An Editor Treads the Boards

For the past few months, many of my non-desk hours have been spent in a rehearsal room preparing for a production of Neil Simon’s classic ’60s comedy The Odd Couple.


One of the first things you notice when reading this play is how well crafted it is. Not only are the one-liners hilarious but Simon sets them up very cleverly and builds one on top of another as the play progresses. As with any piece of good writing, every element fits into and complements the whole.


Rehearsing a play is all about interpretation – respecting the script while bringing it to life in the context of the performers and audience. I’ve always been one to treat the author’s work almost like a sacred text. After all, they put in the hours crafting and revising it until they were happy to see it put on stage and in print, so who are we humble players to mess around with it? For example, one of my lines used ‘whom’ in a place that feels very unnatural now, but that ‘m’ stayed in out of respect for the playwright.


However, some changes work and are necessary for the time and place of the production. Our director cut some lines that he thought had dated or wouldn’t land with our audience. After all, Ireland in 2022 is very different from New York in the 1960s. He also bravely added a gag of his own. As we worked on another scene, some practical staging difficulties made us change an action, which meant adding one word to one of the best jokes in the play. In performance, both these insertions got as big a laugh as any of the originals.


There was nothing wrong with the script, but a little tweak here and there can make it right for here and now.


Preparing for a performance is really a hothouse version of the editing process. Delivering a script to an audience is exactly what an editor does with any text by constantly navigating the same fine balancing acts – how to respect the writer’s work, how to make the text right for its audience and how to ensure that any change only enhances the writing rather than causing issues elsewhere. The editor’s role is to see both the detail and the whole, and to keep them in harmony with each other.


That’s all very well when you have time to plan these things, but in the heat of live performance, other changes are forced on you at very short notice. However many times you run the lines or rehearse a scene, the joy (and terror) of being on stage is that things can go wrong or just happen differently from the way you’d prepared them. In a split second, you have to adjust. I had a moment when my character is asked for some money, so he reaches into his pocket to pull out and hand over some dollar bills. As the line approached, I realised I hadn’t had time to change my trousers to the ones that had the money in them, so my pockets were empty. My on-the-spot solution (trying to keep with the ’60s setting): ‘I’ll wire it to you!’


That situation was all on me, but when any cast member delivers a line in a new way, makes a different move or totally freezes, it’s up to the other actors to re-write the script on the fly to get things back on track, and we all had to do that every night.  Such a live response to any change to the text vividly illustrates how interconnected any piece of writing is. Every change has a ripple effect. If you change the tense of a sentence, the response has to respect that; alter the way something is expressed, and the person you’re talking to has to temper their reply.


That’s why, even though deadlines are bread and butter to editors, we don’t like to work on the fly, and it’s why we make sure we pore over every edit until we’re sure it serves the author’s intention.


If you have a text of any kind that you want to really land with its readers, I will treat it and you with respect. I can proofread just about anything, but my special interests for copyediting are arts, humanities, social sciences, religion and charities.


Oh, and through research and continuing professional development, I’ll make sure I have whatever I need in my pockets so that I can hand over what you’ve asked for. Why not get in touch or connect with me on LinkedIn.


Robert Holden

Draftproof Editing

Pic: Author (left, as Felix Ungar) in The Odd Couple. Photo: Thomas Clare