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Robert Horn is a playwright and screenwriter best known for writing the books to Broadway musicals 13 and Tootsie — the latter for which he won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Connect with Robert on Twitter at @rhorn1.
Old friends Robert and Justin talk about the last few months of accolades following Robert’s Tony Award win for Best Book of Musical for Tootsie. While calling it “just a trophy,” Robert values the acknowledgment of a job well done from the Broadway community. Robert doesn’t tend to like competition because every artist brings something to their work that nobody else can bring. Artists are individual creatures and beings. But a Tony is pretty nice, especially after the end of the “six-week mosh pit” that is the press, parties, and lead-up to the theatrical awards season.
Showrunning Designing Women
Justin asks Robert about his time as a writer and showrunner on TV’s Designing Women — a CBS sitcom that ran from 1986 to 1991 and followed the employees of an interior design firm in Atlanta. Robert explains that a showrunner usually pitches and sells the show, assembles the team, and produces the pilot, but he joined the series with only a few seasons left and very quickly accelerated from writer to showrunner. Robert loved cutting his writer’s teeth there, writing for strong female characters and tackling acknowledgment social issues through comedy.
Ya gotta have faith
Robert remembers one night during the production of Designing Women when he and his colleagues had a lengthy, meaningful discussion about faith and the role it plays in our culture at large. Faith, he says, is about accepting the forces you can’t control but maintaining a belief in yourself. You don’t know where your talent or ability comes from, but your job is to nurture it and see where it goes.
Justin and Robert dissect the audition process and how it can sometimes feel brutalizing. Robert loves actors and is in awe of what they do. He almost can’t fathom their inevitable, ongoing relationship with rejection. But he says that we can’t worry about what other people think. The act of walking into the audition and putting yourself out there is an act that demands respect.
Making the scene soar
Robert has a specific, comedic writing style and, in an audition room, can tell pretty quickly whether or not someone understands his rhythms or not — whether they have a flair for comedy, an innate sense of tempo and timing. Casting teams want to love every auditioner, and they hope that you are The One. Most exciting are the actors who bring something different to a scene, monologue, or song, something that the creative team never imagines and suddenly makes them reconsider or redefine the role. It all comes back to big, bold choices.
Desperate times do not call for desperate measures
Robert can see desperation from a mile away, and he encourages actors to find any way that they can to shake that off — so you can be free and in the moment. Remember: you don’t need that job. Robert believes that if it’s meant to be, you’ll get that part. Casting a show is about so much more than talent, and despite the aspirational, borderline trite nature of the “whatever will be will be” mentality, it rings true for Robert and has proven to be true in his experience and career.
Get your head in the game
How can you stay inside of the scene, the song, or the monologue? How can you overcome nerves by focusing on the action at hand? By pursuing an in-the-moment presence, you get closer to a flow state. Justin finds that this sharpens his work. Robert adds that compliments to the writer don’t hurt either. And it’s okay to ask questions!
Justin sees script analysis as detective work, and Robert shares some of his tips for constructing (and thus breaking down) a scene. Personally, Robert loves jokes, but the top priority is identifying the tone of the scene to determine what it’s asking. (Robert is partial to fast dialogue, big jokes, and high stakes.) Ask: what do the characters want? How do they speak? Are they acting or reacting? Where does the scene need to go? What’s at stake?
Robert will leave clues in his scripts such as stage directions, overlapping dialogue, or pauses, but more importantly, he says, the clues are in the words and on the page. Writers give birth to a script; actors bring it to life. And the audience is participating in the craft, too.
Don’t stop me now
Robert’s message for young and emerging artists? Don’t give up. There will be many, many times that you might like to, but if you wait long enough, it will happen for you. It may not be exactly what you planned or expected, but it will happen.
PEOPLE, PLACES, AND THINGS MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE: