I learned the rule “honor the playwright” early in my formal acting training and quickly became an actor who never improvised. I spurn actors who adlib, nilly-willy through the playwright’s achievement and spit upon my core principal.
Recently, however, in a production of Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, I went over to the dark side. For the sake of character development – an actor’s justification for all crimes big and small – I changed the words mother and grandmother to mamma and grandma and the word Baltimore to Galveston. Night after night, audiences howled at my portrayal of the sassy State Senator. But inside, beneath my stage makeup and costume, I knew my crime.
Enter self-loathing and guilt.
Were my actions truly justified? Maybe. But, I couldn’t rid myself of one truth: by changing the playwrights’ words in order to create a character I wanted to play, I failed to honor the playwright. My performance felt tainted. Will I remember this show for the privilege of working with such a talented and passionate company or will I only remember the moment I broke the rule?
Enter divine intervention, courtesy of the theatre gods.
Nearing the end of our final performance, fellow cast member Emily rose from her seat and faced the packed house. She was to perform “Geralyn’s Story”, known to all of us as “The Breast Cancer Piece.” As Emily began to speak of reconstruction surgery, two audience members hurried out of the theater. Nora and Delia’s words hit too close to home. Undeterred, Emily continued, performing each word as if she had written them herself.
Over the course of rehearsals and previous performances, I had learned Emily’s routine as I watched from my upstage chair. Pacing on the downstage platform, Emily would tell of mastectomies and lace bras, cup sizes and a tattoo in place of a nipple. Next, she would cross upstage and with a sweeping arm in the cast’s direction, indicate “the friends who’d looked after me like angels.” After that, she would sit and recall the baseball caps she wore through chemo, her “magic hats.”
However, during our final performance, after Emily made her usual upstage cross, she did not sit. “What is she doing?” I thought. A slight panic pulsed through my veins. Then, facing the audience full front, Emily began to deliver the line I knew so well, “My crushed velvet (hat) was my favorite. My Aunt Honey gave it to me.” But on this night, she changed it. “My Aunt Sarah gave it to me.”
My friend had found the most touching way to pay tribute to her sister whom she lost to cancer one year ago. Emily stood through the rest of the piece, as if to say, “Sarah, you are precious. You are missed. And, tonight, I honor you.”
In that moment, I realized the exception to the rule. I broke the rule in order to garner a laugh, a second of glory that I will soon forget.Shame on me. Emily, however, broke the rule and created higher art: that moment when a play becomes something more, something real. Emily did more than change a word. She made the words her own. I can think of no better way to honor the playwright.