Who’s Afraid of Authorial Intent?

byElliot Quick

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Elliot B. Quick teaches Theatre History for Actors at the Maggie Flanigan Studio. Here, Elliot discusses the importance of authorial intent for actors and playwrights.

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Theatre History Class For Actors – Maggie Flanigan Studio 02

This past May, much was written about the slippery concept of “authorial intent.” When a small theater in Oregon cast a black actor to play the role of Nick in a production of Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Albee estate exercised the legitimate power granted by US copyright law and withdrew the rights to the play. The estate claimed that Albee (who passed away in 2016) wrote Nick as a white character, and their decision was affirmed by a statement from the Dramatist Guild arguing, “it is a playwright’s fundamental right to approve of casting choices to ensure they reflect his or her authorial intent.” In response, certain corners of the internet exploded, with some defending the preservation of Albee’s specific vision and others advocating for the importance of new productions that reshape this vision and expose new layers of meaning.

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As actors, you are agents of an elusive intent that can seem obtuse, obscure, remote.

Elliot B. QuickTheatre History, Playwriting


Authorial intent is a uniquely thorny issue for an actor. In many art forms, a single person holds complete control over both the vision and execution of his or her work: a painter mixes the paint that the viewer sees on the canvas, a novelist types the words that the reader sees on the page. But performance unfolds through the simultaneous work of many artists. Rehearsal is a process of investigating how a particular group of creative minds will interpret and communicate the ideas embedded in a dramatic text. Outside of the new play development wing of the industry, playwrights are rarely on site for the rehearsal process, and so the text becomes a map to a mind not present in the room with you. As actors, you are agents of an elusive intent that can seem obtuse, obscure, remote.

Yet a study of theater history reminds us of the pitfalls being too precious about an author’s original vision. Shakespeare never intended for women to act in his plays. Euripides never intended for his work to be illuminated by electric lighting. If we hue too strictly to a reading of authorial intent, much of the dramatic canon would exclude the collaboration of the greatest artists alive today.

The world changes and the great joy of performance is that it can be more nimble than other arts in response to its present moment. A painting in a frame is static—the brushstrokes are the same each time you view them. But a play springs to life anew each time it is performed. As an actor, you make choices suited to your own unique body, and your training equips you to integrate the work of other artists (some of whom died hundreds of years ago) into a performance that is truthful and alive. Robert Brustein once cautioned that “the subtext can be a stratagem by which the actor ignores the playwright’s meaning, substituting the feeling he himself finds to be more compelling.” Your training has great power to shape and reshape the intentions of other theatrical agents. But as Spiderman reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility.

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Theatre History Class For Actors – Maggie Flanigan Studio 01

Theatre History Class for Actors

Broadly speaking, the theatre history and playwriting classes at Maggie Flanigan exercise an actor’s ability to discern and embody authorial intent. In Theater History, we read plays and study the evidence of past performance practices to surmise the intentions of authors who are long dead. Yet we also consider how to breathe life into those intentions with aesthetics, technologies, modes of thought, and modes of training that the author could never have imagined. And in Fundamentals of Playwriting, you get the chance to peer at the creative process from another angle, investigating the techniques playwrights use to communicate their unique vision to future collaborators.

To learn more about the classes that Elliot teaches at the Maggie Flanigan Studio website or call the studio directly at 917-789-1599

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