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When I was a young actor – and I do mean young, I started in this biz at age 8 – I was taught that ellipses at the end of a character’s line were dangerous. As a middle-aged playwright, I concur. I don’t use them. I do use m-dashes like that– and that– okay I’ll stop– to signify when another character cuts the m-dashed character off.

My writing is precise, rhythms as crucial as meanings. Truth be told, every playwright’s rhythms are important. Even B- and C-grade comedies understand setup setup punch, or how a word ending with K is likely to get a better laugh than one ending with F. But I digress.

Recently, I put together a table-read of a middling draft of one of my plays. I was working with very busy actors, mostly in recorded media but with stage experience. During rehearsals I discovered that m-dashes are treated like ellipses by even some savvy actors. Why? Habit, perhaps, but more-so self-defense.

Back in the Dark Ages, as an actor I was taught that I needed not only to know how elliptical sentences ended (a precursor to learning about objectives and arcs, tactics and evasions), but also to memorize my extra words as if they were on the page. Because most actors might learn their lines, and they might even get to word-perfect, but they seldom learned their actual cues, instead awaiting my behavior to show them that it was their turn to speak. Which is a whole ‘nother topic for a whole ‘nother column, but Brief (I hope) (so do you, I’ll warrant) Digression: ACTORS! For a workshop or run, learn your effing lines! Fast! Soon! Even for a reading, learn them well enough that you need only glance at the page! None of the real work can be done before you have that basic tool under your belts!

So. One of my actors in this instance was earnest, and the other was distracted – when I asked a simple question about given circumstances, the distracted’s response was, “I didn’t come here to be quizzed!” And when the earnest actor got to an m-dash and the cue wasn’t picked up, that earnest actor just kept vamping ’til the distracted actor “felt” like answering. And there went my poetic prose, months of work to hell in a handbasket.

Every actor-turned-playwright I know says the same thing: how cavalier they were with others’ plays. I’m guilty as charged (tho I never changed words) and even more grateful for the generosity and respect shown my words by the majority of actors with whom I’ve worked. It’s a larger question, tho, one facing our increasingly fragmented society, when will we learn from others’ mistakes and finally move forward? When will actors begin by respecting what’s on the page? Please, no more ‘Oh, we didn’t know why that was there, can we cut it?’ When will I never again hear, “But my character wouldn’t say that!”? Your character might not, perhaps, but the one I wrote, did.

So, here’s the rub: If a playwright really didn’t care what you say while you’re vamping ’til cut off, why did they writing the play? As an actor, why are you adding words? If you added bricks to a blueprint, you’d topple the structure.

Same thing.

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