How many people does it take to play an audience?

This past weekend something strange and awesome happened here in the Twin Cities called sunshine and “unseasonably” warm temperatures.

I know – ugh, weather. Hear me out.

Sunday was a glorious day! Typically we do not see 65-degree temps and sun in early March. Consequently, no one wanted to be inside a theater. That’s, however, where I was.

And what I experienced wasn’t as strange as it was saddening.

On stage was a group of very talented actors who are well-liked and well-respected and often in-demand. They were doing a staged reading of a new play, a script that could best be described as a work in progress. Nevertheless, they had poured everything they had into it to make it work and bring it across the room to the audience. And that’s where the problem was.

The audience. There was me, who had directed this staged reading and its previous workshops; there was the playwright, and there were two SO’s of two cast members. Two people. Two. I guess if we were to count the stage manager in the booth and the producer who stood in the back, we would actually outnumber the cast!

I wasn’t a producer on this project. I had no significant knowledge of what had or hadn’t been done to get the word out. The previous couple evenings had small audiences, but this….this was…

This feels like failure. The producer didn’t want to be convinced to simply cancel, even though everyone was certain that the two audience members wouldn’t have minded. Generally if the audience is outnumbered by the cast everyone usually feels that it’s better to just call it a day. No matter how good or wonderful or interesting anything might be that should happen in the performance or reading the fact is that the only thing that each and every person in the room is thinking is along the lines of “There are two people in the audience….

That’s what I was thinking. And I was the director – it was some of my work they were watching. It felt a bit…disappointing.

Every laugh, every giggle, every sigh, every shift in one’s seat, is expanded exponentially in opposite proportion to the house population.

The vast amount of talent on stage felt to me like it was being wasted. Yet each one of them did their work to the fullest. Not a single person “phoned in” a single moment. I give them kudos for going out there and playing for those two boyfriends the way they would have for dozens of strangers.

At least it was a gorgeous, sunny Spring day when we all emerged.

Winnipeg, and then some

Well, it’s been read, and no one died. Except for the those in the play itself, but that was to be expected.

Overall, I’m very pleased with how the reading went. For the most part, it moved along fine. We discovered there may be some confusion over Winnipeg, or perhaps the word Winnipeg was heard a bit too often. It kind of became a bit silly really, as I myself have never been. To Winnipeg, that is. These things are easily fixed.

There are places where the words and the sentences, not to mention the sentence structure itself, and this is often material that’s original source stuff anyway, was a bit cumbersome and long winded, that is the words, to say out loud, and, it was, to be rather frank, difficult, plus a bit hard to replicate, even when trying.

As I just did. And not successfully.

The ambience of the written word, and the mere scent of its power, were also at times….overwritten.

Again, original sources. Yellow journalism.

Fortunately, good and smart actors can usually smooth that out, even in a cold read. When they didn’t, well, that’s when we all thought, “OK, fix this here thing.”

After reading it, we had a good discussion about what worked, what didn’t, what wasn’t clear, etc. I was surprised that no one said anything I hadn’t anticipated, which makes me feel good about how we’re going about this project. What was really fun was the debates that ensued where people talked about not just which way should the script go but how to interpret the lives of these people. It was if they had just been to a show, and were arguing its points afterwards at some bar.

The good news is that it actually seems cohesive, interesting and totally doable. It needs some cleaning up, a bit of shaping and polishing, but then it will be ready for its cast. And the cast will have to be ready for it – to help bring it more to life. And shape it some more.

The bad news is….well, I’m not quite sure there is any.

So, I guess we’re on the right road. Which apparently leads to Winnipeg.

A Dawn yet to Come

presunThis is a shot of the pre-dawn sun, taken from Mather Point in the Grand Canyon. I’m putting it up because it’s kind of how I feel today. There’s a looming anticipation as the play reading approaches, followed in a few days by auditions and casting decisions. 

This picture is one of an entire roll of film taken while watching the sun rise. It was an experience like no other. There were about a hundred people gathered on the point, many with cameras, speaking a wide range of languages, all bleary eyed and excited. Everyone there had probably seen a sunrise before—back in our home countries, where ever that may have been, but the site at the Grand Canyon isn’t even describable, and it was a whole new experience for all of us. It was a shared experience. This was different. The exact moment the sun peeked over the rim—and there is a split second moment—was almost spiritual.

There was a nearly audible gasp from the crowd and the briefest moment of pause and wonder.

This may be raising the bar a bit high for a reading and auditions.

I’m a Seagull. No, that’s not it.

The Seagull. It’s a classic play by Chekhov. Some people love Chekhov, some people don’t. For me, Chekhov was introduced to me by the head of the acting program at my school almost as a deity.

The top three guys: Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, and Anton Chekhov.  And not necessarily in that order.

I don’t bow down to Chekhov, because there are some story-lines of his that I find tedious. But those are always overshadowed by the brilliant complexities in his writing. More on that in a moment though.

Last night in Minneapolis a group of actors got together to do a reading of Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. It was a big cast, full of very talented people, and there were going to be many friends who might want to sit and listen. So, instead of someone’s living room, they used the Jungle Theater stage, and emailed out invites and created a Facebook event and called it The Seagull Project. Some online article or blog referenced it as a bunch of theater nerds getting together. So true. Someone provided wine and beverages and snacks. Suddenly it’s a cocktail party.

Because I hate to miss a party (and always need to hone my schmoozing skills), and because, frankly, this was an amazing group of actors to get together, I was excited to attend. The turn out was fair, maybe 50 or 60 people. There were a number of faces I knew, others I recognized, and some were strangers. The whole thing was very casual. So casual, in fact, that the door was locked and people had to take turns noticing and letting folks in. Drinks were set out and you simply grabbed a glass and poured yourself some wine! People chit-chatted around the lobby, keeping an eye out for who was there, who had just arrived, who to talk to. (“Oh, please, let me be able to talk to someone I know – Oh! Look! Someone I like!”)

I make it sound taut or something. It wasn’t. It was friendly and exciting. After all, it’s not the typical thing. It was just like some theatre folk have done with friends at home on a weekend, getting together to read a script out loud, but larger. More public.

Per typical cocktail party climate the reading inevitably started late. No one really cared, though, as we were all having a lovely time. “So, what are you working on?”

But then came the reading. This Tom Stoppard fella, he seems to know a thing or two about stringing together some dialogue. It’s probably some of the smoothest Chekhov lines I’ve heard or read. No awkward or overly written phrasing, and yet wonderful turns of phrase.  

And the actors – well, please. They were as good as we all expected! First off, the fact that it was essentially a cold-read, at least in terms of scene partners, it went really, really well. There had been no rehearsal or chance to read things through once or twice to get the rhythms or play off each other, yet the whole thing bounced along superbly. Secondly, as some people know and others are always surprised to learn, Chekhov wrote comedies. And this was funny as hell

And perhaps more than anything it reminded me again of why I love Chekhov. These deeply stubborn, passionate characters, often with odd histories or quirks. I mean, how can a man like Constantine not break your heart – to hear the things he has to hear from others, to be so denied the love he willingly offers, to be treated as he is by his own mother and the woman he loves? It’s a character that could easily be bratty or pompous even, but when read with truth, he’s tragic. Somehow, with out really staging it, and without any direction or rehearsal, but with smart actors and a very well written script, the whole storyline of Medvenko loves Masha who loves Constantine who loves Nina who loves Trigorin who loves…well, too many — was all made perfectly clear, and even more importantly, perfectly accessible and moving to an audience.

This kind of organic, get-together is just the thing our theatre community needs more of. As long as it remains organic and doesn’t become organized and structured, it can be like the lives in the Seagull and like the lives of seagulls, taking us places we didn’t know we would end up.

What are we talking about, again?

My initial posting mentioned the word logic, and referenced leading by the hand.  This morning I find that logic is sometimes lacking, and that my own willingness to lead one by the hand can be tested.

I won’t even reference the antics at my the day-job. I’m currently setting up audition slots for my upcoming show. Numerous people have asked, what I perceive as, unexpected questions, such as:

Where will the auditions be?

When are the auditions?

Will the auditions be readings from the script?

7:30 PM?

All answers to these were clearly stated in the postings – postings one would have to read in order to contact me in the first place. Location. Check. Date. Check. Time. Check. 

No one is going to audition for something like this starting at 7 a.m. 

But, my favorite? The guy who requested an audition appointment, but noted he works until 9 pm, and asked for a later time slot. I accomodated, and said how I had another person in a similar situation. No problem. “I’ll understand if you get there a bit late, given where you’re coming from.” But I pointed out that it sounded as if his work schedule might conflict with our evening rehearsals.

He wrote back and said he thought it would all work out, but that he

“no longer had the original info about which [he] had inquired.”

I could only take that to mean, he didn’t really know who I was, or what he was now going to be auditioning for.

Logic? Ok. I didn’t note the show in my response, and could have. But seriously, if an actor contacts a company about an audition, how about either a) s/he includes something in the subject or original message for her/his sake, b) s/he makes a note some where of these things, or c) s/he looks in his/her sent folder and tries to figure it out, before basically admitting to the person from whom they’re trying to get a gig  that s/he is too unorganized to have an email conversation?

I’d prefer not to turn this into some complete rant, so I will stop there, and I will not comment on the imaginative…yes, that’s it….the imaginative choices some people make when it comes to the format of their acting resume and headshots.

I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. I just know that there are some people who truly need someone to take them by the hand, and show them the way.

Draft A has Arrived

We did it! We completed what is now known as “Draft A” – not “Partial Draft A” as I’ve been noting on the title page for weeks now, but full blown “Draft A”!  It’s a mess. It’s a stumbling, sloppy, tripped-up mess, in need of a good bath and a shave, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment knowing we have 41 pages of script, and that for a 50-minute one-act, that’s probably about 10 or 12 pages too long. 

Next will come a slightly tougher part – deciding what to keep, what to cut, what to add and what to move from point A to point B in an attempt to make the story, not only clear and interesting, but to also have that thing, you know…that, um…whatchacall “dramatic arc”. That’s where the real story-telling comes in to play.

It seems we also may have decided on a title too. I’m happy with it and it’s growing on me. My writing partner says it’s growing on her too. We seemed to agree on “yes, let’s go with that”  but she had come up with some ideas that I want to review before I close that door. It’s my way of avoiding the questions of “what if…” down the road, and trying to be decisive in my decisions. Thoroughness.

So next:

  • edits, rewrites and further draft versions
  • a reading with friendly, professional actors and directors, who will give us some feedback (yikes)
  • auditions
  • more re-writes…..

Let’s just stop there. That takes us up through the next three weeks.

The burst of creative energy this project has given me over the past two months (? – when did we start writing?) has been just what I needed, and makes the day-job world a much more tolerable place. I’m only happy inside when my creative spirit has an outlet.