I direct a lot of new plays, many of them by fledgling writers, and often various aspects of character development have remained in the head of the writer, and are not yet on the page. Or sometimes the character is on the page, but not yet sufficiently specific.
When this happens, I use improvisation to answer questions like the following:
What happened between these two characters since the end of the last scene and this one?
What was the “moment before”?
What is the internal monologue that is driving this scene?
What does the character really mean when they say what they say, or do what they do?
I guide these improvisations by establishing basic context, by offering starting points and by pointing out the areas of inquiry that need to be addressed. Sometimes I side coach, if the actors are engaged in a fruitless debate, or heading off on a tangent. Sometimes I play the interviewer, and ask them questions. There are many types of interviewer that can bring out aspects of character, such as psychiatrists, bartenders, ministers, new friends, job interviews, and talk show hosts.
When one of the improvisers is both the playwright and actor, this method is especially useful. It not only produces greater understanding of character and motivation, it can lead to rewrites that are sharp, clean, efficient and much more to the point. And even better, the new ideas tend to be organic, and have already proved themselves to be effective, in the improvisation. This puts me, the director/dramaturg, in an improved position.
It’s tricky business giving input into someone’s pet project without stepping on their toes. Writers dislike having ideas imposed on them, or being required to explain themselves. But when the material has surfaced during an improv session, it has proved itself, and providing direction or dramaturgical advice becomes a simple matter of pointing out the truth of what has just occurred on the stage.
The director of my solo show “not a nice girl”, Rod Menzies, said to me, “The script is a record of the performance.” I think he’s totally right. It’s the performance the audience came to see, and it’s through performance that we realize what the story is. So directors like me, who want to clarify what’s going on in a scene, are well-advised to put the issue in the hands of the actors and let the story find its way.