A Talk to the Actors – Joanna Murray-SmithDecember 21, 2023

16th St, December 2023

A Talk to the Actors

Certain things never change throughout a writing life, whether you’re running the masterclass or taking it, whether you’ve written 30 plays or none, that when you sit down to create something, you shouldn’t know too much. You have to surprise yourself. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” said Aristotle. So you know what you think but then… you must unknow it… test it… question your beliefs, explore and challenge your certainty.

If everything is strategic, there’s no oxygen. But if there’s no strategy, it devalues the power of the emotion.

There are two fundamentals at the heart of storytelling: writing, acting, painting, singing, all of it:

Our unconscious gives our work truth and detail. It needs to be invited in, freed, respected, given space.

Our conscious minds sort through it: analyse, exploit, harness it to our story, edit it, shape it, punch it up, detail it and provide a means for the deeply private to become powerfully public.

It’s the strangest thing – but too much of one doesn’t work.

If there’s too much chaotic emotional material with no strategy, no determination to communicate clearly with the audience, it’s nothing. If there’s too much strategy and planning, and no little flourishes or audacity or surprise, if it’s too “on message,” it’s nothing.

So how you find that perfect balance is really about coming to know yourself. Knowing how to plumb your own depths when depths are called for and how to stay in the shallows and nail the engineering, find how to structure a story to its best effect.

As artists we must wrestle with both the raw fury of our emotions as and our cool analyst – or if we’re not wrestling with both, we should be.  Every memory is a point of departure, summoning fuel from our experience, but we need a map to use it skilfully and lead the audience to our intention. 

We have to face the absolute singularity of our own life and sensations. It’s not easy or simple but that’s what makes the task interesting and enlightening.

But at the same time, we have to connect this deeply personal sensibility to the great sweeping grand canyon of the human condition. We must draw a thread between our own most private self to everyone we write for.

We must be specific enough to be original. And if we are, we will find that that very specificity transforms into the universal. If we try too hard to be universal, we won’t touch a single heart or mind: the general has no charisma. If we try to be universal, the audience will be onto us from the word go. They’ll see us coming with our lofty aims and they’ll find nothing to attend to, nothing real, nothing small and authentic.

“Art is a wound turned into light.” Is a quote some of you have heard me cite many times (Georges Braque). That’s the best summation I can steal. That’s why creating – in any form, including acting – is at the same time horribly lonely and horribly collaborative. Or is that wonderfully lonely and wonderfully collaborative? We are a collection of wounds and as we use them to tell stories, they become scars of experience and feeling, they reveal our frailty and vulnerability, suffering, survival, triumph, and those watching and listening will feel those wounds as their own. In that connection comes the light.

Though as young writers we often try to outrun ourselves in search of material, older, wiser, we stop running. We realise that we can catch a plot, a narrative, by simply holding up our hands in a strong wind, from a dinner party, an overheard conversation in a café, a news item. To be alive at any moment is to be inside a moment of potential story-making.

But to make it human, we must be fully human, fully present, the most alive we can be, the most curious we can be, the most empathetic and the most sinister, depraved, unpredictable and inconsistent. When we’re filled up with our own intense commitment to the moment, this moment, who we are in it and who we’ve been to become it, we will be our most human and we will infuse our humanity into those characters, putting them on a steady drip of words.  

And those characters will look out at their audience, they will shine the light into the audiences’ dilemmas and confusions, their absurdities and weariness and sense of injustice and into their quests, their curiousity, their courage and hope. And we will have done something that mattered.

We make audiences understand their world and their place in it, we help them find their opinions on it, their judgements, their uncertainty. But we also use our skills to address the mindless evaporation of time. We mark moments. We mark lessons learned. We mark the momentary resolution of confusion, we honour experience and chart it, put it down, make punctuation marks on the passage of time, capture the significant testimonies and experience and use them to create a chronology of a life-time. Here is a play that singles out a moment in the whoosh of time passing. Here is a thought. Here is a revelation. Here is a notch of experience, wisdom or just a question that was asked: a pause, a beat in the evaporation of our life. This little play stands for something memorable or will make memorable something that stood, once, in front of me.

What do you think your play is about and What is it really about? The two questions at the heart of every play or screenplay… or for that matter, poem, short story or novel.  It’s often years after I’ve written something that I finally understand where it came from. But at the time, the work had to justify itself. It had to be truthful and energetic, unpredictable and strategic, organised and poetic and it had to be about something. If it doesn’t have at least a touch of poetry, it’s not a play.

All creating is risk taking. If it doesn’t feel risky, it’s probably dull or predictable or conventional, so watch out. If you’re not prepared to risk, you’re in the wrong business. Because what is certain is that being an artist will cost you.

Yua Hua as one of the leading voices of China’s avant-garde literary movement. 


I distinctly remember that writing my first story was extremely painful. I was twenty-one or twenty-two but barely knew how to break a paragraph, where to put a quotation mark. In school, most of our writing practice had been copying denunciations out of the newspaper—the only exercise that was guaranteed to be safe, because if you wrote something yourself and said the wrong thing, then what? You might’ve been labeled a counterrevolutionary.

On top of that, I could write only at night, and I was living in a one-room house on the edge of my parents’ lot, next to a small river. The winter in Haiyan was very cold, and back then there weren’t any bathrooms in people’s houses—you’d have to walk five, six minutes to find a public toilet. Fortunately, when everyone else was asleep, I could run down to the water by myself and pee into the river. Still, by the time I was too tired to keep writing, both my feet would be numb and my left hand would be freezing. When I rubbed my hands together, it felt like they belonged to two different people—one living and the other dead.

This is one version of the cost.

For others, more fortunate, there is a different cost.

The time. The struggle. The pain. The doubt. The brutal criticism, the disappointment, the despair – we’ve heard it all before. But worst of anything is the boredom with yourself. Any writer who doesn’t feel sometimes is dead. It’s part and parcel. Your voice is your companion. It will at times feel like an eight month trip through Europe with someone who’d rather write their stupid journal than go out drinking in Barcelona bars. You will wake up and think: Not You Again. At other times, you will be seized by wonder at your ability to use nothing but yourself to capture attention and make people sit still. To take people somewhere with no vehicle but words.

Belief, doubt, belief, doubt, belief doubt. It’s an emotional diet that will give you a lifetime of heartburn. But listen to this:

Paul Auster wrote of the discovery one of his characters makes: “The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one’s place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things.

Who else gets to talk about their 9 to 5 like that?

And that is what we do: jump into the thick of things, the murky wells of unfinished business, conflicted instincts, irrational obsessions and vast, monolithic fears. We jump in and put it good. If you jump deep enough, you start to go crazy. Ideas circle you and there are too many. There are too many choices and directions, you’re drowning in it and yet if someone asks you what you are writing about you can’t extract a single lucid sentence.

And then slowly… If you’re lucky… if you keep at it… the laws of natural selection begin to kick in. You realise that of that tidal whirlpool of ideas, four of them are tasteless. Two of them would work for a comedy sketch but not a full length play, six of them remind you of something else you hated and 1200 of the rest have actually been written before. The one about the salesman, the Rap musical about the historical figure, the one about a female prosecutor who finally understands the nature of sexual assault when she’s assaulted, the hilarious one woman show that’s slutty and contemporary where she speaks direct to the. It’s not that you were influenced by those shows written by other people, it’s simply that they got to them first. It’s so annoying!

And then, of the few remaining, the strongest ideas emerge victorious, often odd little ideas or images caught inside the vaguest of shapes… your characters begin to announce themselves as they enter the room, some opaque, some bellicose and ready-formed, instant characters who have been lurking in your subconscious and just needed a sprinkle of water to appear in three dimensions… And you allow yourself one tiny flicker of hope: “There’s something here”.

As Louise Glück (1943–2023), the American poet and essayist and Nobel Prize winner says in an old interview in the new issue of The Paris Review  “Anyone who writes is a seeker. You look at a blank page and you’re seeking. That role is assigned to us and never removed.” 

Whatever we make, the odds are against it. Our fragile exquisite artifice, our fledgling gift of the imagination, that feels so organic and authentic inside our heads must travel from one hemisphere of intention to another hemisphere of realisation. It’s a torturous trip, and the chances of its survival are slim. But what is the choice?

I look at my son Charlie, now 22, composing music all day and seeing the absolute intoxication of that process of distilling emotion and experience into a song. He’s talented but he’s not there yet, if any of us are ever “there”. The thing he has going for him is that when he sits at the piano he is 100 per cent present and he’d rather be wrestling with the endeavour and failing than not wrestling at all. Because he has enough hope or audacity or staying power instinctively and unconsciously. Because he doubts he’ll ever be good enough. Because he starts every day with a sense of wonder and possibility.

Who else other than the artist carries so much potential without equipment, without money, without infrastructure, without a degree, without privilege, without standing on one’s feet all day… without?

I often think of the 91 year old man who saw a play of mine and cried. It was his first play. And it addressed an issue that he had lived with but never spoken of. The thought of him reminds me to try to be better, but also just to be there.  And it’s an important thing to hold onto through the business of being an artist: the sense that there’s always a small, unwieldy chance you’ll make a difference.