Is theater lacking characters?

I learned that Katie Holmes was in All My Sons on Broadway just hours before I heard her on NPR talking about how great it was to be playing a well-written character. Well-written characters are apparently rare. This coming from someone who has not been on the stage since high school, when she heroically demanded that she be allowed to complete the run of whatever show she was doing before uprooting herself to join the cast of Dawson’s Creek.

But she is not alone in her opinion that there is a dearth of juicy parts out there. Seasoned stage actors agree. Laurie Metcalf and JoBeth Williams confessed the same to me when I interviewed them recently for our theater publication. They are both starring in our upcoming production of Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life, after having done a run of it down in L.A. at the Geffen last autumn. Metcalf recalled of their first rehearsal process: “It was a bitch,” referring to the emotional toll it took on all of the actors. “Why, then, are you putting yourself through it again,” I asked.

“Because these roles do not come around often.”

That may be true of Hollywood. I don’t know. Admittedly, I know NOTHING about that world. I have–whether by choice or by happenstance (I don’t really know)–never read a movie script or a television script. I know from Studio 60 that they are written in different formats (that was a great show by the way dammit!). I know from a panel at the last Humana Festival that television writing is a delightfully collaborative process, for which there is “a table” around which everyone sits and talks. If anything about L.A. appealed to me, I could definitely see myself around one of those tables someday.

All My Sons

What I know about making movies is what Jane Anderson told me in her interview: actors often don’t completely invest themselves in their roles because a) they don’t have to because the director can piece together a performance in the editing room from multiple takes and b) they don’t necessarily konw how to because there’s no rehearsal process. “They call it a rehearsal, but it’s not a rehearsal.” Metcalf said the same thing. She always leaves a shoot thinking about what she could have done differently. Better. Regretting that she will never have the chance.

But I wonder if it is less about there not being any good characters, and more about Hollywood actors not getting the opportunity to find those characters. That said, I heard from more knowledgeable dramaturgs at the LMDA conference this past summer that the writing can be pretty horrendous, to the point that individual actors will hire writers to rewrite their lines for them. I would find more hilarious if it didn’t sound like the coolest job in the world. So maybe there aren’t good characters in Hollywood.

But I meet good characters in theater everyday. Even when a play does not work, there are often interesting characters flailing around in the unstructured mess. Interestingly, I find the characters in The Quality of Life pretty bare and stereotypical, at least in their dialogue. And yet, these two actresses adore their roles. And audiences apparently responded really well to them down in L.A. It is a play of subtext, truly created by the actresses who embody it. Before this process, I would have called it a lazy play; but maybe it is more true to say that it is a play of opportunity. An opportunity for the actors to create their own well-written characters.

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