often ‘good’ acting is actually observable.
Sure, ‘good’ is a subjective analysis – there are famous Oscar winners I’ve been unmoved by; even grimaced at their performances for a variety of reasons.

And then there are character-actors with tiny roles who’ve left me speechless with admiration.

Generally though, even ‘good’ acting is an elusive phenomenon.
It’s partly elusive because, so often, audiences are treated as not being able to ‘get’ the subtler forms of behaviour, and so actors are instructed by the writing or the director into performing more of an obvious delivery.
And to get paid, the actor obliges.

This watered-down performance delivery is so prevalent across all media, that only in its absence do we note the more intimate storytelling techniques: consider The Wire and The Sopranos characters for the moments of silence and studied looks they have, punctuated in-between razor-sharp exchanges.
A character is observed by an audience not only in what they say, but what they attempt to conceal.


In this arena of complex behavioural interplay, it strikes me that actors are not given the space and time to ‘play’ with the text.

Instead, a scene is usually blocked and pressed to within an inch of its life.

I’ve seen (and been in) plays performed from one night to the next with no observable difference – the actors standing exactly as they were, sitting down and standing up on the cue they’ve been given and every sentence robotically delivered so as to be safe and secure.

What kind of theatre is that?

Where is the sense of ‘play’?


I recently led a couple of accent workshops with 12-16 year-olds at the Salford Arts Theatre.
When encouraged to find the subtext, and play with the lines, I was honestly taken aback by some of the performances.
Even better when they had little time to prepare a scene, their instincts took over and found new discoveries for themselves, keeping the same scenes completely different from each other.


The actions were guided by the super-objectives we set the actor as a group, so suggestions were called out and enthusiastically played, cruel kings became low-status with shifty looks at the floor and awkward stances, and messengers turned from breathless beggars into drunk, dismissive or conniving characters from scene to scene.

Even a delivery of anger ranged from the knuckle-whitening bark to a cold and calculating smirk, from relentless eye-contact to the briefest of glances. 
It was uplifting to see the changes, and the joy in discovering new ways to play the scene.

It got me thinking about the general process though.

Why does this encouragement of ‘play’ have to be confined to a rehearsal or workshop time-frame, though?
Why not allow the actors to utilise the text and draw from it as they wish, on the performance nights?

I was delighted to be placed in a Mike Alfreds workshop in Manchester recently. 
His whole philosophy revolves around this sentiment, but his practical exercises ensure that the theory is accessible and deliverable in multiple ways. 

It was fantastic to feel free and open to new ways of performing a scene, and to be affected by new stimuli. Honestly, if you can, do the workshop - it's a week long and you'll remember it for the rest of your life.

Going back to the subject, it's admirable when actors allow themselves to be free of the notion of 'correctness'.
There is no perfect way of playing a scene, but merely a choice, which should never be stuck in one mode.


Playing with possible deliveries is the only way to discover new and exciting storytelling.

It’s not being different for differences’ sake, though.

It’s daring to play a scene uniquely, freely and artistically, such as a jazz musician when picking up the beat.

One of the worst things you can do  as an actor is to limit yourself.

Play, play and play more until we’re entertained.
Then play again to discover something else. It keeps it fresh and exciting.


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