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Careers Clinic: How do I work with a poor script?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I first began writing my own stuff as a means of filling in the downtime between acting jobs, and although acting is still my first love, I have become serious enough about my other job to have taken several courses, including a few taught by some highly respected playwrights and screenwriters.

I also spend a lot of time reading the great scripts from Shakespeare through Chekhov right up to the present day. While I am sure this is having a very positive effect on my writing skills, it is leading to a few issues on the acting side, not least because, like many actors, I’m currently trying to take as much work that comes my way as I can with a view to building up my credits.

Unfortunately a lot of the things I get asked to do are not very well written (to put it kindly) and being increasingly conscious of this, it is becoming a lot harder to give them my all. In most cases I’ve found that suggesting a different line or improvising a better one in rehearsal goes down like a lead balloon. Is there a way of bringing these two sides of my creativity into harmony?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE Your question put me in mind of a comedy writing festival I was involved in around 10 years ago. The basic idea was that there were 10 half-hour scripts by new writers, which were performed by an ensemble of 12 actors with a view to any particularly successful scripts being developed as television pilots. A great opportunity for the writers to display their talents before the programme-makers and commissioners and also for talented, up-and-coming actors to be ‘seen’ by the same audience.

At least one of the scripts did go on to become a successful show, but for me the most interesting aspect of the event is to reflect on how many of the talented but then unknown actors not only achieved their ‘getting on TV’ goal, but are still turning up there a decade later. By my reckoning four of them fit that description – exactly the four names I predicted, as it happens. I had better point out that this prediction was not based either on my crystal-ball reading or even my talent-spotting skills – as already mentioned, all 12 of the actors were undeniably talented. The nature of any new writing festival is that the quality of the writing often varies widely and new comedy writing in particular often crashes in flames as much as it push boundaries.

What became obvious with each show was which cast members ‘turned it on’ when they had a good script to work with, but tended to hold back or lose heart when the material was less assured. The ‘fantastic four’ took a different approach – they made good scripts better, but they also used every trick in their book to drag even the most poorly written parts they were given up to a professional level. Bear in mind that these actors were beginners with not many tricks up their sleeves at that point – but I am still sure it was the ‘make it work’ attitude that got them noticed and ultimately got them to where they are now.

It’s important for actors to make their own work, so by all means keep writing your own and studying the best – but if you genuinely want to be a working actor as well as a working writer, the wider the range of material you get to work on the better, and – within reason – this applies to quality too. The question to ask is not ‘Could I have written this better?’ but ‘What can I bring to what has been written to make it better?’. Changing the script without the writer’s permission is disrespectful – transforming it with your commitment and the power of your performance is what will get you better scripts to work with in the future.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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