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The Green Room: What defines an actor’s job?

This month, the show I am directing has a musical element to it, and so I have had the joy of being sung to in my auditions, says Stephanie Street. Photo: Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Ros Clifford, 30, is a deputy stage manager. She has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and London’s Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally


John Well, in essence, the job is pretending to be someone else.

Albert Coward got it right when he said our job was “to learn the lines and not bump into the furniture”. An actor is also an interpretative artist whose job is to tell the story, but increasingly that is changing, and actors are making the stories. That’s a good thing.

Jon Playwright Anya Reiss recently started a small Twitterstorm when she said: “Just say the line… it’s literally your job.”

Beryl When working on new writing – which I have done frequently – you try to breathe life into the words and you inevitably act slightly as a dramaturg as well as mining text. There is also the question of interpreting and challenging text.

Vivian What was revelatory about all that stuff was the fact that so many actors ran to agree with Reiss. It’s interesting. Because I’m sure they weren’t all trying to suck up? I think there is a conversation to be had about actor etiquette. And perhaps actorly self-loathing.

John That post wasn’t particularly well thought through, but being devil’s advocate and having spent a rehearsal period recently where the actors wanted to change almost every line, I have a feeling where it might have come from.

Albert These days it’s as much as one can expect for people to turn up on time and know the lines.

Jon We should mention that she later clarified that she was only trying to ask actors not to change the text – even though it may have looked in the way it was worded as if she was saying: ‘Don’t think, don’t interpret – you are talking props.”

Beryl The tweet was cowardly, had no context and was far too generalised about actors being wankers. There are obviously reasonable bounds, but surely the question “What is the director’s job?” should also be asked.

John Absolutely. Particularly with new writing, collaboration is paramount.

Beryl It’s all about collaboration. Of course, actors should respect text and should not be changing things willy-nilly. I am very much a purist, text-wise: if it’s written, there’s a reason. But if it doesn’t work, there’s a reason for that too, and together we can make it better.

Jon Ros, you’re unique in this conversation in that you always have the text in front of you. Are we, as a tribe, as approximate as I suspect we are?

Ros Yes. Approximate is probably the word I would use.

Jon So, generally speaking, we’re inaccurate? Is it more unusual to be ‘dead letter perfect’ or to have paraphrases?

Ros More unusual to be dead letter perfect, in my experience.

Jon That’s probably as much to do with faulty memory, though, as it is with some arrogant urge to rewrite.

‘My job as an actor is to bring my unique voice, body and imagination to create a character – I am a cog in the wheel of the great machine’

Vivian I think with Reiss’ tweet, if you take away the arrogance and the preciousness, she is talking about an idea of actors. From experience or stereotype? I’ve never experienced someone not bothering to say the line because they didn’t feel like it.

Beryl Isn’t the problem that she reinforced and supported a stereotype that is mostly unhelpful? If you have a platform and lots of followers I would ask you to use it more responsibly, and be kind.

Vivian I see my job as an actor to be to bring my unique voice, body and imagination to create a character, or content in devising – or a shape to a piece of work for live performance. I am a cog in the wheel of the great machine. I also see the writer as a cog, if I’m honest.

Ros I agree, Vivian. That’s how I see an actor’s job.

Albert I’d like to think that part of the job is to bring a little joy into people’s souls.

Beryl ‘Equal cogs’ is a good description.

Jon I like the machine idea. It seems very egalitarian – nobody is more important than anyone else. But the writer is more important, surely?

Beryl As soon as a writer claims to be more important, they essentially remove themselves from the collaborative process of making theatre.

John There is a perception that writers are above everyone else.

Vivian The writer isn’t more important. They occupy a different place, is all.

Beryl That’s it.

Jon This is interesting, about the pecking order. I think writers would say they’re at the bottom and actors are valued more highly than they are. Maybe everyone except the director (and the producers/investors) feels that? I think the writer is treated more reverentially in theatre than in screen work.

John Not entirely sure about that. It depends who the writer is and what the gig is. In the US, you can’t just change a bit of a line.

Vivian Pecking order equals hierarchy – it’s not the experience I’ve had, or would be interested in. I’m not talking about a lack of structure. I’m talking about status.

Ros In my experience, the pecking order differs depending on the rehearsal room and the project.

Beryl I know actors who have refused to accept more changes to a new script – that’s bullshit, in my opinion – who has the right to make that call?

Jon Changes during previews can be pretty stressful. I reckon it’s okay to say “That’s it now” after, say, press night. But, on the other hand, it’s probably a case-by-case thing. There’s no overriding reason for any actor to refuse changing the odd line if that’s what the writer wants.

Vivian Status differences, pecking orders: all lead to some people feeling they aren’t as respected as other people. That feeling of lack of respect leads to dickish behaviour.

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

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